'Heinous' Eugenic History Explored

Winnipeg Free Press, March 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Heinous' Eugenic History Explored


By the time the government of Alberta repealed its Sexual Sterilization Act in 1972, almost 3,000 individuals had been sterilized in just over 40 years.

In Facing Eugenics, University of Saskatchewan history professor Erika Dyck explores the "dark, even heinous history" of Albertan eugenics, linking it to the discourse of reproductive rights. She shows how constructions of ability, disability, motherhood, masculinity and citizenship shifted in their application and ideal.

Facing Eugenics is the first scholarly book to focus solely on Alberta's eugenic history, adding to the 2010 publication of journalist Jane Harris-Zsovan's Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada's Nasty Little Secret. It is Dyck's second book within the history of medicine. Her first, Psychedelic Psychiatry, examined the role of LSD in psychiatric experiments.

While the clinching argument for sterilization was always alleged levels of intelligence and purported ability for responsible parenthood, the roving eye of the Alberta Eugenics Board moved from group to group over the history of its existence, focusing first on immigrants, then teenagers and finally on indigenous women.

In many cases, people confined in the Provincial Training School, later named the Michener Centre, had been sterilized without their knowledge during such operations as appendectomies. In other cases, release from institutions was dependent upon their agreement to be sterilized.

For women, sterilization was meant to restrict their ability to become mothers once they were released into the community. Men were sometimes castrated to curb their sexual drive.

Dyck brings to life this academic history by including case studies of individuals. Leilani Muir entered the PTS at age 11 and stayed for 10 years. It was only after many years of attempting to conceive that she found out she had been sterilized at 14 during what she thought was only an appendectomy.

In 1996 Muir successfully challenged the legality of the Alberta government's action and was awarded a $1-million settlement. During the trial against the government, it was discovered her institutionalization and sterilization was based in large part on an administrative error in adding up the results of her intelligence test.

After Muir's award of compensation, then-premier Ralph Klein tried to invoke the notwithstanding clause to prevent compensation being awarded to other victims of sterilization.

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