Series: Political Myth and Consequence in Alberta
Myth is powerful. Leading up to Alberta’s 2019 provincial election, the story Albertans have told about themselves and been told by others since becoming a province is firmly connected to events transpiring today.
The following interpretation of Alberta’s dominant political and cultural history highlights and traces the contextual, defining features and nuances in the evolution of Alberta’s identity through reconstruction, as Albertans seek to rise from the ashes once more at the ballot box this spring.
This series will be featured in the following sections:
1. Foundations of Alberta’s Conservatism: Confederation to 1935
2. The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
3. Progressive Conservatism: Lougheed and the Oil Boom
4. Return of Ideology: The Wildrose Alliance Party
5. The Re-Merge: Jim Prentice to the United Conservative Party
The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
Social Policy: Eugenics
Alberta was one of only two provinces, the other being British Columbia, to legislate sterilization. The Social Credit government was “based in populist and grassroots ideology, which was linked to restrictionist policies and anti-immigration sentiments, strong opposition to federalism, heavy government reliance on ‘experts’ (including mental health experts), and a comparative weak Catholic presence in the province … [the] Social Credit government became complacent and stagnant; led by charismatic leaders who were also fundamentalist religious leaders, the populace also seemed to accept the status quo with little question.”
Aberhart had called for the start of a new social order for Albertans under a Social Credit government. Following Aberhart’s death, Manning insisted on keeping the Alberta Eugenics Board in place, even though most scientists had begun to believe eugenics was based on false science.
Alberta, along with many other parts of the world, has an ugly history of public support and legislation for eugenics programs stemming from concerns of improving the human race by weeding out undesirables. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) government introduced the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 despite strong opposition from the Conservative and Liberal parties, and which was amended and expanded under Aberhart and Manning in an effort to segregate and sterilize the supposedly mentally defective and immoral, most often under the guise of appendectomies, leaving the victims unaware they had been sterilized. Initially, sterilizations could only take place with the patient’s consent, but in 1937, Aberhart and Manning changed that.
In 1937, the Social Credit government broadened the definition of ‘mental defective’ to include “any person in whom there is a condition of arrested or incomplete development of mind existing before the age of eighteen years, whether arising from inherent causes or induced by disease or injury” and removed the possibility of civil suits being brought against it from sterilized patients or their family members who objected to the decisions of the Eugenics Board. Other amendments included replacing Section 4 of the Sexual Sterilization Act, allowing the Eugenics Board to travel Alberta in the search for unsterilized “defectives” living in their communities, amending Section 7 to increase protection for those who ordered and performed the surgeries, and amending the Mental Diseases Act to include drug and alcohol addicts.
Those heavily targeted were ethnic minorities such as the First Nations, Metis, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian; they were often female – especially unmarried mothers or “simple-minded” girls, young, economically lower class, from rural communities, single, labeled as sexual deviants, and disproportionately Catholic. As Heather Pringle wrote of the legislative changes, “The Social Credit government of William Aberhart, which came to power in 1935, and was keen on speeding up the works, expanded the board’s powers in 1937 by dispensing with the need to acquire consent for sterilization from mental defectives; five years later, another Social Credit majority broadened the net to include some individuals with epilepsy and Huntingdon’s chorea. But even as Aberhart, the young Ernest Manning, and other Social Credit members were registering their endorsement of eugenics, other observers, such as the future NDP leader Tommy Douglas, were repudiating it in the wake of revelations from Germany, where thousands of mentally retarded citizens were being sterilized and later gassed, in the service of Nazi master-race theories. It was the start of the Holocaust. By the late forties, in the forum at Nuremberg, the civilized world had judged forced sterilization a crime against humanity.” The majority of Alberta’s sterilizations took place at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer and, undeterred by the extent of the Holocaust coming to light, continued well past the end of the Second World War. Any excuse of ignorance on Manning’s part would have had no legitimacy.
Internationally, the eugenics debate had been thriving, and the Catholic Pope and his Cardinals condemned the practice. “They should not admit interference with the liberty of marriage in adult men and women, nor any element of the horror known as eugenics. They could not admit what was called sex teaching, or any one of the whole series of propositions regarding sexual hygiene. Neither could they admit the claim of the state over the children as against that of the parents,” wrote British Cardinal Bourne in opposition to the British Ministry of Health’s proposal to teach sexual hygiene, otherwise known as eugenics. He also stressed that the proposal was an attack on moral law, and an infringement on individual liberty, referring to supporters as “after-Christian” who no longer accepted Christian law. In Alberta, the Catholic Welfare Association voted to ask the province to rescind the Sexual Sterilization Act because the legislation allowed sterilizations to occur without consent. Tim Christian, assistant law professor at the University of Alberta, concluded that the Eugenics Board “was given authority to impose its self-righteous, waspish notions of normalcy on those persons least able to defend themselves.”
The worst cases of institutional abuse in Canadian history, including physical and sexual assault, forced sterilizations and experimental surgery – without the patient’s consent or knowledge – all took place at Alberta’s Training School for Mental Defectives, later renamed the Michener Centre, in Red Deer. Those who were institutionalized suffered complete lack of privacy from being under constant surveillance. Any rebellion or resistance was treated with punishment including strappings, injections of tranquilizing drugs, and confinement in straitjackets. Expressions of sexuality were met with weeks of solitary confinement in cells of bare concrete walls. The institution punished handicapped children for having ordinary sexual urges, exploited normal but unwanted children with unpaid labour, and did not prevent heterosexual and homosexual assault and violent physical abuse, including the use of drugs for convenience and punishment. Already infertile Down’s syndrome affected boys suffered the removal of at least one testicle to provide tissue samples for experimentation. Sterilization at puberty was the rule. Essentially, the forced sterilizations were legalized surgical birth control.
If he did not actively endorse these actions, Ernest Manning was certainly aware of the problems and chose to ignore them, making him accountable and responsible as the conduct was under his watch. Pringle recounts, “In early 1952, a poignant ten-page letter landed on the desk of Premier Ernest Manning. Penned by a middle-aged Calgarian, it described in detail what had befallen the correspondent’s sixteen-year-old son, who was a resident of the Provincial Training School. It seemed that, a few weeks earlier, staff members had caught the boy talking alone with a female student behind one of the buildings. This was forbidden. The boy was accordingly bundled off to one of the school’s quiet rooms, and there, a day later, an attendant had found him, lying dazed in a great pool of blood amid a litter of shards from an earthenware chamber pot. The teenager was rushed to a Red Deer hospital, where he was treated for a five-centimeter deep wound to the groin. A week later he was still pale and weak from loss of blood. School authorities, however, brushed off the incident, intimating that the boy, “a confirmed masturbator,” was himself to blame. The father had a different theory. His son was a severe epileptic. With its chronic staff shortage, he suggested, the school had failed to detail someone to keep an eye on the boy. Locked in a hot, stuffy room alone, he had suffered a major seizure. The writer took the opportunity to unburden himself to the premier about other disturbing school practices, clearly confident that the Christian preacher whose “National Bible Hour” broadcasts echoed over the airwaves each Sunday would be sympathetic. “It is easy to love children that are clever,” he concluded sadly, “but I think it takes grace to love these unfortunate ones.” Manning’s two paragraph reply is preserved in the provincial archives. Promising vaguely to improve educational facilities in the school, the premier sided squarely with the school’s administration. “I feel that the staff of the Training School is doing everything possible within existing facilities to give proper care to the youngsters at the Training School.” Complaints continued to be ignored and the abuses worsened.
Both Ernest and his wife Muriel Manning supported sterilization for mentally challenged individuals. Ironically, their son, Keith, who had been deprived of oxygen during birth and was henceforth mentally handicapped and afflicted with epilepsy, was institutionalized at the Training School for Mental Defectives in 1960. Pringle writes, “And there, in Pine Villa, in the Small Boys section of the school, the premier’s son, then a young man, was ensconced, to be treated “like royalty,” according to Glen Sinclair, who roomed next to him for a time. It was one of the more cynical chapters in the training-school saga. Everyone seemed to know who Keith was, showering him with privileges and the small acts of kindness so notably missing from the other’s lives. While everyone else slept four to a bedroom, Keith got a special double room, number ten Pine Villa, and was permitted to pick his own roommate. As a rule, personal possessions were discouraged; Keith was free to keep games, snacks, and even a typewriter in his room. School officials frowned on family visits, but Keith’s parents dropped in at least once or twice a month on their way to Calgary for the premier’s weekly “Bible Hour.” They often took him along for a day trip. Instead of continual chores, Keith, in his late teens or early twenties, got piano lessons. More enviable still, Keith, who had an explosive temper, was handled with kid gloves. “They’d take him out for a walk and try to calm him down,” recalls a former resident, Donald Passey, who ended up at the school despite a recent test that indicated he has an IQ of 113. “Or they’d go to his room and try to discuss things with him.” In contrast, Passey remembers being disciplined by a staff member who pinned him to the wall and slapped and punched him; another resident lost part of his finger when an employee deliberately kicked a door shut on it. Even the most profoundly impaired children were sometimes beaten. Keith Manning remained at the school for several years. Just how far the red-carpet treatment went to protect him from the Sexual Sterilization Act is unclear. He married in late middle age, though he remained childless, and succumbed to a brain tumour in 1986 while living in a nursing home in Edmonton.”
Ernest Manning had always said medical specialists should have the power to order sterilization for severely handicapped individuals who were incapable of making decisions for themselves, saying “[When] you’ve got these tragic cases of people that are sometimes little more than vegetables … how far can you argue that they should have the right to function as what we would refer to as a normal human being when, tragically, they were not normal human beings?” Later on, Preston Manning would say that he saw ‘individual rights’ for those at mental health institutes as dangerous, as well as the issue of “integrating into society” following institutionalization. The Eugenics Board also tried to prevent “abnormal sex reactions” in patients, by performing castrations rather than vasectomies, for desired behaviour modification. In a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Herald, one man wrote, “The proper treatment of men who commit sexual crimes is eunuchation; it terminates sexual desire and lust, and prevents the perpetration of such crimes. Unfortunately, the Criminal Code of Canada does not make provisions for such salutary, restraining measures.”
Alberta’s Conservative Opposition (later re-named the Progressive Conservatives under Lougheed’s leadership) had opposed the existence of the Eugenics Board since its inception and intended to modernize Alberta’s mental health system and abolish the Eugenics Board, once elected. It was not until 1972, after forty-four years and 4,785 procedures performed (the Eugenics Board having approved 99% of its cases between 1928 and 1972), that a review by both Premier Peter Lougheed and the Official Opposition led to the passing of a bill, introduced by Liberal MLA David King, to repeal the Sexual Sterilization Act, which received Royal Assent on June 2, 1972.
“We feel very, very strongly that the [Sexual Sterilization Act] is offensive and at odds with the proposed Bill of Rights.” Lougheed told the legislature, introducing the Alberta Bill of Rights. King, who served as education minister during the Lougheed years, said, “Our position was we were doing away with Legislation that was morally repugnant.” Introducing the bill in second reading, King stated, “I come finally to the last [reason] which, for me personally, is the most compelling. That is, simply, that the act violates fundamental human rights. We are provided with an act, the basis of which is a presumption that society, or at least the government, knows what kind of people can be allowed children and what kind of people cannot. … It is our view that this is a reprehensible and intolerable philosophy and program for this province and this government.” He also commented that if Albertans continue to allow the government to cut budgets at the expense of the vulnerable – the mentally ill, disabled, sick, and elderly – then we have learned nothing from our eugenics disaster. Lougheed’s government also kept its promises of modernizing Alberta’s mental health system, introducing The Individual Rights Protection Act and The Mental Health Act 1972 among the government’s first pieces of legislation, both receiving Royal Assent on November 22, 1972.
Alberta’s eugenics history was brought to the public’s attention in the 1990s when Leilani Muir sued the Alberta government for wrongfully admitting her to the Institute, classifying her as a moron (she was later proven to have normal intelligence), and sterilizing her under the guise of an appendectomy. The provincial Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in Muir’s favor and awarded damages, in 1997, after Premier Ralph Klein’s government stalled for several years. Soon after the ruling, almost 700 former patients also came forward, alleging abuses as far back as the 1930s.
Social Credit’s future in Alberta following William Aberhart’s death was saved by circumstance: the economic and psychological effects of war, dominant social attitudes, lack of a viable opposition party, and the developing oil and gas industry. The combination of these circumstances allowed Ernest Manning to develop several myths about his leadership as Alberta’s premier, which have endured to this day, and the ability of the Social Credit Party to customize over time in response to these factors and for Manning to be able to maintain his political reign for as long as he did.
Between 1935 and 1965, Alberta Conservatives either ran in elections as Independent or did not run at all. By the early 1950s, the attempted Conservative-Liberal coalition was not working, and the Conservatives tried to make gains in 1955, talking about equality of opportunity and integrity in government in light of Social Credit scandals. Manning called a surprise early election that year, catching the Conservatives off guard and unprepared for a campaign. In the following years, Conservative Leaders Ernest Watkins and Milt Harradence pressed for an Alberta Bill of Rights, a comprehensive crop insurance plan and Legislature Hansard.
Manning could only delay the degeneration of Social Credit for so long; the rise of a leader like Peter Lougheed and his Progressive Conservative Party was inevitable.
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Alberta Formed - Alberta Transformed; Alberta 2005 Centennial History Society; 2006
Alberta in the 20th Century; United Western Communications; 1991 – 2003
Alberta Premiers of the 20th Century; Bradford Rennie; 2004
Eugenics and the Firewall, Canada’s Nasty Little Secret; Jane Harris-Szovan; 2010
The Right to Consent? Eugenics in Alberta, 1928–1972; Jana Grekul; 2009