Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Rob Wilson Part 3

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 third part of the presentation by Rob Wilson (The first part may be found here and the second 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 3

Highlights:: details about the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta and its repeal; the Leilani Muir case and post-Muir settlements to sterilization survivors; Leilani’s book in progress; what is and isn’t known about Alberta’s history of eugenic sterilization; formation of the Alberta Consortium on the History of Eugenics (ACHE); development of the What Sorts Network.

A transcript follows the cut.


The eugenics board was there as a kind of safe-guard organization. It was there to make sure that the recommendations for sterilization that came before it were appropriate. Recommendations were typically made by people associated with institutions where people with disabilities were housed. And those recommendations often came from the director of the institution, so an institution like the Provincial Training School in Red Deer, others at Ponoka and just outside of Edmonton, as well, were also in this position, where there would be sort of internal reviews or a case would go forward and the eugenics board would look at the case file and meet with the individual.

People were recommended for sterilization typically between the ages of 13 and 20. And a lot of these were cases where the people were between 13 and 15. There were 4785 cases that were considered and 99% of them were approved. There was actually not a single refusal of a case, they didn’t turn a case back, or they turned them back in that they deferred in 60 cases. And not all of those cases came back, but the ones that did were approved. But it’s interesting that only, depending which document you read, only 2822 or 2832 sterilizations were performed. So, over half but not less than 60% were actually performed. And I don’t know the answer to the question of what happened in those cases.

That’s actually just part of the picture we don’t know and part of what’s motivated me is there’s a lot here to know, just about the historical record, which really has to inform anything we want to do in light of this. It’s not that we can’t have views and form judgments without it, but it’s really one of those areas where, if you compare our situation, epistemically if you like, to the situation in many US jurisdictions, you know they have access to lots and lots and lots of documents and lots and lots of records and it’s a matter, not a simple matter-it may be a long term matter-for scholars and others to sit down and work through that material. We do not have that kind of privilege right now for various reasons that we might talk about in discussion.

The Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed when there was our last change of government in the province in 1972, when the Progressive Conservatives came to power. I’m pleased to say that my own voting district has recently broken through and made a change here in electing Linda Duncan from the NDP, the one out of 28 people elected, the sole member who wasn’t elected out of the Progressive Conservative Party.

David King was a young, influential cabinet member and he’s actually somebody we’re working with in this network of people, and he’s spoken out at other conferences that I’ve organized around this. He was the minister who introduced the repeal, but he’s very clear that Lougheed was the person who was just kind of morally repulsed by the Sexual Sterilization Act and it was one of the very first things they did. They did it within about six weeks of coming into power in ’72.

After it’s repeal, there was the case that has been mentioned of Leilani Muir who after a long sort of struggle, we heard a bit about yesterday at the conference Families and Memory held downtown, successfully sued the province for wrongful sterilization and confinement and the judgment from Madame Justice Veit, that we heard referred to in Martin’s talk, contained quite-and we heard one little snippet-but really quite strong language and unusual language for a judgment like this from a judge. And many interesting things were appended as public documents to that decision, which again was somewhat unusual, which in principle makes them much more readily available than other sorts of court documents would be, provided we can prevail on, for example, the university and the province and the courts to have them released. But we actually think that there’s real hope of that happening.

Part of what happened after Leilani’s case was there were between 800 and 900 cases that were settled by the province out of court, so there was a kind of class-action suit. Field Law was involved in Leilani’s case and also in just over half of these other cases. And we’re also working with Field Law on considering the possibility of getting access to some of that material as well for archival sorts of purposes.

We’ve heard a bit about the McEachran controversy. Doug Wahlsten was very active in psychology and he’s actually an emeritus there, he now teaches at the University of North Carolina, he just moved from Windsor last year, and he has been working with Leilani on getting a book finished, which I am shortly going to read. It is done and we’re going to be looking for a publisher for it. That tells her story in more detail. And there was this subcommittee that Martin was a member of that issued this report that you’ve heard about.

So, in the university around 2003 or so a bunch of us started meeting and talking about this. I’m not exactly sure if there was any one cause, but there were people like Harvey Krahn and Jana Grekul. Jana is one of the few people who has actually looked in detail at these documents, somebody who wasn’t directly involved in the legal cases and she actually wrote a PhD thesis on the basis of it. Tim Caulfield and Gerald Robertson, Dick, myself, and Glenn, and Lesley Cormack when she was here in history. And we’ve also linked up with, as I said, Field Law and sterilization survivors. We formed a group that we chose for its sexy acronym ACHE-the Alberta Consortium on the History of Eugenics in 2005. If we have a name, we’re real. And then we developed this What Sorts Network over the last couple years, as was said about 80 researchers. Around this question: what sorts of people should there be? We have a sort of large project and a few people in this room are involved in it that operates under that title “What Sorts of People Should There Be?” and it’s interested in a sort of range of applications and people can take the question any way they want and I think what’s interesting is to see the links that come up between these independently started projects once we start talking.

One thought on “Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Rob Wilson Part 3

  1. Pingback: The Last of the Philosophy, Eugenics, and Disability Posts is Up at What Sorts of People « Like a Whisper

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