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Manitoba History: Advocating for Manitoba Children with Mental Disabilities: Parent Associations in the 1950s and 1960s [1]

by Christopher Adams
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 61, Fall 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Along with other parts of the western industrialised world, Manitoba experienced its own post-war baby-boom. Over a ten year period ending with the 1951 Census, the province’s natural population (which excludes migration-related numbers) grew by 107,510 people. Ten years later, the 1961 Census revealed a ten year natural population increase of 149,690 for the province. The impact on local communities across Manitoba was profound when one considers that there were only 776,541 individuals living in Manitoba in 1961. Premier Duff Roblin and his Progressive Conservatives, who chased from power the long ruling and tight spending Liberal-Progressives and their leader Douglas Campbell in the provincial elections of 1958 and 1959, put the province on a new road with regard to social spending. Between 1958 and 1969, the provincial government’s budgeted spending in the area of health and social welfare increased by 367% and in education by a whopping 591%. [2]

As the province’s general population grew, there naturally occurred what can be called a “mini-boom” of those born with mental disabilities. [3] At the same time, the life expectancy of those who were in the public’s care tripled with the use of such medical practices as tube feeding and antibiotics. [4] Although it is difficult to provide precise population figures for the number of mentally disabled children and adults in Manitoba during the 1950s and 1960s, a 1965 report authored by John Christianson for the provincial government titled A Study of the Education of Handicapped Children in Manitoba put forward an estimate of 3 percent, with 30,000 put forward as the number of people who had some form of mental disability. [5]

Unfortunately the basis for these population numbers was not rooted in Manitoba-specific data but was drawn from the United States where the President’s Panel on Retardation submitted in its 1962 report to Congress that three percent of the American population lived with a mental disability. [6] Two decades later, the three percent incidence figure was still being used in Manitoba when the Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation presented its report to the Minister of Community Services and Corrections in 1982, saying that approximately three percent of Manitobans had “some level of mental retardation.” [7]

If using the imported but seemingly unchallenged incidence figure that was used in the early 1960s onward in Manitoba, and assuming that the incidence rate remained constant over time, estimates for the number of Manitobans with mental disabilities can be calculated using census data. Table 1 provides population figures for the province from 1921 to 1981, with estimates provided for each decade based on three percent incidence. The bottom row shows the estimated growth in the number of individuals with mental disabilities for each decade. In 1951, there was a ten-year increase of 1,410 individuals with mental disabilities, and in 1961 an additional 4,350 individuals with mental disabilities were living in the province (see Table).

Historical Estimates of Population with Mental Disabilities in Manitoba.
Data were calculated by the author using census figures.









Provincial population








Estimate of those with mental disabilities (based on 3%)








Decade over decade increase of those with mental disabilities








With regard to birthrates, and again using what could be called the “3% rule of thumb,” Christianson estimated that 690 children with mental disabilities were being born each year in Manitoba, with 333 deemed to be “dependent,” that is, non-“educable” or non-“trainable.” At the same time, and this time using provincial government data, Christianson reported that “approximately 1,200 children with moderate to severe mental retardations are known to community agencies” and that “about half of them are registered in schools operated by the Association for Retarded Children.” [8]

Institutionalization and the Medical Paradigm

Until well into the 1980s, “the language” of public policy as it pertained to Manitobans with mental disabilities, as elsewhere, was largely shaped by healthcare-related perspectives. That is, individuals with these disabilities were regularly treated as patients needing placement in “mental hospitals” or treated as “out patients.” During the 1950s and 1960s, the Manitoba Home in Portage la Prairie, otherwise known as the “Manitoba School for Retardates” (which was originally titled the “Home for Incurables” when built in 1889 and 1890 [9]) was one of the two major provincial centres for children with mental disabilities, with the other being the relatively new St. Amant Centre in Winnipeg.

In 1957, the Manitoba Home had 907 child and adult residents with the number reaching 1,240 in the late 1960s. [10] At this time, its operations included 600 staff, including a medical superintendent, three fulltime psychologists, physical therapy wards, special education classes, vocational training workshops, and a dairy farm which produced 240 gallons of milk per day. According to journalist Don Rennie, in a series of local newspaper articles published in The Daily Graphic in August 1968, the institution processed on a weekly basis 56,000 pounds of laundry, and each year served an estimated 500,000 meals. [11]

Manitoba’s second major, yet far less imposing, residential institution was St. Amant Centre. Its founder was Beatrice St. Amant, a widow who needed to find services for her disabled son. It is worth quoting at length from an unpublished account which is provided by the institution of St. Amant:

Born Beatrice Cyr at Maria-de Bonaventure, St. Morice, Quebec, she came to St. Jean Baptiste in 1914 after completing her studies in the east. She became a teacher and in 1916, married Herman St. Amant. Mr. St. Amant passed away during the Spanish Flu Epidemic only ten months after the birth of their son Gerard, leaving his grieving widow to provide for herself and their son. Mrs. St. Amant returned to the teaching profession.

More challenges awaited her. At the age of five years, Gerry developed epilepsy. By 1935, his seizures had become so frequent and severe that he had to be taken out of school.

Late in 1939, Mrs. St. Amant, then teaching at Ste. Genevieve, resolved to give up teaching to care for her son. Although she communicated with numerous hospitals and nursing homes she was unable to find a facility in all of Canada to care for her son. The fruitless results of her own efforts made her realize that countless other families were faced with the same problems as herself.

As a result, in August 1939, Mrs. St. Amant purchased a sprawling wood frame turn-of-the-century farmhouse three kilometers west of Transcona, with funds she received from the sale of her home in Ile des Chenes. Trying to think of a name for the home, she recalled reading a pamphlet describing the perseverance of Mother Youville, foundress of the Sisters of Charity (The Grey Nuns). With this in mind, she called this home, “ The Youville Epileptic Hospital”. [12]

Beatrice St-Amant (1888-1957) established a facility for mentally challenged children in a Transcona farmhouse. It became the basis for today’s St-Amant Centre.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Tribune Collection, Personalities Files.

Following a heart attack which struck St. Amant in 1954 (who later died in 1957), the Grey Nuns took control and provided facilities for 25 children on the fifth floor of the St. Boniface Home for the Aged and Infirm (otherwise known as “Hospice Tache”). Operations were then moved to St. Vital Hospital in 1959. Originally opened as the St. Boniface Sanatorium to treat patients who had tuberculosis, it was located at 444 River Road. By the late 1960s, and with its continuing focus on children with mental disabilities, its residents numbered 275, while also serving children residing elsewhere within the more general community. [13] In 1974, the institution was renamed St. Amant Centre in honour of its founder, and since 2006 operates under the simplified title of St. Amant. [14]

Those working to develop better residences and services may have done their work too well by providing more open access to institutional care. The public believed that children with mental disabilities should be placed in residential institutions. However, with the exception of those whose children required intensive medical care to survive, this made life difficult for many parents who might otherwise have cared for their children at home. In a 1979 report prepared for the National Institute on Mental Retardation, Paul McLaughlin described his perspective on how this affected parents:

It was not very long ago that it was a great stigma to have a mentally retarded child. The medical profession looked upon the birth of a mentally retarded infant as a great tragedy from which the family needed protection. Typical advice stressed preventing mothers from seeing their children and early institutionalization. If kept, such children were later institutionalized or hidden away in shame. [15]

Liz Siemens, a Winnipeg parent whose child was born in the 1960s, recalled: “I used to feel apologetic about Brenda’s needs, mainly because I was constantly being told that all our problems would be solved if only I would put her in the institution permanently. [16] Another parent, Nicola Schaefer, whose child was born with physical and intellectual challenges, also recalled:

Meeting these parents made me realize several things. First, there were very few kids around as badly handicapped as Cath who were living at home. Second, apart from the meagre physiotherapy service at the children’s hospital, there was absolutely nothing going in Winnipeg, and nothing in sight for such children; except, of course, custodial care, and there was a huge waiting list even for that. Third, nobody in authority thought it was worthwhile trying to do anything at all with our children. My conclusion was that if one was daft enough to keep a child like Catherine one just coped as best one could. [17]

Beatrice St-Amant (right) with staff and children of the St-Amant ward for retarded children at the St. Boniface Home for the Aged and Infirm, October 1956.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Tribune Collection, 18-5023-10.

Parent-Led Organizations

Just as Manitoba’s farmers historically responded to social and economic challenges by banding together to create their own community facilities, schools, pool elevators, and newspapers, [18] parent-led organizations inevitably sprouted across the province in order to find ways to support the growing number of families who had special needs for their children, and, in many cases, to directly provide new services. [19] Parents turned to each other to find child care support, special education programming, and transportation. They also sought each other out in order to respond to the arcane yet very real social stigma of having a child with a mental disability. As such, the formal beginnings of the parent associational movement in Manitoba occurred in 1951 when the Manitoba Association for Retarded Children (ARC) was created by six parents of children who were living at the Manitoba Home in Portage la Prairie. [20] The Winnipeg branch of the Association for Retarded Children was formed five years later, in 1956. The ARC’s activities in its first decade of operations in Manitoba included:

- training activities, including pre-school, sheltered workshops, and adult occupational training;

- recreational activities, including those relating to social and physical recreation;

- public relations activities, including those pertaining to parent, staff and child-related issues;

- support for research in the different professional areas. [21]

As direct service providers, parent organizations quickly grew in importance. This is evident when examining 1962-63 school year figures which show the Manitoba ARCs operating 50 classes comprising 525 students with mental disabilities. That a parent-led organization should carry the burden of providing special educational services rather than the provincial government was not unusual. This was the pattern for most parts of Canada, with the exception being Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia where such services were provided directly through the regular school board system, and in B.C. where some classes were provided through the public school system. [22] Not surprisingly, therefore, the Manitoba ARCs derived much of their income from the provincial Department of Health and local governments, on top of parent fees and donations. [23]

Special education services remained chiefly with the Manitoba ARCs until the Department of Education took over in the fall of 1967. At this time there was a developing recognition that both adults and children required special programs and supports. Therefore, in 1968 the Association for Retarded Children, operating with twenty-five branches in the province (otherwise labelled “locals”) [24] was renamed the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded (CAMR). [25] Although no longer a provider of special education classes, it continued to provide vocational and essential skills training adults, including the operation of 16 sheltered workshops in the early 1970s. [26]

By the mid-1980s, the number of CAMR branches in Manitoba remained unchanged at twenty-five. [27] The organization’s focus, however, continued to evolve as it shifted further towards addressing the need for community-based residential supports. By being part of the community, people with mental disabilities have better access to education, recreation and employment opportunities, especially when they interact with other members of the province’s diverse population. Therefore, in 1985, in a decision to pursue more fully its role as an advocate for individuals with disabilities, rather than as a direct service provider, the national CAMR along with local branches such as the Winnipeg CAMR, changed its name to the Association for Community Living (ACL). [28]

Parent-Led Organizations as Interest Groups

From a political science perspective, the history of Manitoba’s parent-led organizations is a good example of how interest groups often develop in response to changing social needs. In an influential article published in 1969 titled “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups,” the American political scientist Robert Salisbury identified three types of benefits that interest groups or organizations offer their members. These are “material”, “solidary” and “expressive” benefits. [29] Material benefits include goods and services that may otherwise not be available. In the case of the ARCs in Manitoba during the 1950s and 1960s, parents felt a strong need to band together to “get things done” and therefore launched an extensive system of special education classes and child-related support services.

Solidary benefits are those that give members a sense that they are with “like minded” individuals. Hobby and recreational clubs as well as professional associations are typical examples. In addition to acquiring much needed services for their children (material benefits), many parents belonging to parent associations were seeking to meet others in order to exchange ideas and to share stories.

The third type, expressive benefits, pertains to advocacy-related activities such as public relations and lobbying. In the case of the ARCs, this included parents successfully pushing for greater government involvement in special education programming, better healthcare services, and new resources to help people with mental disabilities to become better integrated in the community.

In 2011, the provincial chapter of the ACL will mark a milestone as it celebrates 50 years of service, collaboration, and advocacy on social and policy issues in the Province of Manitoba. Each of its three names—the Association for Retarded Children in the 1950s and 1960s, the Association for the Mentally Retarded in the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, and the current Association for Community Living—reflect the changing needs of parents and individuals with mental disabilities, as well as each of the historical eras in which the organization operated.


1. The author would like to thank Curtis Brown for his insights regarding an earlier version of this article. However, all errors remain with the author. This article is dedicated to Nevada Pearce Khan and other young Manitobans who benefit from their parent’s care, as well as the work done by other parents to obtain much needed supports and programs.

2. Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1957, 1968 as cited by Cy Gonick, “The Manitoba Economy Since World War II,” James Silver and Jeremy Hall, eds., The Political Economy of Manitoba. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1990, 29. For an overview of the impact of the Roblin government during this period see also Christopher Adams, Politics in Manitoba: Parties, Leaders, and Voters, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008, pp. 37-39.

3. In this article the author uses the term “mental disability” in place of the now arcane term “mental retardation”, which is now seen as socially offensive. The older term is used only as it appears in titles or quotations.

4. Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation, Challenges for Today, Opportunities for Tomorrow, Winnipeg: Manitoba Community Services and Corrections, 1982, p. 2.

5. John Christianson, A Study of the Education of Handicapped Children in Manitoba: Report on the Education and Training of Handicapped Children, Winnipeg: Department of Education, pp. 10, 15.

6. For an overview of the President’s Panel on Retardation which has since been renamed to “The President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities,” see, accessed 23 May 2009.

7. Therefore, based on this estimate, the Task Force calculated that with a general population of one million, the number of individuals with mental disabilities in the early 1980s was 30,000, with 10,000 requiring some form of special assistance and services. Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation, p. xxviii.

8. Christianson, p. 15.

9. These and other figures regarding the early years of the Manitoba Home at Portage La Prairie are provided by Anne Collier, A History of Portage La Prairie and Surrounding District, Altona: Friesen & Sons, 1970, p. 161-164. Worth noting is that Collier refers to the original title as “Home of Incurables” but other references report it as being a Home for Incurables, see, accessed 27 June 2009.

10. Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation, p. 133, however the Task Force does not specify the specific year. Collier gives the figure as being an estimated 1,200 for 1968.

11. As cited by Collier, p. 164.

12. “St. Boniface St. Amant (1888-1957),” n.a., unpublished document. The author would like to thank Jennifer Rodrigue, Communications Coordinator for St. Amant and the St. Amant Foundation, for providing access to this document.

13. Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation, p. 133.

14. St. Amant, “Mission, History and Philosophy”,, accessed 22 May 2009, “Beatrice St. Amant (1888-1957)”, and ‘St. Amant: Where We Began and Where We Want to Go,” unpublished document, provided by St. Amant to the author.

15. Paul McLaughlin, Guardianship of the Person, Downsview: National Institute on Mental Retardation, 1979, p. 12.

16. Liz Siemens, “Liz and Brenda Siemens,” The Positive Path : Profiles of Disabled Manitobans, Laird Rankin, ed., Winnipeg: The Council of Exceptional Children, 1981, p. 111.

17. Nicola Schaefer, Does She Know She’s There?, Don Mills: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1982, pp. 53-54.

18. Christopher Adams, “Early Manifestations of Globalization: Pre-1930s Farm Policy and Farmer Politics,” Prairie Forum: The Journal of the Canadian Plains Research Center, Fall, 1997.

19. In order to reduce confusion, the term “parent-led” is used in this article in place of the usual term “parent organizations”. This is because in the public policy literature the term “parent organization” is used to distinguish between the larger, usually national, organization and their local or provincial affiliates. For example, the Canadian Diabetes Association is the parent organization of the provincial associations. A parent-led organization operating within the disabled persons’ movement is simply an organization that has its origins and membership rooted in the parents of children with disabilities.

20. Association for Retarded Children in Greater Winnipeg, Annual Report: 1968, pp. 20-21.

21. Christianson, p. 17.

22. Christianson, p. 24.

23. Christianson, p. 17.

24. Ibid., p. 22.

25. Association for Retarded Children in Greater Winnipeg, Annual Report: 1968, p. 8.

26. Manitoba Department of Health and Social Development, Mental Health and Retardation Services: A Review and Preliminary Model, Winnipeg: circa 1972, p. 44.

27. David Wetherow, Executive Director, Association for Community Living, interview with author, 20 April 1986.

28. David Wetherow, Executive Director, Association for Community Living, interview with author, 9 April 1986.

29. Robert H. Salisbury, “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, February 1969, pp. 1-32.

Page revised: 13 May 2016

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