Funeral arrangements are being made for a former Michener Centre resident whose personal battle opened a floodgate of lawsuits against the Alberta government.
Leilani Muir-O’Malley, 72, died at her home in Devon this past weekend. She was found by a friend doing a welfare check, says Nicola Fairbrother, director of Edmonton-based Neighbourhood Bridges, a human rights group representing people with intellectual disabilities.
While she had suffered some health issues in recent years, there was no outward indication of any serious illness, said Fairbrother, who has worked closely with Muir-O’Malley on a variety of projects during the last 10 years, including the documentary film, Surviving Eugenics.
Muir-O’Malley made Alberta and national history in the mid-1990s, when she successfully sued the Alberta Government for removing her Fallopian tubes without her consent while she was a resident of Michener Centre, known at the time as the Alberta Provincial Training School for Mentally Defectives.
Unloved and unwanted, according to her autobiography, Muir-O’Malley had been admitted to the institution by an abusive mother just after her 11th birthday and was discharged as a young adult in 1965.
A year after her discharge, she learned she had been sterilized under the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act, enacted in 1928 and repealed by the newly-elected Progressive Conservatives in 1972.
However, Muir-O’Malley was so terrified of her mother, said Fairbrother, it took another 20 years for her to take action.
Ten years after her mother’s death in 1985, Muir-O’Malley successfully sued the province for $740,000, opening the door for hundreds of other people who were also sterilized without their consent.
“Leilani’s legacy, you know, it’s an account of bravery: Leilani’s steadfast belief that her lawsuit was so justified and necessary, her refusal to have any of the records sealed, that they be made available on the public record,” said Fairbrother.
“(Her lawsuit) opened the door for the class action lawsuits that followed as well as opportunities for Albertans to be more aware of our very unfortunate eugenics history.
“Leilani was keenly aware that one of the most important things that her lawsuit had just addressed was that fact that, even after eugenics became so closely associated with Nazi-ism, Alberta kept trucking along, sterilizing people at the same rate they had been prior to the Second World War, up until 1972.”
By the end of 1999, the province had paid out $130 million in compensation to almost 800 of the 2,800 people who were sterilized under the Sexual Sterilization Act.
Interviewed by the Canadian Press in March of 1998, Muir-O’Malley said she was infuriated to learn that Ralph Klein’s government had introduced a bill that would quash the victims’ right to sue and to limit compensation to $150,000 per victim.
Amidst a storm of public protest, Klein — who left politics in 2006 — revoked the bill 24 hours after introducing it, saying his political instincts had failed him.
Muir-O’Malley said she was pleased with the public response to the bill.
“They tried to take people’s rights away,” she told the Canadian Press.
“This wouldn’t have affected just people sterilized … it could happen to anyone down the road.”
On Wednesday, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Glenora, said the province has lost a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.
“Leilani was the first to successfully sue the province and obtain justice for those who were treated so wrongly,” said Hoffman.
“Leilani went on to make it her life’s work to give a voice to those unable to speak up, and to bring awareness to survivors of these appalling practises and the unthinkable treatment they endured.