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Alberta and British Columbia are the only provinces where, for a number of years, the government sterilized mentally ill men and women without their consent.

The science of eugenics, which came into prominence during the late nineteenth century, was concerned with improving the human race. Eugenicists believed that natural selection was insufficient, and they sought to influence human evolution by weeding out undesirables. A combination of heavy immigration and a fear that undesirables were reproducing at a high rate contributed to the popularization of eugenics in Canada. Such well-known figures as Emily Murphy and J.S. Woodsworth were avowed eugenicists.

The United Farm Women of Alberta, which was at the forefront of lobbying for sterilization laws, embraced “the ambitious goal of remodeling society through social improvements … The group emphasized well-raised and genetically ‘superior’ children as the hope for a future utopian society.” [Clément 2012] Alberta’s 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act created a Eugenics Board that was empowered to recommend sterilization as a condition for release from a mental health institution. The purpose was to ensure that “the danger of procreation with its attendant risk of multiplification of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny were eliminated.” [Clément 2012] An amendment in 1937 permitted the sterilization of “mental defectives” without their consent.

Why was Alberta among the few Canadian provinces that legislated sterilization? In “The Right to Consent?” Jana Grekul offers a few suggestions: Its government was “based in populist and grassroots ideology, which was linked to restrictionist policies and anti-immigration sentiments, strong opposition to federalism,” and heavy “reliance on ‘experts’ (including mental health experts).” The Catholic presence in Alberta was relatively weak, and the subsequent “Social Credit government became complacent and stagnant; led by charismatic leaders who were also fundamentalist religious leaders, the populace also seemed to accept the status quo with little question.”

Between 1928 and 1972, the Alberta Eugenics Board approved 99 percent of its 4,785 cases. Over time, increasing numbers of its decisions involved people who did not give their consent. And it was clearly biased against young adults (twenty- to twenty-four-year-olds), women, and Aboriginals (Aboriginals were also more likely to be diagnosed as mentally defective). Even in cases where agreement was obtained, it is impossible to know how many people were coerced into consenting. This is particularly true for women, who bear the burden of carrying children and are typically responsible for their care.

The forced sterilization of mentally ill people was obviously inconsistent with the principles of the rights revolution. Thus, it is no surprise that Alberta’s Peter Lougheed government, which had already introduced wide-ranging human rights legislation and was preparing to remove restrictions against Hutterites, eliminated the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1972. Speaking before the legislature, Premier Lougheed explained that “we feel very, very strongly that the [act] is offensive and at odds with the proposed Bill of Rights.” Alberta MLA David King, who introduced a bill to repeal the act, noted succinctly at 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 a 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.” [Clément 2012]

Leilani Muir sued the Alberta government in 1995. At age ten, she had been admitted to Red Deer’s Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives as an abused child and had been held against her will for ten years (later testing showed that she was mentally normal). She later discovered that she had been sterilized during an appendectomy. The judge awarded her $1 million. Within three years, the province faced hundreds of additional lawsuits. In a move that shocked the country, the government introduced a bill to apply the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a $150,000 cap on all lawsuits. The ensuing public outcry led it to withdraw the bill within twenty-four hours (it later agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $80 million). The Edmonton Journal suggested that “it took either cavalier disregard for basic civil rights or casual incompetence in preparing legislation for the bill to even be introduced” and described the incident as a “24-hour lesson in basic human rights.” [Clément 2012]

Further Reading

Clément, Dominique. “Human Rights Milestones: Alberta’s Rights Revolution” In The Search for Equality and Justice: Alberta’s Human Rights Story, ed. Dominique Clément, and Renée Vaugeois, 17-57. Edmonton: John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, 2012.

Grekul, Jana. “The Right to Consent? Eugenics in Alberta, 1928–1972.” In A History of Human Rights in Canada, ed. Janet Miron, 135-54. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2009.