A brief history of eugenics and sexual sterilization in Canada

In 1921 the American Museum of Natural History, of which I am a member, hosted an International Eugenics Congress in Manhattan. Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish-born American sometimes claimed by Canada, “served as honorary president.” The conference aimed to foster a “climate of international cooperation for eugenics goals.”

There was indeed growing enthusiasm for eugenics on both sides of the Atlantic, including in Canada. Many American states had already passed sterilization laws, and in March of 1928 Alberta joined them with the Sexual Sterilization Act, the implementation of which was overseen by an appointed Eugenics Board.

On paper, the bill provided for “consensual” sterilization when deemed medically wise, but the law’s wider aims were no secret. By way of introducing the bill, the Minister of Health for the United Farmers of Alberta government said sterilization was in response to “the growing burden of taxpayers in caring for immigrants and mentally disabled persons.” Those who lobbied for the law, like the The United Farm Women of Alberta, dreamed of “genetically ‘superior’ children as the hope for a future utopian society.”

Insisting that it was not arguing for or against sterilization, but merely stating facts, The Gateway newspaper explained that regardless of what you thought of sexual sterilization it could hardly be considered cruel, and that it would “at least… prevent the propogation [sic] of mentally deficients, without working any hardships” on said deficients, who were merely subjected to a “slight incision.”

In 1930, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published “an editorial promoting the sterilization of Canadian citizens on eugenic grounds,” saying that “persons should be sterilized if it is to the interest of the race that they produce no children.” The publication of this editorial, writes Sheila Gibbons, was part of “Canada’s role in engaging in eugenic discourse during the eugenics movement” internationally.

Two years later Emily Murphy, a member of the “Famous Five,” warned in the Vancouver Sun of “race suicide” if “inferior” people were allowed to continue to reproduce. “Another prominent campaigner for sterilization was the suffragist [and Famous Five member] Liberal MLA Nellie McClung,” writes James Marsh, “whose promotion of the benefits of sterilization, especially for ‘young simple-minded girls,’ was vital to the passage of eugenics legislation in Alberta.”

British Columbia joined Alberta in 1933 with An Act respecting Sexual Sterilization. “The written aim of the legislation is the sterilization of individuals living in designated state institutions deemed to have undesirable traits.”

In 1937, Alberta’s new Social Credit government passed an amendment to strengthen the Sexual Sterilization Act, furthering legal protections for the people performing sterilizations, and loosening the already dubious requirement that victims “consent” to the procedure. Luke Kersten writes:

The years immediately following this amendment saw a steady rise in sterilization rates of Aboriginal Canadians. From 1949 to 1959, for example, rates tripled. Consent was only sought in 17% of these cases. Grekul and her colleagues estimate that 77% of Aboriginal patients presented to the Eugenics Board were diagnosed as mentally defective and hence sterilized without consent being required.

The year of the amendment happened to be the same year that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King met with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, and wrote in his diary that he told Hitler he “had seen of the constructive work of his regime, and said that I hoped that that work might continue.” 1937 was also the year Nazi Germany began sterilizing children for not being “pure Aryans,” and when Canada proposed requiring that all “Eskimos” wear government-issued ID badges, a program the government implemented in 1941.

Then in 1942, Alberta passed a second amendment to further expand the list of reasons people should be sterilized in support of eugenics, a program that continued well beyond the end of World War II.

This history resurfaced in 1995 thanks to Leilani Muir, who successfully sued Alberta for her sterilization in 1959 at the age of 15. Muir didn’t learn she’d been sterilized until she was in her 20s. “She said officials told her at the time that she was having her appendix removed,” the CBC reported.

Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act wasn’t repealed until 1972 under the Progressive Conservative government of Peter Lougheed, which had unseated the Social Credit government the year before. “From 1929 to 1972,” writes Marsh, “the board approved 4725 of 4800 cases brought before it, of whom 2822 were officially sterilized.”

“The BC records have been destroyed.”

Photo: The Eugenics Board in 1936. Left to Right: Dr. George Mason, Mrs. Jean Field, Dr. John McEachern, Dr. Edgerton Pope. University of Alberta Archives Accession # 81-104-257

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