You’ve probably heard of Leilani Muir. It was her 1995 trial that brought to public attention the darkest abuse of Michener Centre residents that went on for 44 years — involuntary sterilizations.
What may surprise is that the institution that caused so much hurt and sadness in her life may have actually saved that life in the first place.
“It was a godsend. It was a blessing because I wasn’t getting beaten every day of my life with logs or hammers or whatever she (my mother) could beat me with. I got three meals a day. I had a dry bed every night,” recounts the former Leilani Muir, 69, who legally changed her last name to O’Malley after the trial.
O’Malley was born to a mother who had no interest in having a daughter and made sure she knew it. As a child, Leilani was beaten, fed and schooled little, and hidden under stairs or in granaries so visitors to the family farm would not know she existed.
Her mother first confined her to a convent, then on July 12, 1955, Leilani was dropped off unceremoniously in front of what was then the Michener Centre administration building. Three days later, she got her first cake on the occasion of a birthday she did not know she had and she eventually settled in with the other girls her age, playing games and causing mischief. It was the first time she was able to act like a regular kid.
That semblance of a normal childhood, though, was shattered in 1959 when the girl of 14 had her Fallopian tubes removed during an operation she was told was a simple procedure to remove her appendix. She had been classified as having below normal intelligence at the time — psychologists later contended her low IQ test score was likely the result of an abusive upbringing that saw her rarely attend school — and the Alberta Eugenics Board also noted that she had “shown definite interest in the opposite sex,” two of the factors that led to her being OK’d for the operation.
At 21, O’Malley was out of the institution and on her own, working in restaurants and night clubs in Edmonton and B.C., where she put to use the skills she had gained catering to the more disabled Michener patients during her teens. She married twice, but though doctor after doctor told her it would be impossible for her to conceive, she refused to believe that an operation had rendered her infertile. She had two additional surgeries in the hopes of reversing the damage, but nothing could be done as her tubes had been removed altogether years earlier.
Attempts to adopt failed as well, largely due to her having been institutionalized in the past, and her second marriage ended in frustration in 1986. Life had beaten her down, and around Christmas 1989 she finally thought “enough is enough.”
“I was sitting there one night with pills all ready. I had already taken some and I was going to take some more and it was like God was on my shoulder. … He had me write a poem — word for word it was God’s words to me. And I never committed suicide and I made a change in my life,” says O’Malley.
Doctors could not repair the damage to her body, so she set about repairing the emotional damage. She told her story to a psychiatrist in Victoria, B.C., who told her in no uncertain terms to go after the Alberta government for the damage its policies had caused her.
She sued the government for $2.5 million soon after, but it was not until six years later that O’Malley arrived in Edmonton for her trial. Having to relive terrible childhood memories at the trial took its toll; the huge media interest generated and the unwavering government lawyers who peppered her with questions did not help either.
“I had to put on a front every day. Smile, be happy and not let anyone know how you’re feeling inside, because there were times inside I just wanted to give up. I just really wanted to say ‘I’m walking away from it,’ ” says O’Malley.
She would be on the stand for a full week during the June trial, rosary always in her hands. Government lawyers conceded on the trial’s first day that O’Malley never should have been sterilized, but argued that her placement in the old Provincial Training School (PTS) was warranted due to her initial low IQ test score.
The lawyers, she says, picked through the old institutional files in an attempt to show that she was a problem child. In response, she would snicker and one lawyer called her out as being sassy both as a child and an adult.
“The judge (Justice Joanne Veit) put her hand up and she said ‘Sassiness is good for us women.’ She had the courtroom all in laughter . . . . I knew then I won the case,” laughs O’Malley.
On Jan. 25, 1996, the court ordered the government to pay O’Malley $740,000 in compensation. Almost half of that total was awarded for improper detention, in recognition of O’Malley’s claim that the intelligence test used to justify her admission to the PTS did not account for her abusive upbringing.
That cash payout, though, is effectively all gone, says O’Malley. Lawyers’ fees ate into her settlement, and then after returning to her B.C. home she was harassed by anonymous callers claiming to be relatives living nearby or threatening her with violence if she did not dole out some cash. An unscrupulous relative got hold of a large chunk.
In the aftermath of the payouts to O’Malley and other former Michener residents who sued, lawyers involved warned clients of the “vulture syndrome” that sees exploitative people swarm to those newly flush with cash. It was a prospect that drove Glen Sinclair to pack up his graphic arts career in Red Deer and head off to the big city, where he hoped for anonymity after his sterilization suit was settled in 1999.
But O’Malley, who is back living in Alberta, says she is glad she went through the process because it led others to follow suit in seeking restitution. An estimated 2,822 people were sterilized in Alberta; hundreds filed claims in the immediate aftermath of the O’Malley trial.
Since O’Malley won her case, over $130 million has been paid out to more than 780 Alberta sterilization victims, with most claimants receiving a minimum of $75,000. In 2005, nine B.C. women forcibly sterilized in that province split a $450,000 payout. Last year, North Carolina allocated US$10 million to compensate the mostly poor African American women subjected to its forced sterilization program up until 1968. And Swedish transsexuals fought for restitution relating to the sterilizations that by law accompanied their sex changes up until the law’s repeal in early 2013.
Ontario did not have a formal eugenics program, but the province has recently settled claims totalling nearly $68 million for thousands of former institution residents who alleged abuse at the province’s three largest facilities. Formal apologies are also being made as part of the settlements.
Though she has told her story to reporters from around the world innumerable times and two recent plays and a documentary have been made about her tribulations and trial, O’Malley admits she has some butterflies in anticipation of the release of the fullest account yet of her life, a 200-plus page memoir she has titled A Whisper Past. She spent 25 years penning her story, she says, and the autobiography will reveal some stories she has never before shared.
“My family always called me dumb and stupid and retarded . . . . and I’m thinking ‘Who’s having the last laugh and the last word?’ ”
She would like to one day see her story turned into a movie, she says, and would want to play herself in scenes representing the trial. When friend Judy Lytton said she doubted such a thing would be possible, O’Malley summoned a little of that sass from years gone by: “Don’t ever tell me I can’t! That’s what everyone’s always told me — ‘You can’t.’ What did I do? I sued the government!”
O’Malley said she expects the book will be available for purchase soon.
Coming Monday: Advancements in medical care at Michener Centre.