Alberta and British Columbia are the only provinces where, for a number of years, the government would sterilize, without their consent, men and women who were mentally ill.
The science of eugenics, which came into prominence during the late 1800s, 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.” The 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.” An amendment in 1937 permitted the sterilization of “mental defectives” without their consent.
Why was Alberta among the only provinces to legislate sterilization? It had a government “based in populist and grassroots ideology, which was linked to restrictionist policies and anti-immigration sentiments, strong opposition to federalism, heavy government reliance on ‘experts’ (including mental health experts), and a comparative weak Catholic presence in the province. … [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.” [Grekul]
Between 1928 and 1972 the Eugenics Board in Alberta approved 99 percent of its 4,785 cases. Over time, a greater number of their decisions involved people who did not give consent. And there was a clear bias against young adults (20 to 24 years old), women, and Aboriginals (Aboriginals were also more likely to be diagnosed as mentally defective). Even in cases where consent was given, it is impossible to know, especially in the case of women (who bear the burden of carrying children and more often the responsibility for childrearing), how many were coerced into consenting.
The forced sterilization of mentally ill people was clearly inconsistent with the principles of the rights revolution. It is no surprise that the 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. Premier Lougheed, speaking before the legislature, explained that “we feel very, very strongly that the bill is offensive and at odds with the proposed Bill of Rights.” David King, as he introduced the bill in second reading, put it succinctly: “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.”
Leilani Muir sued the government of Alberta in 1995. When she was ten years old, Muir was admitted to the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer as an abused child. She was held for over a decade against her will (despite later testing that showed she was not ill) and 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 entire country, the government introduced a bill to apply the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause to impose a $150,000 cap on all lawsuits. The ensuing public outcry led the government to withdraw the bill within 24 hours (the government 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 entire incident as a “24-hour lesson in basic human rights .”
Dominique Clément and Gerry Gall. Alberta Legacies (Edmonton: John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, forthcoming).
Jana Grekul, "The Right to Consent?: Eugenics in Alberta, 1928–1972," in A History of Human Rights in Canada, ed. Janet Miron (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2009).