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Extreme Measures?

Indigenous women file lawsuit claiming coerced sterilization

Indigenous women in Saskatoon are proposing a class-action lawsuit against Saskatchewan, its health regions, individual physicians, and Canada for what they call "coerced sterilization". The women allege the defendant parties were all complicit in the matter, and "set the tone of institutional systemic racism".

The term "coerced sterilization" refers to the practice of sterilizing Aboriginal women without their proper or informed consent which they say has been going on since at least the 1930s.

The two plaintiffs, represented by Alisa Lombard and seeking $7M each, claim they have suffered physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and psychologically.

Lombard said she found their stories troubling.

"One of the most significant aspects on it is how dehumanizing the treatment they say they were subjected to is and what kind of effects that can have on a human being's life. To be subjected to a treatment that fundamentally removes such a basic choice away from them, which is the choice to have children or not to."

A publication ban has been ordered to protect their identities. The class-action suit has yet be certified by a judge and if it is, women who have similar stories will be included.

Lombard said they must be Indigenous from any health region in Saskatchewan. Those who don't want to be part of the suit will have to opt out.

Women asked to consent while in labour

One of the women in the lawsuit is Anishinaabe and was sterilized at the Royal University Hospital in 2008 directly after giving birth to her youngest son by emergency C-section.

She was reportedly asked to sign off on tubal ligation while being rushed into surgery after being administered opioids and was told the procedure was reversible.

The second plaintiff, who identifies as Cree, was sterilized at the same hospital and maintains she did not sign a consent form and was sterilized against her will after giving birth. She said her sterilization led to the end of her marriage.

Both say they faced a number of physical ailments since the surgery including symptoms of early menopause, hormonal imbalances, hypothyroidism, and depression.

The Saskatoon Health Region apologized publicly in July and has revised its policy for sterilization.

Sterilization scandal strips University of Alberta professor of honours

John MacEachran held two PhDs and founded the department of philosophy and psychology at the University of Alberta. He was the university's provost until he retired in 1945. In 1975, four years after his death, the school named a lecture series after him, and later named a room in his honour.

But last month, the psychology department he helped create stripped him of his posthumous honours in the wake of revelations about MacEachran's role as head of the provincial eugenics board, which ordered the sterilization of more than 2,800 people before it was disbanded in 1972.

Leilani Muir

According to University of Alberta professor Douglas Wahlsten, MacEachran's involvement with the board became an issue in 1995 after Leilani Muir was awarded $750,000 through successfully suing the Alberta government. The judge called the sterilization system "unlawful, offensive and outrageous".

She was left, in 1956, at what was known as the Provincial Training Centre in Red Deer, just three days before her 11th birthday.

In 1959 she was sterilized by the Alberta Eugenics Board while she was a resident at the provincial school for the mentally handicapped.

Leilani Muir died at her home in Alberta in March 2016

She was discharged in 1965, but did not learn until a year later that she had been sterilized after an intelligence test she does not remember taking suggested she was a moron.

Muir's fight for compensation was national news in 1995 and became the subject of her own book "A Whisper Past".

Leilani Muir and almost 3,000 other were sterilized between 1928 and 1972 under a law intended to prevent people the province called "mental defectives" from passing on their genes.

Muir's case opened a floodgate of claims. About 600 of them were settled in 1998. Claimants classed as "dependent adults" were given $100K each.

The government embarked on a disastrous attempt to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to limit the rights of the remaining "independent adults" to sue.

In the end, the Alberta government reached an $80-million settlement with more than 200 people who had been subjected to forced sterilization.

Prior to the Muir case, faculty in the psychology department only knew professor MacEachran from a blurb prefacing the lecture series. After a long list of academic accomplishments, with no mention of his role as head of the eugenics board from 1929 to 1965, it said he was "instrumental in the formative stages of the Mental Health Movement in Alberta."

"This is what a lot of us were told," Wahlsten said. "It turned out not to be the case."

Earlier this fall, on Wahlsten's recommendation, the psychology faculty voted to strip MacEachran's name from the lecture series and from a small seminar room at the university. The decision was unanimous.

The Alberta Eugenics Board was created in 1928, in a period of strong support for eugenics in England, Germany and the U.S. The basic concept behind the eugenics movement of the time was to sterilize individuals judged to be mentally inadequate, and thus prevent them from having children with the same problems. The basic philosophy behind the branch of the movement in Alberta was "like begets like."

Developments in the US concluded that some immigrants (Jewish, Polish etc) were undesirable and influenced the passage of the Johnson law.

In its first five years of operation, 206 people were sterilized under order from the Alberta board. The rate doubled during the Second World War, and dropped back down after the Nazis were defeated. In terms of numbers of persons sterilized, the board was most active in the 1960s and 70s.

Four-hundred and forty-six people were sterilized between 1964 and 1968, over 120 during 1969 and 1970. The board was only disbanded with the collapse of the Social Credit government in Alberta. MacEachran headed up the board for thirty-six years. Its membership was named by the University of Alberta, but their actions were kept behind closed doors.

"Involuntary sterilization of inmates was condemned as a war crime by the Nuremberg Tribunal [in 1947]" Wahlsten said.

"In Alberta, they just kept sterilizing anyway... they were unaffected by ten years of advancement in genetics. They just kept cutting."

The board continued to operate under principles and processes which became obsolete or questionable.

Eugenics influenced the development of psychometrics, the psychological theory of mental measurement which was used in developing standardized IQ tests.

The legislation also targeted poor, Native people, unwed mothers, and non English-speaking immigrants.

They went so far as to order the sterilization of people who were naturally sterile, including a group of fifteen men with Down Syndrome. The board ordered them castrated despite the widely accepted fact that these males were sterile and their Down Syndrome was not hereditary. The testicular material from these individuals was subsequently used in an experiment.

For four decades the eugenics movement discriminated against specific groups of people and some critics have compared the crimes to the war crimes committed by the Nazi's in World War II.

Margaret Thompson, the board's geneticist at the time, defended the decision to castrate these individuals. Her statement, which came out at the recent trial, was that the decision was to "make assurance doubly sure."

James Ogloff, chair of the ethics committee of the Canadian Psychological Association, compared the MacEachran case to a recent decision made by the American Psychological Association. The U.S. group decided not to give a psychologist in his nineties an award because in the 1930s and 40s he wrote that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

"Times do change," Ogloff said. "It never makes what happened in the past right."

Psychological ethics became much more closely adhered to after the Second World War. But indications are that the Eugenics Board paid scant attention to such issues.

"I think it's a horrible thing," Ogloff said. "We wouldn't want someone's memory to live on who was involved in this."

While the decision to strip MacEachran of his honours is widely supported, it is not universally accepted.

"I think it's a stupid and ridiculous," Charles Crawford, professor of evolutionary psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said.

"It's trying to re-write history. There were all sorts of eugenics people around at the time. Most of them were not Nazis."

The eugenics movement was widely supported when the board was created. Supporters included prominent figures from the Canadian political right and left, including enduring and strong support from Ernest Manning [father of Preston Manning], who was the premier of Alberta for many years.

"The University of Alberta has become one of the most politically correct universities in the country," Crawford, who completed his undergraduate and masters' degrees there from 1957-63, said. "It's a tragedy." He adds that he is writing to the university's administration to protest the decision.

He likened the difficulty in making decisions about the merits of eugenics, as practiced by the board, to the more modern questions surrounding euthanasia, or some new reproductive technology. The lines, he said, are not cut and dry, and to arbitrarily condemn some areas of genetics is wrong. Some of the problems faced by modern society, he explains, could find their solutions in areas which have been criticized in recent years.

Crawford is highly critical of those who condemn past actions without considering the context of the time. MacEachran acted according to widely accepted in the 1930s. Now we know some of those actions are wrong, but is it fair to condemn MacEachran based on today's standards?

Crawford suggests that the university, and Wahlsten, who he describes as "an extreme leftist," should consider how far they plan on taking the revocations.

According to Harvard University professor Richard Lewontin, it is uncommon, or even unique for a eugenicist to be stripped of such honours, with the exception of the Nazis after the Second World War.

"MacEachran was typical of a large group of geneticists and psychologists who thought that everything bad was in the genes and that we needed to save the human race by preventing the breeding of the unfit," Lewontin wrote in an e-mail response to queries.

"If we expunged the name of every one of these people from the various honours, Royal Societies, lectureships, etc. that they have been awarded, we would reduce the list by a considerable amount."

But University of Victoria professor Janet Bavelas said she would not want to participate in a lecture bearing the name of someone like MacEachran.

"I would be personally offended to continue to see that name on a lecture series. The forty years includes some very recent times. Those were completely scientifically unjustifiable decisions."