The 20th-century ideas and practices aimed at “improving human stock” known as eugenics were influential across the world, including in Canada. In 1928, the province of Alberta introduced the Sexual Sterilization Act, which promoted the practice of surgical sterilization for those deemed “mental defectives”, a practice in effect until 1972. British Columbia was the only other Canadian province to enact comparable eugenic sterilization legislation, which was in place until 1973. This History has special significance for people with disabilities and others marginalized by eugenic ideas today.
Undertaken with the generous support of the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) program of the federal funding agency SSHRCC, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada has developed accessible resources to explore the history of eugenics in Canada’s west and the contemporary significance of that history. The project has worked directly with eugenics survivors in Alberta to tell their own personal stories, hosting a range of public outreach events and creating online resources at Eugenics Archives to engage students, local community members, and the broader public. More specifically, the mission of the Living Archives project has been to:
create innovative academic resources for scholars across academic fields, including history, sociology, philosophy, medicine, law, and education;
develop a long-term strategy for maintaining and expanding these resources;
actively involve community organizations and vulnerable individuals whose stories have been omitted from Canadian memory of eugenics, disability, and inclusion;
highlight the contemporary significance of a neglected part of Canadian history.
Seven facts about eugenics in Canada:
Of the more than 3000 eugenic sterilizations in Canada, the vast majority were performed in Alberta under the direction of a Eugenics Board.
While eugenic sterilization waned across the world following the end of the Second World War in 1945, Alberta’s sterilization program continued until the repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1972.
Leilani Muir won a landmark lawsuit against the province of Alberta in 1996 for wrongful confinement and sterilization; two documentaries, The Sterilization of Leilani Muir (1996) and Surviving Eugenics (2015) engage general audiences with issues that the case and its aftermath raise, and their significance for Canadians today.
The explicit or implicit grounds for eugenic sterilization were typically that a person’s undesirable mental or physical disabilities were thought to be heritable, and that such a person was thus unsuitable to parent.
Although central amongst those targeted by eugenic practices were people with a variety of disabilities, many children institutionalized, sterilized, and otherwise subject to eugenic practices in Canada did not in fact have disabilities.
Members of other marginalized groups–single mothers, First Nations and Métis people, eastern Europeans, and poor people—were disproportionately represented amongst those subjected to eugenic ideas and practices, such as sterilization.
The legacy of eugenics, expressed in sterilization laws and in social policies concerning immigration, schooling, and prenatal screening, remains with us today.