Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Rob Wilson Part 2

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north. Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson. This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog. Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the second part of the presentation by Rob Wilson (The first part may be found here). Professor Wilson’s presentation is titled “Building Inclusive Communities Through Practices of Collective Memory: The Case of Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta.” Part interim report, part philosophical reflection, this presentation is a glimpse into the ongoing process of exploring the eugenics history of Alberta.

Part 2

Highlights: reaction to relatively recent publishing of sterilization rates, quote from MacEachran on the value of sterilization.

A transcript follows the cut.


There simply has been much less work done on the history of Canadian eugenics than there has been on the history of other countries like the United Kingdom, interestingly, in which eugenics wasn’t practiced as there wasn’t eugenic sterilization legislation in the UK. But a lot of the eugenic ideas obviously came through Galton of the UK and it was topical, there was a lot of support for it. But, more particularly in terms of practices in the US and Germany.

And there’s also been, and this is what Simo referred to sort of indirectly, there’s a book out by Broberg and Roll-Hanston that came out in 1996 on Scandinavian eugenics that was itself a result, as I understand it, I may have my facts wrong here as well, a fairly concerted effort in the four Scandinavian countries to try and come to grips and try and do a systematic study of the kind of history across the different countries. So what you get in this book, is you get rough 40-60 page essays on each of Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and then a bit of framing of that.

When this book came out, again as I understand it, it caused a big media splash in the late nineties, partly because a number of the findings that were reported in there were kind of mischaracterized in the press. One of the things that came out was that the sterilization rates, if you look at sterilization rates one thing that people will often do instead of talking about the raw numbers of sterilization, they talk about them relativized to per a hundred thousand people or something like that. And we know that if you do that in Alberta, the sterilization rates in Alberta were about the same as California and Virginia, which were the two most sort of heavily sterilizing states in the US throughout the entire history up until 1972 when they repealed the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. When you do those same kind of figures on some rawish-looking data that came out of the Scandinavian countries, and this was true across the board, but especially in Sweden, it looked like they sort of, they won all the prizes here. The rates were very, very high per hundred thousand of population, BUT it looked as though they, and those figures being reported and it going very public, they’d blended together sort of voluntary and forced sterilization measures. And, you know, people I think rightly made the argument that in at least certain core of cases, you need to firmly distinguish between those because of the different way in which the welfare state was operating in one half of this as opposed to the other. It doesn’t wash away all the problems, it raises more questions, but it meant that the, you know the initial reactions that I understand sort of this book and associated events around it, brought about, were um, they weren’t really justified. They were misleading and they lead to a kind of hysteria that itself I think was perhaps sort of counterproductive. We may here from Simo on corrections and adumbrations of that.

So, we know eugenic sterilization was practiced in the province from ’28 to ’72, that’s 43 years. In North American terms that’s a very long time. As we saw in Matt’s talk, the university itself was involved in some sense from the very outset. When the eugenics board was formed it was typically referred to as the Eugenics Board it was formed in 1929, and began approving sterilizations in that first year and right through for most of its existence the chair was John McEachran who, until he retired in 1945 was provost and head of the department of philosophy and psychology. And one thing that this certainly did, if it didn’t do anything else was it leant a certain amount of institutional credibility to the eugenics movement and the ideas that it represented. Now, just to give you sort of an idea, this is a fairly well-known quote in the literature that’s around. Here’s the quote: “We should endeavor to get away from a very costly form of sentiment and give more attention to raising and safeguarding the purity of the race. We allow men and women of defective intelligence or of criminal tendencies to have children. There is one remedy for such eventualities and we fortunately have begun to make use of it in Alberta-although not yet nearly extensively enough. This is the Alberta Sterilization Act.”

And that’s a quote from McEachran in the 1932 address while he was the provost of the university and he had just been appointed as the chair of this board a few years before. You can also find Martin will point this out, this is not an uncommon sort of idea, amongst many of the community leaders and amongst some of the most progressive people in the province, like Emily Murphy for example. Robert Charles Wallace, who was a geologist, who was president of the university around this time, 1934, makes another speech that’s often quoted as well along the same kinds of lines. It’s not out of line. As provost and president of the university these people would be talking to each other. We don’t always do this in a big institution, but their offices would have been most likely right next to each other and their appointments would in some sense be linked.

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