Book on history of eugenics in Alberta a cautionary tale: author

A new book on the history of eugenics in Alberta takes aim at Michener Centre.

A new book on the history of eugenics in Alberta takes aim at Michener Centre.

A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years, was 15 years in the making for its author, University of Lethbridge professor Claudia Malacrida.

Malacrida looks at the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act, in place from 1928 to 1972. It led to the involuntarily sterilization of 2,800 people with developmental disabilities or mental disorders, many of whom were institutionalized at Michener Centre.

Malacrida, who is also chair of the university’s Sociology Department, said her 320-page book is a cautionary tale.

“I regularly encounter young people who have come through Alberta’s public education system who have no idea this happened in their neighbourhood — none. And I think that’s shameful. I believe in the Santayana-kind-of-dictum — those who don’t know about history are doomed to repeat it,” Malacrida said on Monday.

She said today in the United States there are complaints of sterilization of black women in prison.

Malacrida has also done research into informal practices that exist now to discourage people with disabilities from becoming parents, for example putting girls on birth control as soon as they start their periods.

“The idea to improve human kind is still very much with us as though we could erase certain kinds of people, certain kinds of disorders, or certain kinds of problems by managing who gets to have kids and who doesn’t.”

Malacrida interviewed former residents and staff at Michener Centre, and examined Alberta Eugenic Board and Michener Centre archival records.

A Special Hell was released a few days ago and is available on Amazon.

“It really is a history of the way things were at Michener Centre, from the ’60s to the late ’80s. Certainly the picture that arose from people’s stories and from the institutional record, I don’t think anyone would think it was a nice place to be.”

Malacrida said the relationship between Michener Centre and the eugenics board was “really tight.” The board regularly met at Michener Centre and Michener administration also sat in on meetings.

The actions of the four-member Alberta Eugenics Board, which recommended people for sterilization, came under public scrutiny in 1995 with a successful lawsuit against the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization.

Court challenges from sterilization resulted in the province paying out more than $130 million in compensation to almost 800 people by 1999.

She said conditions at Michener Centre may have changed, but she challenged its continued existence.

“If there is a box, somebody will want to fill it.”

A reading for A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years will be held on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. in the Dr. Foster James Penny Building at the University of Lethbridge, PB200-324 5th St. South.

For more information about A Special Hell, visit www.utppublishing.com.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

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