The concept of sterilizing individuals that are deemed undesirable seems like something that wouldn’t happen in Canada, and while it is not something incredibly recent in our history, it has happened in Canada and it was not a brief piece of legislation that disappeared quickly. In fact, it lasted for almost half a century. It was also supported by some figures that are applauded today but for different reasons.
I’m talking about the Alberta Eugenics Board, a dark chapter in the history of the province.
By the 1920s, talk of eugenics against people deemed to be mentally disabled or unfit was gaining traction within the United States. The first sterilization law would emerge in 1907 in the United States and in 1910 the American Breeders Association established a eugenics section. This eugenics interest would make its way into Canada, specifically into Alberta and British Columbia. With some legislation passing in the United States, Alberta would emerge as the province most in favour of such legislation itself.
Throughout this episode I will use some terms, such as feeble-minded, that are not used today, as quotes or wording in legislation.
One term that is going to pop up a lot is eugenics, which means “well born”.
In 1918, the Canadian National Committee of Mental Hygiene would be established to, in its words, fight crime, prostitution and unemployment, which the committee organizers believed was related directly to a person’s intelligence. One year later, Dr. C.K. Clarke would conduct several provincial surveys of mental institutions and would make a report in 1921 that would recommend policies for provincial governments. The report would state that social inefficiency and corruption were tied to mental inadequacy and in order to prevent such issues, sterilization was the right course of action.
In 1922, the United Farmers of Alberta, which was the government in charge of Alberta at the time, would take these recommendations and pledge to draft and implement legislation that would segregate those deemed to be mentally-handicapped, and a recommendation of sterilization was also put forward. The government felt that the act would help to alleviate, in their words, “the growing burden of taxpayers in caring for immigrants and mentally disabled persons”
Through heavy lobbying by the United Farm Women of Alberta, the United Farmers of Alberta government would get legislation passed. The terrible attitude of this legislation was seen in 1924 when Margaret Gunn, the president of the United Farm Women, stated that democracy was never intended for degenerates. The organization also stated that by creating genetically superior children, there was hope for a future utopian society.
Several prominent Canadians supported a form of eugenics including J.S. Woodsworth, who was a social activist and first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which would become the Federal NDP in later years, Robert Wallace, the future president of the University of Alberta and four members of the Famous Five, who spearheaded the Persons Case and campaigned for women’s rights. Those four women were Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Emily Murphy. William Aberhart, also known as Bible Bill and future Premier of Alberta, was also a supporter of Eugenics policies. McClung, for her part, would state that women were the mothers and guardians of their race, and she would champion things such as sterilization, which she felt could deal with the problems of prostitution and alcohol. McClung would state, and this is in her words which uses a word that is out of favour today. In regards to sterilization revitalizing an entire family, she said that now “the father is no longer worried about his retarded daughter’s promiscuity, now peace was restored.”
Emily Murphy saw sterilization as the answer to dealing with, what she perceived as evils, such as manipulation, promiscuity and single motherhood. In 1932, she would publish an article called Overpopulation and Birth Control, which stated that eugenics would be the means for peace. She also wrote about the issues of Chinese immigration, calling it the Yellow Peril in The Black Candle in 1922, writing as Janey Canuck. She took the view that inferior people created more inferior people, and that those people were inclined to be criminals.
Even Alexander Graham Bell supported eugenics and in 1921 at the American Museum of Natural History, an International Eugenics Congress was held and he served as the honorary president.
It should be noted that Tommy Douglas, the Father of Medicare and the man considered to be the greatest Canadian in history, also toyed with the idea of Eugenics. He would write his thesis paper at McMaster University on the concept of eugenic policies, including sterilization of mental defectives, as he wrote. That being said, by the time he was premier of Saskatchewan, he rejected sterilization and abandoned his support of it. He chose to go about providing therapy and vocational training for those with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities.
In order to make the concept of eugenics and sterilization easier for the public to get behind, the government put forward the rationale that families with mentally-handicapped offspring were a financial burden on the province.
On March 25, 1927, the sexual sterilization bill was introduced by George Hadley, the Minister of Agriculture. It would fail but on March 21, 1928, it was introduced again as the Sexual Sterilization Act and it would pass, becoming law for the next 43 years. British Columbia would follow with its own Sexual Sterilization Act in 1933. The reason I am focusing on Alberta is because British Columbia, while having the Act in place until 1973, only sterilized 200 to 400 people. Alberta did four times that many in just the first few years of having the Act in place.
On June 1, 1927, the United Farmers Association would publish an article about the issue with, as they called it, mentally-defective individuals. In the article, three groups of feeble minded were identified. The terms they used are ones we use in a much different context now.
I am going to quote the piece by the UFA directly, rather than read it as if it is a historical fact. I feel it is important to quote a lot of this piece because it shows the mentality of the government that would pass the Sexual Sterilization Act.
First, they identify the lowest grade in their view, stating the following:
“The feeble minded are divided into three groups, the lowest being that of the idiot. These children never advance beyond at three-year-old mentality…there is no danger to the community from this type of feeble minded persons as they are incapable of reproducing their kind.”
Second, they identify the next grade in their view, stating the following:
“The next grade is that of the imbeciles who have a mental level of from three to seven years…as children of this type are generally physically defective as well as mentally they are easily recognized.”
Lastly, the most dangerous class in their view, as they state:
“The class most dangerous to society is that of the morons, with a seven to 12 year old mentality…these children, while having normal instincts and emotions, have little judgement and reasoning power and so their passions have a much freer rein. Hence, we may find many a Juvenile court case at 10 or 12 years of age and find these children in rescue homes, prisons, pauper institutions and reformatories. They are often found in very bad company, being made a pawn of the criminals, climbing in windows of the housebreaker, stealing from stores, etc.”
The piece goes on to state that the increase can be prevented, quoting Dr. Goddard that, in their words, “the birth rate among the feeble minded is from two to six times as great as among normals…surely now is the time to bring about measures to check this menace before it becomes too great. We cannot segregate the feeble-minded because fo the enormous expense this would entail.”
At first, the Alberta law stipulated that sterilization could only happen with the consent of the patient, their guardian or next-of-kin. This provision would last for less than a decade before the Sexual Sterilization Act was amended to allow for the sterilization without consent.
As part of the legislation, a four member Alberta Eugenics Board would be formed to recommend individuals for sterilization.
The first four members of the board would be Dr. J.M. MacEachran, who was a professor at the University of Alberta and would serve as the chair, a position he would hold for 40 years. Jean Field, the Health Convener for the United Farm Women of Alberta was on the board, and would serve from 1929 to 1937, from 1938 to 1945 and from 1947 to 1949. Dr. Edgerton Pope would serve on the board from 1929 to 1949 and was the department head of medicine and director of medical services at the University of Alberta hospital. The last original member would be Dr. E.G. Mason, a veteran of the First World War and who served on the Visitor’s Board of the provincial governments committee to inspect healthcare in the province. He would serve on the board until 1947.
The board involved superintendents of Alberta mental institutions presenting cases to the board. They also presented summaries for each individuals which included sexual history, family history, medical history, education, IQ testing, criminal record, ethnic background, religion and age. Patients would be interviewed by the board as well and then recommendations would be made for sterilization. A surgeon would then be appointed for a case, but the Act protected the surgeon from being liable to any civil action. Patients typically came from four hospitals, termed feeder-hospitals. They were the Alberta Hospital in Ponoka, the Provincial Training School in Red Deer, the Alberta Hospital in Oliver and Deerhome in Red Deer.
At first, the board would take an hour to review each case but by the mid-1930s, some cases were reviewed in less than five minutes. Often, as many as 13 cases would be reviewed in just one hour.
Over the course of the 43 years of existence, the board had a total of 19 members.
Ken Nelson speaks about the experience he had in front of the board.
At the time, support for sterilization was high throughout many areas of Canada.
In 1930, the Canadian Medical Association Journal would publish an article called “Sterilization for Human Betterment”, stating that “persons should be sterilized if it to the interest of the race that they produce no children or no more children and if it appears that sterilization is the most effective and satisfactory means of preventing reproduction.”
Several changes to the Act would come, including the already-mentioned amendment to remove the need for consent. This was done in 1937, by which point 400 operations had been done. This amendment actually done by a new government, the Social Credit Party led by William Aberhart, which had just come to power. Dr. W.W. Cross, the new Minister of Health, felt that only a few hundred individuals were sterilized when thousands could have been without consent. Dr. Charles Baragar the Director of Mental Health for the Province, would highlight this thought, stating “the Sexual Sterilization Act is a very mild one. On account of the necessity for securing consent in all cases there are a number of cases in which sexual sterilization would be strongly advisable…to whose consent cannot be obtained.” Newspapers in the province, including the Edmonton Bulletin, agreed with this sentiment. This year was also the same year that Nazi Germany began sterilizing children who were seen as not pure Aryans.
Once the amendment passed, anyone regarded as a mental defective was eligible without consent. One month later, the board began to look at past cases of individuals who were now eligible as well.
In this same year, Alberta would enact a new law that dealt with the possessions of those deemed mentally incompetent. Titled, “An Act Respecting the Mentally Incompetent Persons And Their Estates” would outline when the Alberta government could take possession of the estate of persons they deemed mentally incompetent. If a person was declared unsound in mind, the court could appoint a committee to take possession of their property and assets. The legislation stated that the court would manage the estate for the maintenance for benefit of the individual, which allowed the court to use the estate for whatever they saw fit. An example of this is if an individual ran a business. If the court deemed them mentally unsound, the committee could run that business anyway they liked. While this did not deal with sexual sterilization, it did show that the government was taking a deeper role in controlling the lives of those they deemed mentally-handicapped.
Another amendment was put into the Act in 1942 to include individuals with syphilis and epilepsy, or who were addicted to alcohol or drugs. In these cases, consent was still needed.
One of the more interesting aspects of Alberta at this time was that most places in the United States were abandoning their eugenics movements, while Alberta was enacting more legislation. As for why this may have happened, several ideas were put forward by historians. One was that the province was seeing a huge influx of immigrants, resulting in the arrival of people that some felt were inferior stock. Beginning in 1890, there was a steady increase of immigrants into the Alberta area. In 1890, the future province had a population of 98,173 and by 1911 that had increased to 374,295 people. This led some to fear that native-born stocks of Canadians were being outnumbered by foreign-born individuals. It was also believed that the racially-inferior, the poor and the mentally-inferior had higher birth rates compared to Anglo-Canadians. By allowing immigrants into the country, some believed it was hurting the caucasians of the country. One eugenics supporter called it “race suicide”.
Another theory is that most of the population was unaware of the sterilization laws, but that may not be the case as it was widely reported and often supported in major Alberta newspapers.
Another reason could be that there was a low Catholic Church presence in Alberta, which was made up of mostly Protestants and other denominations. Within Canada, the Catholic Church was heavily against the use of eugenics.
Following 1940, women would be the likely target for sterilization. While women comprised less than 40 per cent of patients in institutions, 64% of the cases involving women ended in sterilization, compared to 54 per cent for men. Likewise, young adults and youths made up 20 per cent of the population but were 44 per cent of presented cases and 55 per cent of sterilization cases. Their numbers would increase as well. In the 1930s, 21 per cent of those who had their cases go to the board were under the age of 19. By the 1960s, that percentage had risen to 61 per cent. Minorities were also targeted by the board. Over the course of 40 years, Indigenous people made up six per cent of all sterilization cases, despite only making up two per cent of the population. In addition, 74 per cent of the Indigenous cases presented to the board ended in sterilization. By the end of the sterilization era, 25 per cent of all those sterilized were Indigenous.
When it was finally repealed in 1972 by Peter Lougheed and the Progressive Conservatives, the Sexual Sterilization Act had been responsible the approval of 5,000 sterilization cases, of which 2,832 sterilization were actually conducted. The average reviewing time for each case was found to be 11 to 18 minutes. Roughly 89 per cent of all cases did not require consent. During its history, there were two peaks for sterilization. The first was in the mid-1930s when there were as many as 200 sterilization per year were performed. The second peak was in the late-1950s.
The Act was repealed citing three reasons. First, it violated fundamental human rights, it was based on medical and genetic theories that were not scientifically valid and because there were legal issues with it, including making surgeons exempt from civil liability.
Premier Peter Lougheed, speaking to the Legislature about the repealing of the Act, would say, “we feel very strongly that the act is offensive and at odds with the proposed Bill of Rights.”
MLA David King would be the one to put forward the bill to repeal the act, and he would state during its second reading
“I come finally to the last reason, which, for me personally, is the most compelling. That is, simply, that the act violates fundamental human rights. We are provided with an act, the basis of which is presumption that society, or at least the government, knows what kind of people can be allowed children and what kinds of people cannot. It is our view that this is a reprehensible and intolerable philosophy and program for this province and this government.”
In 1975, the University of Alberta would create an annual lecture series to honour Dr. MacEachran. This would continue until Sept. 3, 1997 when the lectures were renamed because of his association with sterilization.
In 1995, Leilani Muir would launch a lawsuit against the provincial government over wrongful sterilization. Muir had been given an IQ test at the Provincial Training School, with the result being 64. Anyone below 70 was considered to be degraded intelligence and the board would order her sterilized. Told she was getting her appendix removed, the Jan. 19, 1959 surgery actually had the purpose of destroying her Fallopian tubes. It would be 10 years before she found out she could not have children. In 1989, she would take another IQ test where she had a score of 89 and Dr. George Kurbatoff stated that she did not have a mental defect now that she was living in a better environment. Soon after, she sought legal counsel and on Jan. 25, 1996, Muir was awarded $740,780 in damages and $230,000 in legal costs.
In her decision, Honorable Madame Joanne Veit would state, “In 1959, the province wrongfully surgically sterilized Ms. Muir…the particular type of confinement of which Ms. Muir was a victim in many travesties to her young person. Loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal development experiences, loss of civil rights, loss of contact with family and fiends and subjection to institution discipline.”
Following the case, the Alberta Government formally apologized for the sterilization of 2,832 people and 850 Albertans who were sterilized were awarded $145 million in damages.
Muir would spend the rest of her life living in Devon, Alberta with her pets and would write a book about her experience. She would pass away on March 14, 2016.
Before I end, I should highlight that Alberta was not alone in its sterilization laws in the western world, even if it was the most prolific with them in Canada. In the United States between 1907 and 1937, 32 states enacted sterilization laws. From 1907 to the 1970s when the laws were repealed, 60,000 Americans had been sterilized, which includes 20,000 in California alone. In 1938, Iceland passed a sterilization law, which lasted until the 1970s. Norway would sanction sterilization on eugenic and social grounds in 1934 and while it was a voluntary procedure, many were pressured into it. Between 1940 and 1942, 101 individuals were sterilized a year. From 1943 to 1945, during the Nazi occupation, 209 sterilization a year were conducted. Sweden passed a sterilization law in 1935, which lasted until 1976 and saw 63,000 people sterilized. In Finland, 1,460 sterilizations took place between 1935 and 1970 officially, but many believe the number could be as high as 11,000. Under Nazi Germany, it is estimated as many as 400,000 people were sterilized during the 1930s and 1940s.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia, EugenicsArchive.ca, History Of Rights.ca, McGill Daily, The Alberta Eugenics Movement and the 1937 Amendment to the Sexual Sterilization Act, Acres of Snow.ca, the Coming and Going of Eugenics in Alberta, BC Campus.