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Alberta’s shameful past offers fetid food for thought

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IN this suggestive piece of investigative journalism, Albertan Jane Harris-Zsovan exposes one of her home province’s wretched little secrets.

Published, oddly enough, by a Winnipeg­based house, Eugenics and the Firewall retells the story of how Alberta’s progressive and populist Social Credit government abused some of its most vulnerable citizens’ basic human rights for almost half the 20th century. Its message is clear: somebody’s Utopian vision can lead to another’s Orwellian hell.

In 1928, Alberta elected its first Social Credit government, led by the apocalyptic "Bible Bill" Aberhart. The government was under the sway of the burgeoning eugenics movement and quickly passed the British Empire’s first sexual sterilization legislation, which was not rescinded until 1972.

Similar laws were passed in many western countries and in the province of British Columbia; these laws were also repealed in the 1970s and 1980s.

The history of eugenics cannot be seen in the light of a right-left wing split. Eugenics, strictly speaking, means "good birth," and Harris-Zsovan, who lives in Lethbridge, details the history of the eugenics movement and its attempts to apply the science of improving human genetic composition in the early 20th century.

Many notable progressive Canadians supported eugenics, including Tommy Douglas and the women of the "Famous Five," whose new statue graces Manitoba’s legislative grounds.

Arguably, on reading Harris-Zsovan, most modern Canadians support the positive aspects of eugenics today: family planning, prenatal health clinics, family allowance, day care and the myriad other expensive government-sponsored social-medical programs.

What modern human rights-based nations cannot support is the involuntary or coercive aspects of negative eugenics: sterilization, ideas about miscegenation and racial stereotyping. The Nazis really made the concept of eugenics unpalatable.

Harris-Zsovan has included the Nuremberg Laws on Citizenship and Race (1935) in the appendices.

During the 44-year reign of Social Credit in Alberta, more than 2,000 Albertans were sterilized under the authority of the province’s Eugenics Board. Although the rules were strict on who could be sterilized, lax government oversight lead to egregious abuses.

The majority of the operations, Harris-Zsovan writes, were performed on poor, uneducated women, aboriginals and recent Eastern European immigrants.

Many were not told they we being sterilized. Often neither the family nor the responsible government minister give the consent required by the law. In the eyes of Albertans the operations were performed in the name of societal improvement when, in fact, they were sexist and racist.

Harris-Zsovan includes the sorry stories of many who suffered needlessly. In 1999 the Ralph Klein government was forced to payout $82 million in compensation to those the province had wronged.

The dark sister of eugenics is euthanasia, which means good death. In her concluding chapter, Harris-Zsovan explores the issues of bioethics, genetic counselling and designer babies.

Who will decide who has the right to be born, how will that child be engineered and how long they will live? We are living in a brave new world; are its formative ideas really different from those of the Alberta Eugenics Board?

 

Ian Stewart is a Winnipeg teacher and writer.

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