The Sterilization of Leilani Muir

This documentary traces the life of Leilani Muir, the first person to file a lawsuit against the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization, and provides background on the history of eugenics in the early 1900s.

Transcript (Text)

The government had done a lot of nasty things. But this was the biggest and the blackest thing they had ever done to anybody.

They never asked me what I wanted or anything like that.

Being in the Michener Centre, it was very scary. It was very—it was not home like.

Saying, why did this happen to me? How come you let this happen? And we were told that's none of your business. We're in charge here. We run the place. And right then and there they said we're not human.

I figure all these people that did this to us, they did bodily harm. They did permanent bodily harm that cannot be repaired. They can't fix it no how. They should be in jail.

Leilani Muir is near the end of a difficult journey, one that's lasted almost all her life. Today she's come back to Alberta where it all began. She's here in Edmonton to expose a dark period in Canada's history when she and thousands of others suffered irreparable harm.


They don't call this process a trial for nothing.


Morning, Renee.

Fine, thank you.

It's a very demanding thing for you to go through.

So what does this court case mean for you today?

Hoping it's not still happening somewhere else in the world. Nobody has a right to play God with other people's lives.

It is going to be a physically draining process and it's going to be an emotionally draining process.

What would your life have been like if you'd never been sent to that school, if you'd never been sterilized?

I don't know. Probably a heck of a lot better than it has been.

We were trying to get a handle on that.

In 1957, as a girl of 14, Leilani was surgically sterilized in the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives. Now she's suing the government of Alberta for damages. After years of preparation, her case goes to court in just a few days.

Is that right?


Yeah, OK. This is going to be a three-week process that you're going to be there. You're going to be in the courtroom, and you're going to be watched and scrutinized during that whole time.

The lawyers for the other side are going to want to go through that story from their own perspective. And that will be done under cross-examination of you. How many children you would have had. I mean, did the numbers stay constant?


There's no turning back for Leilani now. But the journey here hasn't been an easy one. It's taken her back almost half a century to a sad little girl in rural Alberta.

Well, my earliest recollection is living on the farm, not really having a childhood for the way my mother treated me, the beatings that my mother gave me, starvation. I used to steal lunches, take lunches from the other kids. I'd go into their lockers, or if they were hanging up, I'd take sandwiches and stuff out of their lunches because I wasn't getting a lunch to take school with me. And I had to eat.

And eventually the teachers saw this and they would start bringing lunches for me. And whenever the teachers or anybody tried to question my parents about it, we'd move. When I think about it now, a lot of people didn't know my mother had a daughter because I was always locked away, hidden away, locked away, whatever. Being on a farm, and you're not close to neighbours, pretty easy to hide you away.

There was even worse to come. In early adolescence, Leilani's future was darkened by a powerful idea, the theory of eugenics. Eugenics, meaning well-born, was the brainchild of Sir Francis Galton, an aristocratic scientist in late 19th century England. He combined his cousin Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection with current ideas of heredity.

Controlled breeding, he argued, improved strains of farm animals and plants, so why not use the same method to improve the human race? Mating the best humans, preventing inferior specimens from breeding, eventually this would create a super human race.


Eugenics quickly gained international acceptance. It took root in Canada's mental institutions like the Michener Centre in Red Deer, Alberta. When Leilani was there, it was called the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives.

When was the last time that you had been to the institution?

'65 when I left because I can still picture that little black car with everybody in it and driving off. It wasn't a good feeling. In fact, I was a little bit subdued all the way home. Yeah.

I think humans have always, unfortunately, been somewhat xenophobic, that is, not always happy about people who look different from their own group. That's one of those sad facts that can certainly be overcome. But it's only in the 19th century, maybe the end of the 18th, that the scientific arguments for judging certain people inferior came to be important.

It was hoped that an accurate method of measuring human value could pick out inferior individuals and set them aside. That was the goal of eugenics.

But how do you measure human potential? Most systems developed over the past century have used broad general categories, classifying very different kinds of people as defective or feeble-minded.

Those people included the people who we identify as intellectually impaired or mentally retarded today. But they'd also included people who we would identify as having emotional problems or behaviour disorders, people who are identified as criminals, people who are just really identified as being poor today and not necessarily having any defect.

In Alberta, people declared mentally defective have routinely been prevented from having children. Leilani's lawyer, Sandra Anderson, reviews the cases.

In going through the information in these patient files, what struck me sometimes was the lack of necessity for sterilizing people. There's no connection, even on the basis of genetic principles.

Case 1591, Provincial Training School. Problem, congenital syphilis, mental defective. Age, three years. Mental age, two years, two months. Reason for sterilization, danger of transmission to the progeny of mental deficiency, danger that the exercise of power of procreation may involve risk of mental injury to the patient and to progeny.

Case 3285, presented November 22, age 14, French Ukrainian. He and his brother are illegitimate children, IQ 72. Passed, clear for vasectomy.

Case 3280, female. Race origin, Irish Polish. Leilani has shown a little improvement in her work habits. She is still young and needs considerably more training. Verbal IQ, 70, performance, 64. Full scale IQ, 64. Reason for sterilization, danger of transmission to progeny of mental deficiency. Incapable of intelligent parenthood.

In '57, when I was in the PTS, they diagnosed me as a moron, IQ of 64. I've had a few different IQs, and the highest is 90 right now, or 101. What a difference. Boy, I came up pretty fast, didn't I, from 64? If I'm a moron, what are the rest of them that did this to me? What are they?

The IQ test was invented in France in the first decade of this century by a man named Alfred Binet, a very famous and humane French psychologist. And if the test had never been used for any other reason but his initial intent, there never would have been any issue of objection because his initial intent was entirely non-hereditarian.

Now ironically, because the United States likes to think of itself as land of liberty, it was in America that Binet's test was inverted— or perverted, even in the literal sense— into this hard, hereditarian version.

The first person to bring in the IQ test was H.H. Goddard, who was a psychologist. He translated Binet's test into English. He gave it to immigrants coming off the boat at Ellis Island. He was convinced that up to 80% of immigrants trying to come to this country were feeble-minded. He had a particularly strict version of the test and had absolutely no understanding that somebody just coming off a boat who couldn't even speak the language after weeks in steerage might not be up for an IQ test the minute they landed on Ellis Island.

By 1915, IQ testing had become the first line of defence against the inferior breeding stock invading America.

H.H. Goddard was head of a school for so-called mental defectives, the Vineland Training School. It was his belief, as many of the eugenicists held, that the greatest danger facing a healthy nation was the spread of the bad genes of the mentally defective. One of the major ways he supported this general argument was through a case study that he did which was immensely flawed.

But my little discovery is that Goddard actually phonied the photographs. If you look at his famous book called The Kallikaks, his pictures of the others living at liberty and breeding in the Pine Barrens, he doctored the photos. They're all retouched around the eyebrows and the mouth to make them look either sinister or dumb.

By modern standards, the retouching is very, very crude. But you have to remember that at the time that these photographs were made and published, that the populace in general certainly was not nearly as visually literate as they are today.

The photographs were retouched to give the people more of, sort of a blank stare, in some cases, a more sinister look. And whether they were retouched, either to create a point or to reinforce a point that already existed in his mind, I cannot say.

The study was worthless, but it became a major icon of the eugenics movement.

Persuaded that babies inherit their parents' mental defects, the eugenicists mounted a vigorous campaign. By 1934, 28 states had passed eugenics laws, and more than 20,000 Americans had been sterilized to protect the next generation. Modern research reveals just how futile this campaign was.

Invariably, children of people who are mentally retarded are born physically, physiologically, and intellectually normal. They have, on the average, they have fewer children than the norm. They generally recognize their responsibilities. Invariably, too, they are not abusive. They can be neglectful, but it's because they've never been provided with any information related to parenting.

The Canadian eugenics movement gathered momentum during the '20s, when the United Farm Workers Party rose to power in Alberta.


The United Farm Women's Association became a power in the land. Nothing was more important to these women than the health and safety of Alberta's children, and they believed future generations were threatened by a rising tide of immigration.


Feeble-mindedness seemed to be rapidly increasing, with all its terrible social consequences— crime, idleness, alcoholism, poverty, and loose morals. The United Farm Women's Association proposed eugenic sterilization of the feeble-minded.

They were involved in farms where they were trying to improve livestock. And so it was very easy for them to see that these practices, which were successful on the farm, could be applied in the cities and rid our cities of evil.

They lobbied hard for a sterilization law.

We would do well to keep clearly before us the percentage of mental defectives in Alberta who were not of Canadian stock. The figures are positively startling. Of the 130 patients in the Provincial Training School, December 1924, but 24% were Canadian stock. In other words, fully 75% of the mental defectives at the Red Deer School are from a stock brought into Canada through immigration.

The predominant view was that this was a measure that would cut down on the cost of incarcerating deviants and that would improve the well-being of our province, would improve the stock, the breeding stock of the province.

Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate in the British Empire, was very strongly in support of this provision. And she went across this province speaking in all of the major cities, advocating the adoption of the Sexual Sterilization Act to prevent, as she says in one of her pieces, to prevent these deviants from plucking the plum and cream from the upper crust.

There are those who become tearful over the children who have never been born to idiots. But insane people are not entitled to progeny. Make your voice heard at the government. Remember the government does not like to go ahead of the public.

There was a widespread feeling in North America, the western world, that everything could be remedied with science. That was point number one. And I think secondly, there was a widespread feeling that somewhere at bottom, science and morality were the same thing.

Public pressure mounted quickly, and in 1928, Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act became law.

The government was strongly in favour of this legislation. I think it's probably fair to say that the majority of Albertans were in favour of it, and it passed.

They apparently believed that in God's plan, they were helping the individual that they were sterilizing, and they were helping the community as a whole move towards a new Jerusalem that was going to be the perfect community.

There would be no room in the perfect community for children like Leilani Muir.


I was let out of the car. No one else got out. A nurse met me at the bottom of the steps and took me upstairs. I just thought it was an orphanage because I had already been in convents before. So to me it was just another place to be with young girls where I could enjoy myself, play with toys, and have a bed, clean bed, actually, and clean clothes and three meals a day, go to school, and get outside and play, kick butt if I felt like it.

Harold Barnes was a boy of 13 when he was sent to the Michener Centre in Red Deer.

October the 8th, 1964, I was admitted to Pine Villa at 2:15. It's the first time I ever was away from my parents.

Ken Nelson was just eight years old and a ward of the province when he made the same journey.

I can remember Roger, Grant, and myself. We were going for a ride. We were told by the person who was looking after us at the Alberta Protestant Home here in Edmonton. And they had informed us that the three of us were going to live someplace else in Red Deer.

I was coming to the Michener Centre because I had polio when I was a very young girl.

Rita Hagerty was confined to the same institution almost 70 years ago.

That's where the government put me.

My mother never wanted any girls, and she had told me that. So she had found a place that would take me. She had to do a lot of lying to get them to take me, but she did it.

After all those years, finally the day of reckoning has arrived.

Can you tell us what's happening this morning?

Well, the trial is going to start at 10:00 in Courtroom 414. And of course, Ms. Muir is very happy that she's going to have the chance to tell her story in court.

I want a public apology. That is something, and I want the public to know absolutely everything that we possibly can what happened in the institution.

I think the fundamental issue is whether or not she was properly confined in an Alberta government institution, and whether or not she was properly sterilized by the government.

Yes, I want compensation for it. You cannot put a price on a child's life, and you can't put a price on what they took away from me as a woman. You can transplant hearts, kidneys, and that, but you cannot give a woman her tubes back.

This is the first case that's gone to trial concerning these issues.

The other ones were out of court settlements?

I believe that one previous claim was settled out of court.

For the plaintiff, Jon Faulds. My lady, on July the 12th, 1955, a few days before her 11th birthday, Leilani Muir was admitted to the Provincial Training School at Red Deer, Alberta. The evidence will show that in November of 1957, a single IQ test was administered after two years.

If I'd have settled, they would have said that was hush money. And people would not have known to this day what really happened in Canada, which should never have happened.

The first witness will be Miss Leilani Muir. Question, can you describe when it was that you first became aware that you were going to be taken to the Provincial Training School? Answer, when I was dropped off there. Question, do you remember anybody giving you any kind of test or examination besides examining your body? Answer, no. Question, what do you remember about the admission process? Answer, only being taken over to the Ash Ward.

None of us girls— well, I don't remember ever talking about stuff like that, why they were there, because I just thought, well, they were there the same reason I am. Nobody wanted them. But they were just like myself. We could fight and get along with each other, pull each other's hair when we were little and we got mad, and pillow fights and whatever. We had a good time. We were like sisters.

I saw numerous people like myself who did not belong there, who should have never have been there. So one has to ask yourself, how did so many people end up in that situation?

You put a child in an institution, then shut the door and not come back for a long time. That child, in mind and body, is destroyed.

For the plaintiff, Jon Faulds, question. Do you remember being sent to other villas? Answer, if we were punished. Question, what were those other villas like? Answer, they had people in straitjackets, and you were put in a little tiny room with a rubber mattress, and it was cement all around and a little tiny window in the door.

Each time I tried to get out or to try to get help to get out, I was put in the side room. If I refused to clean up human waste, I was put in the side room.

We were never convicted of any crime, but you almost felt as though you were a prisoner, that you had no rights. Those rights were taken away from you.

I do think there's something dangerous about classifying people by intelligence, and that often, those classifications have been used to deny people educational rights, to lock people up, to make decisions about who gets medical treatment, to do things like sterilizing people, and in the worst possible cases, to actually make decisions about who lives and who dies.

Five years after Alberta passed eugenics legislation, the newly elected government of Germany did the same, but with a vengeance. A massive campaign began promoting sterilization of mental defectives.


In magnificent buildings in the midst of splendid parks, lunatics are lodged while the worker and farmer have to be satisfied with a miserable hovel. That's when a population goes with gigantic strides towards its demise.

The number of mentally ill has increased by 450% in the last 70 years, while the increase in total population is only 50%. The prevention of genetically diseased offspring is a moral commandment. It represents a practical love of your neighbour and the highest respect for the God-given laws of nature.

Up to 400,000 mentally disabled Germans were sterilized during the '30s. Many went on to die in the gas chambers.

In Alberta, a government-appointed board administered the Eugenics Act. These were the people who made the final decision. They signed on the dotted line for every single operation. In the early years, the board was required by law to get the patient's consent. But consent is hardly worthy of the name when the penalty for withholding it is catastrophic. That's what Rita Hagerty found out.

I was taken in front of the Eugenics Board and told if I wanted to get out, I would have to have sterilization. I had plainly told them, you leave me the way I was created. You don't touch my body. Then you don't get out.

Rita's refusal condemned her to incarceration, a life sentence with no chance of appeal.


I was in the Michener Centre for almost 50 years.

By 1937, Alberta's Minister of Health felt sterilization was proceeding far too slowly. Getting consent from mental defectives was proving an obstacle, so the law was changed to let the board get on with the job.

It tended, over time, to single out people in our population who lacked power. There were more women than men. There were more people living in rural than urban centres. There were more persons of East European and Indian and Métis origin, people who were immigrants to the society or people who were weak in the society. And at every point, these were people who were extremely vulnerable. And it was the most vulnerable people who were dealt with under this statute.

I became involved with the Eugenics Board in 1960. It was set up under the regulations that the board would have four members. Two should be medical practitioners and two should be lay people. And because, at that time, I was at the University of Alberta involved in teaching and research in human genetics, I think I was considered to be an appropriate person to approach.

For the plaintiff, Sandra Anderson, question. Dr. Thompson, I take it that the persons would be out in the corridor and brought in one by one. Answer, they were brought in one by one, yes. Question, did the person who was out in the corridor accompany that person? Answer, there were usually attendants, yes.

The nurse would stay outside. I'd be led into a room, sit down.

Patients were always seen by us personally, and that gave us an opportunity to see for ourselves what kind of people they were, to make some sort of judgment about their intelligence and their functioning, their ability to function as members of society.

And he asked us a bunch of questions. Did we like the place? Did we like the staff? And of course, when you're in a room like that, you would say yes. You wouldn't dare say no. Little did I know that this was the Eugenics Board. These were the people that were going to decide our fate.

Staring at all these faces that you don't know, and they would ask you some questions. Well, they asked me how old a baby starts walking and talking. Well, I knew because I had a little brother, so I was wise to that, but.

Would they make good parents and would they transmit their biological defects? Those were the two big considerations.

I was only in there for about five minutes, maybe even less than that.


All of a sudden I was told by the ward charge that I would be going for an operation.

We were never told about the surgeries. And when we were told of anything, they would just, come along with me. You're going to have your appendix out.

I was 15 years old. And at that time, that was the law.

There were three girls and myself. So there was four of us that had it done the very same day. My appendix were taken out, like I was told, but I was also sterilized.


Leilani left the Michener Centre when she was 21 and started to support herself. But 10 years in an institution is poor training for life.

Boy, I wish I wasn't so stupid and naive then because the first guy I dated was the first guy I married. I was 24, 25 then. By this time I'd started wanting to have a family. I figured, hey, I'm a young woman now. I'm on my own and I could do what I want. Went to the doctor's. Needless to say, they found out a lot more than I anticipated by doing tests. I didn't have any tubes left to have kids. And he said my insides had looked like I had been through a slaughterhouse. Those were his exact words.

My first marriage, I don't think it really had any effect because that was— when I went for the divorce from my first marriage, I realized that was out of spite. I just wanted to get even with everybody. My second marriage, it had a lot to do with it. And it wasn't the fact that he knew I had been sterilized because I never told him. But our adoption fell through.

Well, that just— that devastated the both of us. He turned to alcohol, and I just went into myself, my shell, and I just— actually, I was at the point of wanting to commit suicide.

Individual cases that come to public attention are really just presentations of one side of the picture. We don't know how the individuals concerned might have got along if sterilization had not occurred and if they had entered into fertile marriages and had a number of children.

The sexual sterilization board sterilized a great number of people. They were authorized to sterilize, but we found in our research that they, in fact, went further. And they performed castrations on men and oophorectomies, or removal of the ovaries, and hysterectomies on women in certain cases.

Now what was most startling about that was that instead of it being for health reasons, they were looking at the sexual behaviour or misbehaviour, as they thought of it, when they were ordering those extreme operations.

For the plaintiff, Sandra Anderson, question. And what is an orchiectomy, Dr. Thompson? Answer, it is the removal of a testis. Do you know why Dr. Parsons would be performing an orchiectomy? No, I don't know at all. There are many possible reasons, which are medical reasons.

Perhaps the most flagrant violation was the case of approximately 30 young men in the 1950s who were ordered to undergo testicular biopsy, which is not an operation for sterilization. These young men had Down syndrome, and it's known— and it had been known since the 1940s— and the Eugenics Board knew it since the 1940s because it's in their records— that male Down syndrome individuals are infertile so that sterilization was totally unnecessary.

And yet they not only permitted but they authorized sterilization of these individuals, and for purposes of research for one of their members, as well as for the medical superintendent of the Provincial Training School.

When I heard on the stand about people being castrated and them using their parts as experiments, that angered me to the point where I just— if I could have jumped over that and did something, I would have. But I know I would have gotten thrown out of the courtroom.

Mr. Speaker, I beg leave to introduce a bill being the Sexual Sterilization Repeal Act, 1972.

The long reign of the Eugenics Board was finally brought to an end in 1972 by a new government under Premier Peter Lougheed.

He was very concerned, in the course of building the Party in the province, about a broad range of issues that were unified by concern for human rights. And it was in that context that we first became aware of the existence of the Sexual Sterilization Act.

Speaking to my predecessors in this assembly of 1928, I think it can fairly be said on the basis of our knowledge today that repeal will not result in a rapid increase in the numbers of mentally ill or deficient people in the province of Alberta requiring the care and the cost of the government, that the act violates fundamental human rights. We are provided with an act, the basis of which is a presumption that society, or at least the government, knows what kinds of people can be allowed children and what kinds of people cannot.

Working away for 44 years, the Eugenics Board sterilized 2,822 people. 55 of those operations took place in the final year of its authority.


A lot of the other people who were supporters of it in its day were not immoral people. Maybe it's just another reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

For the plaintiff, Mr. Faulds, question. In the letter that Dr. Gomel wrote to Dr. Prevost, he concluded that further attempts at reconstruction, in her case, would be futile since there is not enough tubal length to work with. Was that what you understood and were told? Answer, yes. Question, then did you accept that you were not able to have children? Answer, right after Dr. Prevost did the hysterectomy. Once he did that, I knew there was nothing that could be done. All those operations just because of one that should never have been done.

If for no other reason than the symbolism of it, justice would say that she should be successful because she stands there not only in her own right, which is important, but I think as a symbol of everybody else who was touched by that act. I'd like her to be successful.

I guess we got it set up here, so.

On January 25, 1996, Leilani Muir was awarded close to three quarters of a million dollars.

We think this is an award that recognizes the depth of the injury that Ms. Muir has suffered. And it recognizes the depth of the wrong that was done to her when she was sterilized in 1959 and confined in the Provincial Training School for 10 years. And we hope that this is the end of that struggle for Ms. Muir. I think it is clear that this will be the first of a number of cases dealing with this law, which are going to have to be dealt with.

Does this make up for what you went through? Does this money make up for what you went through?

No amount of money could ever make up for what I went through, and what I will go through until the day I die, because that hurt is there always.

What's been the hardest part of all of this for you, now that it's over? Can you think about that?

The first day when I decided to do it, that was the hardest because I couldn't make up my mind whether I should do it or not because I'm the type of person, I don't like to hurt. And I thought, well, maybe I'm going to be hurting these people that did this to me. And when I finally decided to do it, I thought, I'm not hurting anyone because I was the one that was hurt and other people were hurt.

Has it been worth it?

Yeah. It has. It's made me a stronger person. And six, seven years ago, you wouldn't have had me sitting in this room talking. Let's put it that way. My confidence is pretty high now.

Do you feel vindicated?

To an extent, yes.

In her judgment, Madam Justice Veit wrote, the circumstances of Ms. Muir's sterilization was so high-handed and so contemptuous, and so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity, that the community's and the court's sense of decency is offended.

It'll open everybody's eyes. And this, I know, will not happen again in Canada. If I have to go to the end of this earth to stop it from happening anywhere, I will.


I am going out there and I'm speaking. God gave me a tongue and I'm going to use it.


Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.