Alberta's sex sterilizations re-examined

Historians, academics and victims gathered at the University of Alberta to re-examine the province's former eugenics policy.

Historians, academics and victims gathered at the University of Alberta on Saturday to re-examine the province's former eugenics policy.

In 1928, the Alberta government passed legislation that allowed the province to medically sterilize people deemed to have mental disabilities.

Before the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta was repealed in 1972, more than 2,800 sterilizations were performed throughout the province.

Leilani Muir, who successfully sued the province in 1995 after being sterilized because she failed an IQ test, was one of the speakers at the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada conference.

"I'm a person who brought something that was so tragic in our black history … that brought it forward and hope it has helped thousands and thousands of people, and I'm going to keep on trying to help people," said Muir, 66.

History will repeat itself

Since Muir launched her lawsuit, more than 700 victims have sued the province. Most of the cases were settled out of court.

Muir stressed the importance of raising awareness about the history of forced sterilization, saying it would be a dangerous thing to forget.

"We've gotta make sure this never happens again because my attitude is if I don't talk about this and keep it out forefront, history will repeat itself in some way because history always does repeat," she said.

Muir didn't find out she had been sterilized until she was in her 20s. She said officials told her at the time that she was having her appendix removed.

"It was a shameful thing, you know? I felt that shame all my life … and not being able to have children because of what they did — I will never be called Mom or Grandma — that hurts. So we can't let history repeat," she reiterated.

'Prevention by isolation'

Another speaker, Nicola Fairbrother, is the director of Neighbourhood Bridges, a human rights organization committed to ending oppression for people with intellectual disabilities.

While people with disabilities are no longer subject to sterilization, she said they still face oppression.

"We've significantly restricted people's access to sexual and reproductive health information and as it pertains to people with intellectual disabilities, our focus has been largely on prevention by isolation and that seems to be our most effective sterilization strategy in the modern age."

In fact, Fairbrother argues it's a more effective approach than forced sterilization.

"It prohibits even the notion of parenthood as an identity, so if you don't believe you can be a parent because you're not allowed — and we can do that without being explicit — then we don't have to worry about people getting sterilized because they don't believe they have that right in the first place," she said.

'You feel like you're unlovable'

Marjorie Thompson, 38, is one of the many who have been raised with the belief that she will not be allowed to have children.

Thompson is with the Self-Advocacy Federation of Edmonton and has what she describes as a borderline developmental disability.

"My mom has said that if I ever was to have a child, she would take it away from me, that it would be in [the child's] best interest … that it would be taken from me no matter what," Thompson said.

"I don't even bother going and searching out a relationship because of it. Because what's the point of falling in love, getting married [when] you can't have kids?

"So what's the point of having that? So you feel like you're unlovable."

Rob Wilson, a philosophy professor and conference organizer, said it was important to include those directly affected in the conference.

"[We wanted] to include, in a very direct and meaningful way, sterilization survivors and people who have lived this experience," he said.

"And not just to have them at arm's length to the project but to really make them integral to what we're doing — providing oral histories and telling their stories and having a voice."

Wilson said he was surprised to find the vast majority of his students and colleagues did not know about this part of Alberta's history.

"How representative they are, I don't know, but that seems to me to be quite telling in terms of how widespread basic knowledge is of this having happened."