Doreen Befus Exhibit

Doreen Befus Exhibit

By Erika Dyck, University of Saskatchewan

You’ll never make it out in the world, Doreen.  You’ll never be able to learn enough to live like a normal person.”  I heard this over and over as I was growing up in an institution for the handicapped in Red Deer, Alberta.  I wanted to learn how to sew and read better, but I was labelled as being too “retarded.”

Decision Magazine, March 1990

Doreen Befus’s story unfolds on these pages. Doreen, an orphaned twin of a single-mother, grew up in a series of institutions and spent significant time at the Michener Centre, then called the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, in Alberta throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  There she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent.

Released from the institution in the late 1960s as part of a growing wave of depopulating mental hospitals, Doreen began a search for her biological family and along the way became a strong advocate for patients’ rights.  Earning income caring for children, her detailed diary descriptions of this work show how Doreen began to question the right of the state to decide a woman’s capacity to be a good mother. Doreen’s life experiences offer insight into the plight of former patients who were previously alleged to be unfit members of society.

Reconstructing Doreen’s life, and situating her within the history of mental health institutionalization and subsequent deinstitutionalization not only personalizes this history, but also helps explain the growth of patients’ rights groups and the proliferation of rights-based activism within the community mental health movement.  Doreen’s life is remarkable in its own right, but because she kept close records, including a personal diary where she described her daily activities and thoughts, her story also provides a candid set of insights into a former patient’s perspective on this history. Her public profile began to challenge the conventional view that people with such disabilities were genetically inferior and a drain on the public purse.  Held at the Red Deer Archives,  Doreen’s extensive records are a rare example of a patient-created archival collection.

ink sketch of old-fashioned young girl holding small suitcase in front of large forbidding looking old institution