The history of eugenics is tied very closely to ‘advances’ in scientific knowledge, particularly as developed through the use of statistics and population studies. These statistical methods exposed rapid increases in population amongst new immigrant and rural groups and declining birthrates amongst urban, white, middle-classed citizens. The ability to count and track different ethnic and racial groups’ reproductive rates gave scientific legitimacy to worries about race degeneration. Unfortunately, these numbers were not interpreted in terms of the social and economic benefits of large families to farming and new immigrant families – who were often impoverished and needing children to work and support the family. Likewise, the small size of middle class families were not understood as a result of increased access to education about birth control and a decreased need for large families. Rather, they were interpreted as biological facts requiring biological correction.
The province of Alberta – indeed Canada as a whole – was a part of the British Empire and it aligned many of its cultural values with British sensibilities; British immigrants were highly valued, while Eastern Europeans and non-White settlers were discriminated against. The high birthrates of rural and immigrant families, coupled with increasing immigration rates and the social problems that come along with new immigration (language challenges, cultural differences, discrimination, and lack of strong social networks) led reformers and politicians to believe in the growth of a “dangerous class” of non-White immigrant populations [1, 2]. Additionally, public worries about assimilating and controlling First Nations people were mixed into moral panics about presumed threats to British settler societies.
These beliefs were strongly expressed in the ‘kinds’ of people who were sterilized and became victims of active eugenics and also those who were institutionalized and subject to passive eugenics. Eastern European, First Nation and Métis people were overrepresented amongst the victims of the Sexual Sterilization Act [3, 4] and they were also more likely than other citizens to find themselves in institutions like Provincial Training School/Michener Centre  or in the Indian Residential School system. Similarly, children from impoverished families or families with social problems such as alcoholism, violence, single parents, or children who were already part of the system as foster children or orphans were frequently referred for both active and passive eugenics . This occurred with Leilani Muir, and also amongst many of the survivors who participated in Malacrida’s project on Michener and eugenics [5, 6].
In addition to minority and immigrant groups, impoverished families and people under the scrutiny of the family/child welfare system, the Sexual Sterilization Act tended to target women over men. For example, at Michener Centre and Ponoka Mental Hospital (the two primary source institutions for involuntary sterilizations), females represented less than 45% of the institutional population. However, women actually amounted to 55% of the people who were victims of sterilization .
Finally, of course, the largest category of people affected by sterilization, regardless of their other qualities, were people who were deemed to be ‘mentally defective’ by right of their IQ scores, and sometimes even by such loose standards as the judgment of their physicians, ministers and priests, guidance counsellors or family members. These people, whose ‘mental defects’ were often the result of little more than lack of education and opportunity, were the individuals most likely to end up in institutions, the child welfare system, or the care of social workers, and as a result, they were more likely to experience both passive and active forms of eugenics.
In sum, passive and active eugenics policies in Alberta were in keeping with the broader social discourse of the time and they targeted women, Aboriginals, new immigrants, disabled people, and socially disadvantaged people.
- Dowbiggin, I., Keeping This Young Country Sane: C.K. Clarke, Immigration Restriction, and Canadian Psychiatry, 1890-1925, in The Canadian Historical Review. 1995. p. 598-627.
- McLaren, A., Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. 1990, Toronto, Ontario: MacLelland and Stewart,.
- Grekul, J.M., The Social Construction of the Feebleminded Threat: Implementation of the Sexual Sterilization Act in Alberta, 1929-1972. Ph.D. Dissertation. 2002. University of Alberta: Edmonton.
- Stote, K., The Coercive Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada Journal American Indian Culture and Research Journal 2012. 36(3): p. 117-150.
- Malacrida, C., A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years. Forthcoming, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Veit, J.B., Muir v. The Queen in Right of Alberta. 1996, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench: Edmonton, Alberta. p. 1-20.
- Grekul, J., Sterilization in Alberta, 1928-1972: Gender Matters. Canadian Review of Sociology, 2008. 45(4): p. 247-266.