Features | The science of harm

Eugenics in Canada past and present

In 1985, my family was living in southwestern Ontario. My father was working odd jobs and drinking away the money. My mother, only 23, was working as an apprentice in a candle-making shop, trying to raise her son, and preparing for her new baby, coming just a year after her first. Things got harder when my sister was born. “[The doctor] came into the hospital room and told me that she had Down syndrome,” my mother told me. “And I didn’t know what he was talking about. So then he told me that she was ‘mongoloid.’”

The term was used by John Langdon Down to describe individuals with trisomy 21 (three copies of the 21st chromosome), based on his belief that they belonged to the ‘mongoloid’ race. This was part of a contemporary theory that racial groups represented the arrest of human development at different stages, with the white race fully developed into adulthood, while ‘mongoloid’ and ‘negroid’ races stopped their development at earlier stages.

What my mother heard from the doctor was hardly encouraging. “The next time the doctor came in he said, ‘You know, you really don’t have to take her home, we’ve got places we can keep her, she’s not going to do anything, your life will be better if you just leave her,’” she relayed.

Six months later, my mother was exhausted. My sister’s heart problems required us to regularly travel to Toronto for consultation. And given my father’s attitude to parenting, my mother was essentially on her own. Her doctor told her to go see the obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN) in town, believing there might be some lingering complications from her pregnancy. The OB/GYN hardly spoke to her, and only asked if she wanted more children. My mother replied that she wanted to wait and see. She had always wanted four children, but at the time knew she wanted to wait before having another pair.

My mother explained to me, “When I said I wanted to wait, when I looked up, he was looking at your sister, and looked over at you, and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll do a D&C and that’ll take care of your health problems.’” My mother wasn’t told that D&C stands for ‘dilation and curettage’ of the cervix, nor did he tell her that it can result in Asherman’s syndrome, which can cause miscarriage and infertility. She didn’t receive any follow-up care, and only learned 25 years later about the surgical damage that caused her three subsequent miscarriages and permanent infertility.

“He looked at me like I was white trash, and young and stupid, and I shouldn’t be having any more kids, and I think he just sort of made that decision,” my mother told me. “I was just one of those young stupid women, and I was just going to be having babies ’til I died, and so he was going to fix it. His attitude toward me was obvious. He didn’t think I was smart enough to bother explaining anything to me, or to give me options. I think our whole interview was 15 minutes. He made his entire judgement of me in that 15 minutes.”

The 15 minutes my mother’s doctor took to make his decision is still more than the five minutes the Alberta Eugenics Board gave to its own life-altering decisions.

The Alberta Eugenics Board

Established in 1928 through the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, the Alberta Eugenics Board consisted of two doctors, nominated by the Senate of the University of Alberta (U of A) and the Council of the College of Physicians, and two non-medical members, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor. The Act decreed that when an institutionalized patient was to be discharged, the Board had to rule whether the patient could be discharged without “the danger of procreation” and the “risk of multiplication of the evil by the transmission of the disability” to any potential children. In cases where a patient had an inheritable disability or disease, the Board could order the surgical sterilization of that inmate as a condition of their discharge. Originally taking an hour to review each case, by the mid-1930s the Board took a mere five minutes to deliberate the authorization of a sterilization.

Initially, the Act required the consent of the individual’s parent or guardian, but under William Aberhart’s Social Credit government, the requirement for consent was removed for individuals labelled as “mental defectives.” This included “any person in whom there is a condition of arrested or incomplete development of mind existing before the age of 18 years, whether arising from inherent causes or induced by disease or injury.” It also included individuals with drug or alcohol addictions, epilepsy, or syphilitic infections of the central nervous system. The Act protected everyone else involved, including parents or guardians, Board members, the province, and surgeons, from civil liability for sterilizations.

I spoke to Robert A. Wilson to learn more about eugenic practices in Canada. A professor of Philosophy and Educational Policy Studies at the U of A, he is the principal investigator of the Living Archives of Eugenics in Western Canada, a project focused on working together with sterilization survivors in Alberta to inform the story of eugenics in Canada.

“Legislated eugenic practices in British Columbia [B.C.] and Alberta operated primarily through ‘training schools’ for people deemed feeble-minded or mentally deficient – often wrongfully,” he told me. “This meant in practice that people who were poor, who were immigrants thought to be of ‘inferior stock,’ who were Indigenous, who were neglected or abused in their home environments, became the effective principal targets of those practices.”

Training schools were a form of institution for individuals, mostly children, who had mental or physical disabilities, or who were considered social undesirables. My sister could have ended up at one. The principal training school in Alberta was called the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, in Red Deer, Alberta. In 1955, a child named Leilani Scorah (later Muir) was institutionalized by her mother at the Red Deer school, the site of the majority of the province’s sterilizations. Four years later, having scored below 70 on an IQ test, Muir was sterilized without her consent by order of the Board. She was told, like many others, that she was to have an appendectomy. In 1995, Leilani Muir brought a civil case against the Province of Alberta.

Social control in sterilization

Muir’s suit revealed that the Eugenics Board had ignored the minimal standards set by legislation. Testimony from Margaret Thompson, a Canadian geneticist and member of the Board in the early 1960s, showed that the Board frequently authorized sterilization for inmates who were not due to be discharged, contrary to the rules set out by the Act. According to Thompson, the Board rarely attempted to assess whether a disability was heritable.

In considering the case of one hearing-impaired boy who had scored over the threshold of 70 on an IQ test, Thompson decided that since the Provincial Training School reported that he was a poor worker, he would likely not be very socially successful, and thus ought to be sterilized. She also approved the castration of men with trisomy 21, despite their infertility, to, in her words, “make assurance doubly sure.” Furthermore, the judge found that sterilization had been authorized to reduce menstruation or sexual interest for the convenience of the School, as well as for girls who masturbated or showed “lesbian tendencies.”

Thompson’s decisions on the Eugenics Board also supplied herself and Leonard Jan Le Vann, the director of the Provincial Training School, with testicular tissue for genetic experiments. Le Vann’s experiments included non-consensual testing of psychiatric drugs on the children at the School. In an article he wrote for the American Journal of Mental Deficiency in 1950, he stated, “The picture of comparison between the normal child and the idiot might almost be a comparison between two separate species. On the one hand, the graceful, intelligently curious, active young homo sapiens [sic], and on the other the gross, retarded, animalistic, early primate type individual.”

“When people have looked at practice, they have pretty consistently found that the passage of laws is not the key thing. People always say [that] there was no eugenics [movement] in France, or only a weak movement. But the rates of sterilizations in their hospitals were higher than in countries that had sterilization laws.”
Diane B. Paul, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston

The final ruling found that Muir had suffered “loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal developmental experiences, loss of civil rights, loss of contact with family and friends.” Muir was awarded $740,780 in damages and $230,000 in legal fees.

Alberta’s sterilization law was repealed in 1972, though involuntary sterilizations continued after repeal of the Act. A similar act in B.C. was quietly repealed in 1973. The records of the Eugenics Board there were apparently lost.

In Canada, only Alberta and B.C. passed eugenic sterilization laws; however, Wilson explained to me that practices similar to those institutionalized in Alberta and B.C. also occurred across Canada. He gave Northern Canada as an example. “Aboriginal and First Nations peoples became a particular target of, at best, borderline coercive birth control practices, including sterilization and birth control by [intrauterine device] and pills,” he said. “Those practices persisted throughout the 1960s, [and] were subject to parliamentary investigation in the early 1970s.”

Eugenics outside the law

Diane B. Paul, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston, studies the history of eugenics and modern practices in prenatal and neonatal genetic testing. When we spoke, she suggested that legislation shouldn’t be the focus of people concerned about coercive eugenic practices. “The significance of the passage of these sterilization laws can easily be overstated,” she told me. “Whether laws were passed, whether they were opposed, is often in whole or in part unrelated to ideology. So it just doesn’t tell you very much because so many structural and accidental factors were involved.”

Paul cautioned against looking for coercive eugenic practices to manifest in predictable places. “When people have looked at practice, they have pretty consistently found that the passage of laws is not the key thing. People always say [that] there was no eugenics [movement] in France, or only a weak movement. But the rates of sterilizations in their hospitals were higher than in countries that had sterilization laws.”

In fact, she added, “In some instances where practice was ongoing, the laws may have actually acted as a control, providing some oversight that otherwise didn’t exist. I’ve come more and more to think that we’re way over-focused on the passage of laws.” In some institutions, she explained, sterilizations occurred for reasons besides eugenic ones. And rather than being decided by the laws in place, the decision to sterilize a patient was often made entirely by the director of a particular institution.

Given the ongoing history of coercive eugenics in Canada, I asked Paul about the popular idea that coercive eugenic practices declined with increased public knowledge of Nazi eugenic practices and increased scientific knowledge. “When I looked at writings, what people were actually saying and doing, it didn’t seem to me that was true.” She cited work by Alison Bashford showing that anti-eugenic arguments invoking the Nazis didn’t become popular until the 1980s. “In some places you actually have a resurgence of flat-out eugenic rhetoric, among the new molecular biologists [post-World War II], for example.”

A common view is that advances in the scientific understanding of genetics undermined the scientific basis for eugenics. But in Paul’s view, these advances had little impact on attitudes towards eugenics. These discoveries generally occurred in the first two decades of the 20th century, when eugenic sterilization laws were still being passed, and were readily accepted by most eugenicists, some of whom were highly respected geneticists themselves. Though these advances showed that elimination of “feeble-mindedness” by sterilization and segregation would be difficult and extremely slow, for nearly all eugenicists, doing something was still preferable to doing nothing.

Wilson agreed that harmful eugenic practices can occur outside of legislation, and suggested that consent can be gained in problematic ways from the kinds of people who have historically fallen under eugenic legislation. “You’re working with incredibly vulnerable people. They weren’t sure what they were signing off on, and there wasn’t really much of an attempt [to] gain consent, just to get them sterilized. And there was no legislation that really governed that.” My mother’s experience with her OB/GYN stands as an example.

Canada certainly isn’t the only place this happens, given the example of a July 2013 Senate report in Australia on the forced sterilization of women and girls with disabilities. “It’s the same kinds of groups that are targeted by traditional legislative eugenics,” Wilson explained. “It’s people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, [and] disproportionately, women and Indigenous peoples.”

He described another recent inquiry in California (where involuntary sterilization has been banned since 1979), that found that more than 150 female prisoners had been sterilized in situations of dubious consent by prison doctors between 2006 and 2010. “Again, it’s at best a grey area in terms of consent, but you can certainly understand the politics of it,” he said. “People could in some sense wiggle out and say they technically had the legal authority to do that.”

A legacy of harm

Despite settlements for more than 700 of the survivors of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, Canada has sent mixed messages to survivors and those who could today be at risk of the same, unofficial practices. The Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1928-65 was John MacEachran, head of the U of A’s Psychology and Philosophy department and co-founder of the Canadian Psychological Association. Until the late 1990s, a lecture series and an award in the department of Philosophy at the U of A were in his name. The department of Psychology still offers an undergraduate award in his name.

Thompson has received an Order of Canada and is an Honorary Consultant at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, where she led a clinical genetics service in the 1960s after her time on the Eugenics Board. She also has a PhD thesis award in her name, offered by the former Genetics Society of Canada, of which she was a founding member. Curiously, her biography on SickKids’ 55th anniversary website makes no mention of her time on the Eugenics Board.

And although the judge of the Muir case found that the Eugenics Board casually and commonly violated the slim protections established by the Sterilization Act, no individual associated with it has since faced any civil or professional penalty for their actions.

“There’s this element of subhumanization,” Wilson told me, “that’s so deep and so callous, and that goes beyond simply, ‘here’s what the laws were at the time.’ It’s got to do with the underlying conceptions and views of people who were regarded as mentally deficient.”

My mother’s own experience with this kind of subhumanization began the day that my sister was born. “I really didn’t know what the doctor meant by Down syndrome, but my mum happened to be there at the time,” she told me. “She said that when she was in nursing they used to kill the babies before the mothers would see them and just tell them that the baby died.”

Many people remain unaware of Canada’s eugenic history, a fact that underscores the importance of community-university projects like the Eugenics Archive. “In my experience, most students in Alberta, the province in which nearly 3,000 people were sterilized on eugenic grounds, don’t know that this occurred,” Wilson told me.

“I think that providing basic information about the eugenic past, and engaging citizens in thought and discussion about that past and its connection to their own lives, is fundamental here,” he said. “Sandra Anderson, Leilani Muir’s lawyer, once said to me that until we come to value each and every person as they are, we’ll never be done with eugenics. I think of that as a deep point to keep in mind as we reflect on surviving eugenics in the 21st century.”


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