Compulsory sterilization in Canada

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Compulsory sterilization in Canada has a documented history in two Canadian provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Canadian compulsory sterilization operated via the same overall mechanisms of institutionalization, judgement, and surgery as the American system. One notable difference is in the treatment of non-insane criminals. Canadian legislation never allowed for punitive sterilization of inmates.


The most damaging sterilization program in Canadian history was afforded via the passing of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. From the years 1928 to 1972, sterilizations, both compulsory and optional, were performed on nearly 3000 "unfit" individuals of varying ages and ethnicities. In total, over 2800 procedures were performed. Initially, the act only provisioned sterilizations where consent was given by the subject or legal guardian of the subject, depending on the competency of the individual scheduled to undergo the operation. The 1937 amendment to the act allowed for sterilizations to be carried out without consent in the case of those deemed mentally defective. Sterilization of individuals deemed mentally ill still required consent. At the end of World War II, while other eugenic sterilization programs were being phased out, Alberta continued on, even increasing the scope of eligibility for sterilizations[citation needed]. They continued until 1972, when approximately 50 people were operated upon.

Targeted sterilization[edit]

Youths, minorities, and women were sterilized in disproportionately high numbers. Minors, because of their legal dependency on adults, were almost always assigned as "mental defectives", thus bypassing the parental consent requirement.[citation needed] Albertan Aboriginal people and Métis, regardless of age, were also targeted. Aboriginal people represented only 2.3% of the general population in Alberta, but made up 6% of the institutionalized population.[citation needed] Towards the end of Alberta's sterilization program, Aboriginal people and Métis made up 25% of the sterilizations performed.[citation needed] Furthermore, those of Aboriginal ancestry were disproportionately assigned the "mentally deficient" rating, which denied them their legal rights and made them eligible for sterilization without consent.[why?] Women, particularly women who were young, poor, and unmarried, were also disproportionately represented; they were thought to be at high risk for prostitution or at the very least promiscuity, activities suspected of breeding further immorality. While it was conceded that sterilization would not change the behavior of these women, sterilization was intended to prevent them from bearing similarly defective progeny.[citation needed]


Despite the inaccuracy of IQ testing[citation needed] and tremendous grey area in classifying the mentally defective, nearly 3000 people were rendered sterile by the Sexual Sterilization Act. The true nature of the act was revealed when Leilani Muir, a former inmate of the Michener Centre (also known as the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, PTS), discovered in 1971 that she had been sterilized. After being admitted to the PTS at age 10 as an unwanted and abused child, Leilani was given a substandard education. She was inaccurately designated a mentally defective moron (an individual with an IQ between 51 and 70), effectively nullifying her human rights. She was administered powerful antipsychotic agents without any due cause, as she had not manifested any symptoms of psychosis during her residency at the PTS. Eventually she was given an impromptu IQ test, on which she scored a 64. Shortly thereafter, she was taken before the Eugenics Board, and sterilization was authorized pending her mother's consent (which was readily given).

In 1995, Leilani was awarded $750,000CAD and $230,000CAD in damages for her wrongful and humiliating labeling as a moron and her subsequent sterilization. Since the victory, another 1300 cases have been opened, several of them concerning individuals who may have actual mental disabilities. It is unlikely they will be awarded any settlements based on stigmatization, but they may win suits based on involuntary sterilization, which is now considered battery under Canadian law.

British Columbia[edit]

In the early 20th century, prejudice against physical and mental disability, and concern over societal costs of caring for the disabled, existed in British Columbia. The devaluing and eventual enmity to disabled life popularized rapidly, and spread from disabled children to disabled adults.

Additionally, the substantial immigration rate of the 1910s and 1920s spurred a feeling of xenophobia among the Protestant, educated elite of British Columbia. Slavic immigrants in particular were accused of having very high incidence of undesired characteristics[citation needed], which are now generally attributed to culture shock and language barriers. The aversion to "abnormal" or "strange" people coupled with the perceived societal drain caused by immigrants, the deformed, mentally ill, and mentally disabled created an environment conducive to the enactment of a sexual sterilization act.

Thus, in July 1933, five years after Alberta, British Columbia passed its own sexual sterilization act. A three member Eugenics Board composed of a psychiatrist, a social worker, and a judge, was given the duty of authorizing the sterilization of any institutionalized person who was deemed capable of propagating undesirable social characteristics. Since such social problems as criminality, prostitution, and addiction/alcoholism were believed to have a biological (and thus heritable) cause, almost any institutionalized individual could be found eligible. Although the records concerning BC's Sexual Sterilization Act have since been lost or destroyed, it is thought that a few hundred individuals were operated upon before the law was silently repealed in 1973[citation needed].


After seeing a precedent set by Leilani Muir in her successful legal action against the government of Alberta, the British Columbia Public Guardian and Trustee filed similar lawsuits to protect the legal rights of the sterilized disabled. Thus far, 18 lawsuits have been filed against the government of British Columbia regarding the sterilization act. The suits allege that the sterilizations were involuntary, non-therapeutic, and that they were done for the convenience of the hospital. These lawsuits were filed in 2001, and since, several of the plaintiffs have died. In 2003, the cases were dismissed. Early in 2005, however, that judgement was overturned by the British Columbia Court of Appeal. In December 2005, nine sterilized women were awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement, totalling $450,000CDN ($50,000CDN per plaintiff).

Other provinces[edit]


Although eugenic sterilization was never instituted in Ontario, the issue saw considerable debate concurrent with the enactment of sterilization laws in Alberta and British Columbia. The formation of the Eugenics Society of Canada (ESC) in 1930 sought to organize supporters of eugenics into a coherent group in order to make their lobbying of the government more effective. Founded in Ontario, the ESC boasted a large number of physicians in its ranks, including Clarence Hincks, one of the most devoted proponents of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. Other notable members included the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Dr. H. A. Bruce, and eminent psychiatrist Clarence B. Farrar, who had been head of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital since 1925. As social traits like criminality and promiscuity began to edge off the list of heritable traits, the ESC found itself adapting its strategy to that of birth control, while maintaining a focus on economic benefit. It garnered considerable support, but was never able to table eugenic sterilization effectively in the political arena. The ESC met its end shortly after a public relations blunder in 1938, when a representative implied the ESC and the Nazi party sought to achieve similar goals through similar means. It is not surprising then, that when World War II broke out in 1939, the ESC lost nearly all of its support.


Recent court discussions in Manitoba have investigated the legality and ethical permissibility of involuntary sterilization of the mentally disabled. Focusing on those individuals found legally incompetent, the 1990 and 1992 reports outlined the scenarios where an involuntary sterilization could be warranted. As stated by the 1990 discussion, three conditions are necessary for an individual to undergo any medical procedure.

  • The individual must be informed of both the nature, and risks/benefits of the procedure.
  • The consent must be voluntary, not the product of coercion, threat, or fraud.
  • The individual must be competent enough to give the above consent.

Individuals who are legally incompetent include minors and sufficiently-disabled adults.

The discussion reached a consensus that involuntary sterilization (or sterilization with substituted consent) is only permissible if it has an explicit positive effect on the physical or mental health of the individual: this is called therapeutic sterilization. One such case involved was a seriously disabled girl with an aversive phobia to blood, who was scheduled to undergo a hysterectomy. The rationale of the surgery was not eugenic, but rather to protect the girl from the direct mental trauma that would likely arise upon initiation of menses. This judgement was seen to be on the very threshold between therapeutic and nontherapeutic surgical intervention.

This discussion also cites a landmark case in substituted consent known as the Mrs. E. vs. Eve case. In it, a mother, "Mrs. E.", wished to have her moderately intellectually disabled daughter "Eve" sterilized to save her the emotional distress potentially caused by pregnancy and childbirth. Additionally, it was argued that Eve would neither be capable of using any other method of contraception, nor caring for a child should she become pregnant. Since the sterilization was not explicitly therapeutic and carried grave physical harm and an intrusion on Eve's rights, Mrs. E. could not be given the authority to have her daughter sterilized. It was then explored whether or not the government itself could make the decision, using parens patriae jurisdiction. Parens patriae allows the government to make authorizations in the "best interests" where no other source of consent can be attained; this includes children and mentally disabled persons. In the Eve case, the risks were deemed too high and the benefits too obscure to authorize a nontherapeutic sterilization via parens patriae jurisdiction, since a surgical sterilization is an irreversible procedure.[1]


  1. ^ E. (Mrs.) v. Eve, [1986] 2 S.C.R. 388.

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