In Alberta’s 43 years of formal eugenics, particular kinds of families were more likely to come under scrutiny than others. For more information about who was specifically targeted by Alberta’s active eugenic program, please see People: Then; this section focuses on the implications of eugenics for certain kinds of families in Alberta.

Kallikaks - GrandsonIn terms of passive eugenics, the institutions established for ‘mental defectives’ were characterized as places that would relieve the burdens that truant children, impoverished and disrupted families, and large immigrant families were placing on a new province struggling to establish itself [1-3]. In parliamentary debates about establishing the institutions, the costs and benefit of protecting the community from financial and moral drain were key concerns. In his inaugural report to the government, Superintendent George McAlister of the Provincial Training School/Michener Centre clearly connected his institution’s mandate to containing problems of low intelligence, poverty and social burden. Using the language of eugenics and agriculture, he reported, “There is no question that in the large percentage of cases where feeble-mindedness is, there will be found decadent stock, and where decadent stock is there, the problems of dependency, pauperism, vice and crime are sure to be found presenting themselves as sources of worry and economic loss to the community and to the state.” [4]

Once the institutions were established, their annual reports dutifully presented the eugenic family traits of residents, describing ethnicity, religion, marital status of parents, mental status of siblings, and any social concerns such as truancy, alcoholism, criminality or poverty. As well, the ‘Nativity’ of the institution’s population was ranked and counted, with residents whose backgrounds were from England and Scotland first, moving down through Denmark and Belgium and ending the scale with Ukrainians, Galicians, and finally, Russians. Likewise, hierarchical codes for religion were given, with Protestantism ranking first, moving down through Catholics and Russian Orthodox, finally to marginal categories like Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists [5]. Family finances were also indicated, with rankings from “Comfortable’ through ‘Moderate’ to ‘Marginal’. Finally, crude ‘pedigree study’ data were presented under the title of  ‘Disease Incidence In Family History’ of residents; the reportable categories include Epilepsy, Insanity, Mental Defect, Neuroses, Alcoholism, Syphilis and Tuberculosis (even then, a disease of poverty) [4, 6].

MichenerWhen Mental Hygiene/Guidance Clinics [i] were established as a result of the 1938 Amendment to the Sexual Sterilization Act, it paved the way for significant expansion of identifying and funneling community members into the passive and active eugenic matrix (see Eugenics in Alberta). Families with ‘problematic’ racial, ethnic, religious, moral and social qualities were more likely to come under the gaze of educators, social workers, the family courts, and family physicians, many of whom ascribed to eugenic ideals.  These kinds of families had children who were institutionalized or put before the Eugenics Board in high numbers.

From our interviews, we have heard many examples of families that were victims of eugenics in Alberta as a result of ethnicity, poverty, family breakdown, or poor social integration. Wilma Kovalchuk (a pseudonym) was a Polish immigrant living in small town Alberta in the mid-1950s. She married young, to an abusive and alcoholic man who abandoned her and her two children when she was in her mid-20’s. Because she was poor, she came to the attention of local charities and then child welfare authorities, who pressured her to place her two young children who they identified as ‘feeble-minded’ into Michener Centre. At the time, the woman’s family doctor and her social worker case convinced her to institutionalize her children so that they could receive ‘appropriate’ attention and she could be free to enter the paid workforce. She described the day she dropped her children at Michener Centre in heartbreaking terms, and told us of how it was only 24 years later that she had the resources and support to have them removed and returned to community living.

Ukrainian-born George Semkow described his entry into the institution in ways that illuminate eugenic concerns about family breakdown, heredity and ‘dangerous’ offspring. When George was 12, his mother died, leaving his father to raise six children on his own. Soon, the family began to crumble and both George and his brother Karl frequently skipped school to pick bottles for cash. Eventually, they were referred by the school to the Guidance Clinic, whose workers pressed their father to admit the two brothers to Michener Centre, primarily because they had fallen far behind in their schoolwork and were now struggling to keep up in the ‘regular’ classroom. George and Karl spent 18 years in the institution and both were sterilized while living there. They only left during the late 1970’s.  In their time in the institution, they did not receive any education or training, but were instead warehoused and kept out of their communities, where presumably, the authorities felt they posed a danger on the one hand because of their ‘delinquency’ and on the other because of their faulty family ‘pedigree’.


  1. Scull, A., Decarceration: Community Treatment and the Deviant: A Radical View, Crime, law and deviance. 1984 [1977], New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  2. Trent, J.W., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. 1994, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Walmsley, J., Institutionalization: A Historical Perspective, in Deinstitutionalization and People with Intellectual Disabilities, K. Johnson and R. Traustadottir, Editors. 2005, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: Philadelphia p. 50-65.
  4. McAlister, W., Superintendent’s 1923 Report to the Government of the Province of Alberta, . 1924, Provincial Training School: Red Deer, Alberta. p. 17.
  5. Malacrida, C., A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years. 2015, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  6. McAlister, W., Provincial Training School, Health Department – Superintendent’s Report for 1926. 1926: Red Deer, Alberta.

[i]After WWII, the name of these clinics was changed to Guidance Clinics, in keeping with new sensibilities about the language of ‘hygiene’ that arose in response to the racial ‘hygiene’ programs of the Nazi state in Germany.