Teaching Alberta’s Dark Secret: The History of Eugenics

On Clio’s Current we have not been shy to express our opinions on a range of historical and contemporary issues related to Canadian and international topics. We continually rethink our approach to the research and writing process, and attempt to make our intensions clear and well-known. We like to think our work offers a perspective or unique approach to developing more in-depth critical awareness of important and everyday matters. But often times our work is constrained within the confines of our platform. We speak about change, yet seldom do our arguments extend beyond one blog or a series of related posts. Seldom does our work spark a widespread discussion. In today’s post we highlight once instance where the work of a group of young historians is sparking a strong social awareness and response to historical and contemporary issues: the education of eugenics in Alberta.  

Recently a group of students from the University of Alberta formed a group called Eugenics Ed in an attempt to lobby the Province of Alberta to add eugenics to the high school social studies curriculum. The Alberta government passed a sexual sterilization act in 1928, which allowed for persons in the province to be sterilized if they were deemed as ‘unfit’ by the Alberta Eugenics Board. The criteria upon which such judgements were made was quite broad. First Nations and other minority groups were targeted, as were criminals and individuals with mental illness and/or physical disabilities. The eugenics movement was a socially constructed response to ill-conceived fears. Many white, Anglophone Canadians wrongfully assumed that such personality traits as ‘feeblemindedness’ and ‘susceptibility to addiction’ were transferable through reproduction. So to ‘protect’ the ‘purity’ of the bloodline, these individuals and their supporters championed eugenics as a form of long-standing societal control. Notable historical figures such as Nellie McClung (Canadian feminist, politician, author and social activist) and Alexander Graham Bell (scientist, engineer and credited inventor of the telephone) were part of the eugenics movement. Along with a large portion of Canadian suffragettes and other well-known figures, the eugenics movement took hold in Alberta and during the period 1928-1972 a total of 2834 persons were sterilized by the Alberta Eugenics Board.  

 "The Michener Centre, formerly known as  The Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives  in Red Deer, Alberta served as a hub of sexual sterilization and assimilation for differently abled children and adults." - Eugenics Ed

"The Michener Centre, formerly known as The Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta served as a hub of sexual sterilization and assimilation for differently abled children and adults." - Eugenics Ed

Amy Boyd, Alexandra Taylor, Zöe Esseiva and Noa Yevtushenko formed Eugenics Ed to raise awareness of historical and contemporary issues. The group defines eugenics on their website as “the practice of breeding out traits deemed ‘undesirable’ by sterilizing certain individuals.” The group’s goal is to educate all Canadians on this dark chapter in our history, and to push the current Albertan government towards educational reform. In the group’s own words: “Many people are painfully unaware of this section of our history because it is not covered in the Alberta Education curriculum. How can we begin to reconcile with the affected groups if we are ignorant to this currently?” The group further aims to initiate a critical awareness about the marginalization of minority groups in Canadian society.

To create a space for conversation about the issue of eugenics and its exclusion from the current Alberta high school curriculum, the group has, in addition to their website Eugenics Ed: Alberta’s Dark Secret, created social media profiles on Twitter @EugenicsEd and a Facebook page. They also set up a petition and have been seemingly relentless about spreading awareness by tweeting and emailing school trustees, city councillors, and journalists.

  Sir  Francis Galton  initially developed the ideas of eugenics using social statistics.

Sir Francis Galton initially developed the ideas of eugenics using social statistics.

In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, Amy Boyd spoke about some of the difficulties the group has encountered in trying to garner support and create change: “It is pretty difficult to get your voice heard. It’s a daunting task … Mr. Gordon Dirks [the Alberta Education minister is] a hard person to get hold of. We’ve emailed his assistants, and they say that even though eugenics is not in the curriculum, there’s lots of opportunity for teachers to mention it, if they like.”

In an email response to the group, Tamara Magnan of Alberta Education addressed the fact that issues of eugenics/forced sexual sterilization remain outside of the current K-12 Social Studies Programs of Study in Alberta by stating: “Alberta Education provides school authorities with the maximum flexibility and support to make local policy decisions and commitments, including programming for history … [the province will] measure the prescriptiveness in our programs of study so that teachers will have the same or greater flexibility to address a variety of topics, current issues and historical events with their students.”

It remains uncertain if Alberta’s long, dark and disturbing history with eugenics will find its way into the provincial curriculum in the immediate future. But the Eugenics Ed Group has done an important service. Their efforts have not only raised awareness and discussion about past and present issues in education, but they have also reminded us of the utility and power of history. We urge all of our readers to reach out and interact with the online presence generated by Eugenics Ed, and to explore related and unrelated issues, past and present. The discussion need not end with the final word of a blog post. As historians we have the responsibility to engage in open dialogue, but also to stand firm on our convictions. Eugenics Ed serves as an excellent reminder of this very lesson.