Prof Gerald B Robertson on the repeal of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act
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Prof Gerald B Robertson on the repeal of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act


Thank you, it is a pleasure and privilege for me to have been invited to participate in this event, marking the 40th anniversary of the repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act. My involvement in this area stems from my academic research. In the area of health law, and in particular mental health law and also from the work which I did as an expert witness on behalf of plaintiff in the celebrated case of Leilani Muir, who we will be hearing from a little later. And also on behalf of plaintiffs in subsequent, similar cases later. The history of the eugenics board as it was widely referred to, in this province, is indeed a very dark and painful one . It has been described as, “a shameful blot on our past.” And as a “disgrace to the whole of Canada.” During the 44 years in which the legislation was in effect the Eugenics Board approved almost 5000 cases for sterilization. Many of these were children under the age of puberty. Detailed studies of how the act was administered have shown conclusively that its effects were highly discriminatory. The legislation had a disproportionate impact on females, the unemployed, people of minority ethnic backgrounds, and those in lower social economic groups. But it is the very fact that this part of Alberta’s history is so shameful, that we must ensure that it is never forgotten, so that we may learn from its lessons. So what lessons can we learn from the history of sterilization in Alberta? I would suggest two — no doubt many more — but I’d like to focus on two. The first lesson I would suggest is that sometimes we need to be very wary of well-meaning groups and individuals who advocate passionately, and fervently on behalf of their cause. Particularly if that cause has potential to harm the most vulnerable in our society. The people in the 1920s who advocated for the introduction of the Sexual Sterilization Act were well meaning. They were certainly well-known, and very powerful. Emily Murphy, Louise McKinny, Nellie McClung, the President of the University of Alberta, the National Council of Women, the United Farm Women of Alberta… the list goes on, and on. They believed strongly, and genuinely that the legislation was necessary to tackle what they perceived as a serious and growing problem of public order, and public health — namely, the problem of the “feeble-minded” as a menace to society, as a source of rampant crime, and more delinquency. A perception rooted in Eugenic philosophy. These people were well-meaning, passionate and they were wrong. The other lesson I would suggest that we remember in this chapter of Alberta’s history is the danger of complacency, and indifference. Shocking, though it may be that the legislation was ever introduced in the first place, even more incomprehensible is the fact that it lasted for 44 years, notwithstanding growing and irrefutable evidence discrediting the eugenic philosophy on which it was based. Yet nothing was done, not until 1972. What is also disturbing is the indifference shown by the eugenics board itself. It became, in essence, a rubber stamp, for the recommendation of the residential institutions, and made little or no independent inquiry of its own. The public record show that in its 44 year history, the board approved 4725 cases for sterilization, and it rejected less than 50. It was not unusual for the board to spend less than 10 minutes considering each case, with no advanced preparation — it didn’t see any of the written materials ahead of the actual hearing. The board seems to have been indifferent to the principles of natural justice, indifferent to its own procedural policies, such as they were, and indifferent to the legislation itself… often approving sterilization on grounds that didn’t exist under the act. Above all, the board appears to have been indifferent to the plight and welfare of those individuals who had the misfortune to appear before it. In closing, it was certainly a very dark chapter in Alberta’s history — one that we should never forget. Thank you.

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1 thought on “Prof Gerald B Robertson on the repeal of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act

  1. all im looking for is the scene in the alberta sterilization act documentary where the lady says when you lock a child into a room it destroys him

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