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U of A Should Face Its Role In Eugenics


In 2008, the University of Alberta celebrated its centennial anniversary, and launched a website to detail the history of the university’s “century of vision.” As I was suffering through a rather unpleasant night of insomnia, I thought it would be a good idea to put myself to sleep by reading about the U of A’s history. Unfortunately for my sleeping patterns, I became shocked as I realized that nowhere on the main site was there a single mention of the role of the U of A in the eugenics movement.

Eugenics is the practice of attempting to improve the human population by removing undesirable traits from the genetic pool. In Alberta, that meant sexually sterilizing people thought to be mentally defective, as well as members of various ethnic and cultural groups, ultimately ending their chances of ever becoming a parent. The Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act, which created the Alberta Eugenics Board that administered the sterilization program, was passed in 1928. Several amendments broadened the scope of the act, and removed the necessity for patient consent. By the time the act was finally repealed in 1972, more than 2,800 people underwent sterilization procedures.

Frighteningly, First Nations and Metis people made up 27 per cent of the sterilized population, even though they only made up two per cent of Alberta’s population at the time.

What’s perhaps most disturbing is that when the Alberta Eugenics Board was formed, the University of Alberta Senate was charged with the responsibility of nominating two of the board members. One of them was John M. MacEachran.

John MacEachran was one of the most important people in the founding of the university. He was appointed as the head of the new Departments of Psychology and Philosophy in 1909, and he built much of the initial curriculum from scratch, and was thus the progenitor of the Psychology and Philosophy departments at the U of A. MacEachran was responsible for developing a philosophical justification for eugenics, which by all reports, he did with considerable relish. Indeed, one of the most important people in the university’s history was responsible for putting the stamp of approval on the sterilizations of 4,700 people — although only half of those were actually carried out. MacEachran is still honoured by the Department of Psychology, which gives out the MacEachran Humanities Scholarship in Psychology.

That is not to say that MacEachran’s legacy has gone uncontested at the U of A. This is due in part to the incredibly brave Leilani Muir, who was sterilized because of her IQ score, Irish-Polish background, and Catholic upbringing. After she was courageous enough to go to court to protest her horrific sterilization, many professors and officials banded together to fight against the institution’s honouring of MacEachran. At the same time, though, it is an incredible mark of tragedy that the U of A has, many years later, failed to commemorate the victims of the eugenics project, in which the institution played a fundamental role.

The sad fact is that the U of A has completely brushed over its history with eugenics. It is absolutely necessary that the U of A, striving to fulfill its “century of vision”, acknowledge victims and survivors of Alberta’s eugenics project. People like Muir deserve to be recognized for their struggles.

Admitting what the University of Alberta has been involved in in the past does not ruin our reputation. Rather, we become a positive role model for other institutions who have been involved in disreputable activities. The university must be willing to acknowledge the past, provide recognition for the survivors, and look forward to the future.

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