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Eugenics in Alberta

Operating RoomWhile large influential groups have brought about changes to Alberta's legislation, often a few individuals have achieved justice on their own. Leilani Muir, a victim of Alberta's former sterilization laws, and her lawyers did just that in 1996. They brought before the Alberta Provincial Court a case that set a precedent for many future settlements awarded to other sexual sterilization victims.

Leilani Muir had spent most of her youth living in foster homes. In 1955, at the age of ten, she entered the Michener Centre in Red Deer, Alberta's Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives. A year later, the Alberta's Eugenics Board gave her an IQ test and a short interview. Based on their findings, she was declared a "moron" and approved for sterilization. 1 In 1959, she was told that her appendix would have to be removed. While surgeons performed this operation, they also cut her fallopian tubes, making her unable to have children.

Muir was never told about the Eugenics Board's findings or the extent of her operation. After being released from the Michener Centre in 1965, she wanted to start a family. She married at twenty-five, but could not get pregnant. In 1971, her doctor discovered why she could not conceive a child. She and her second husband were heartbroken when they tried unsuccessfully to adopt, and they soon divorced. Her experiences as an orphan had prevented her from ever becoming a parent.

Many thousands of people endured similar experiences under Alberta's Sterilization Act. In 1928, Alberta became one of two provinces and twenty-eight states in North America to pass such legislation. The Act was based on the principals of eugenics, meaning "good birth". It was believed that if only those people with desirable genes bore children, the human race as a whole would improve. The Alberta government and pressure groups including the United Farm Women of Alberta sought to limit the reproduction of many kinds of people, including visible minorities and the "feeble-minded". They attributed much of the rise of crime, poverty, alcoholism and other vices to these people.

Almost 3 000 people were sterilized under Alberta's Sterilization Act. Many more were not released because they would not consent to sterilization. Even in 1972, the year the Act was finally repealed, fifty-five people were sterilized for their "danger of transmission to the progeny of mental deficiency" and for being "incapable of intelligent parenthood". 

Regardless of the reasons in support of sterilization at the time, restricting an individuals ability to reproduce is viewed as a violation of their constitutional rights. Further, studies have shown that mentally handicapped people are no more likely to produce offspring with similar handicaps than the population at large.

Leilani Muir was awarded $740 000 for wrongful sterilization and wrongful confinement. In succeeding years over 1 200 victims brought suits against the Alberta government for similar losses. The Alberta government retracted a bill that would have limited compensation to these sterilization victims in 1998. The government has since adopted a more conciliatory stance in attempt to redress the harm caused by the Sterilization Act.

Without Leilaini Muir's determination, these victims might never have been compensated for their losses, and their suffering might never have been known. She proves how much influence a small group can have on the government.

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