Malacrida_SpecialHellA Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years draws on archival documents and oral histories of survivors of Provincial Training School/Michener Centre, a total institution for ‘mental defectives’ that opened in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada in 1923 and that continues to operate to the present.

Michener began as a training institution, with seemingly benign goals and the intent of providing specialized training with hopes of community reintegration. It quickly grew into a facility that acted as a virulent means of passive eugenics. ‘Trainees’ were inducted into the institution in childhood and often spent their entire lives without hope of re-entry into society, effectively keeping them from ‘contaminating’ the general population. These children and adults lived in social isolation, under extremely horrifying conditions; they were subject to economic exploitation inside the institution and in the community surrounding it, they were heavily and often unnecessarily medicated and made to participate in medical experimentation. Many of them were involuntarily sterilized as part of Alberta’s Eugenics Act, which ended only in 1972.

The story of Michener Center that Malacrida offers is more than a litany of woes. It is also an examination of how Michener Center operated as part of a constellation of official institutions that operated virtually without scrutiny or accountability for much of the 20th century. The Eugenics Board, the Departments of Health and Education, a network of Mental Health Facilities in the province, and Guidance Clinics that were both permanently located in the cities and also offered regular visits to smaller centers, all served to funnel ‘defective’ people into the institutions. By outlining this system and its practices, this book offers a critique of public policy and professional practices that, although fashionable at the time, in retrospect seem nothing short of draconian. Making such a history public offers a cautionary tale to current practitioners and policy-makers in the field of what is euphemistically called ‘human services’ (including policy makers and psychiatric, medical and educational experts who deal with human difference).

The book draws on oral histories from 22 survivors of the institution, archival materials from Michener Center and relevant government sources, and interviews with several ex-workers to flesh out a picture of how social policy without social accountability can go terribly wrong. In so doing, Malacrida constructs a clear argument that facilities like Michener Center have no place in our current ‘services’ for people with intellectual, physical and mental health disabilities.

The book is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book form from: