Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada

The ideas and practices aimed at improving “human breeding” known as eugenics were influential across North America in the first half of the 20th-century. The Western Canadian chapter in the history of eugenics, however, remains under-studied. Undertaken by an alliance of 24 research scholars and sterilization survivors, and 12 community partners, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada will create a range of academic and public resources—what we call living archives—for investigating this history. These resources will increase knowledge of past social practices and policies, and will deepen discussions of current issues that were also central to the eugenics movement, such as those concerning reproductive freedom, institutionalization, and the sorts of people there should be in future generations.

As the province in which the vast majority of eugenic sterilizations in Canada were performed, Alberta occupies a particular place in this history. British Columbia was the only other province in Canada to pass involuntary sterilization legislation that was explicitly eugenic, and whereas in most other North American jurisdictions eugenics waned following the Second World War, Alberta’s eugenic sterilization program continued until the repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1972. (The above image is of the then called Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, where many sterilization victims were institutionalized.) It was also against the Province of Alberta that Leilani Muir won a landmark legal case in 1996 for wrongful sterilization and confinement, a case that has contributed to preserving a rich documentary basis for understanding the history of eugenics in Western Canada. For these reasons, Living Archives focuses on eugenic sterilization and associated institutionalization in Alberta against the backdrop of eugenic ideas and practices across the four Western Canadian provinces.

Basic facts about this history are known, but many details and their legacy for contemporary society are not understood. The typical grounds for eugenic sterilization were that a person’s undesirable physical or mental conditions were heritable, and that those persons would not make suitable parents. Central amongst those targeted by such eugenic practices were people with a variety of disabilities, especially (but not only) developmental disabilities. Yet many other marginalized groups—single mothers, First Nations and Métis people, eastern Europeans, and poor people—were also disproportionately represented amongst those subject to eugenic practices, such as sterilization. Precisely why is not known. An understanding of why, and of how eugenics operated as it did in Western Canada, is relevant to all Canadians who embrace human diversity and strive to build inclusive communities.

As well as enhancing archival collections and improving their accessibility to scholars, we will also record oral histories, build an interactive digital interface that increases community engagement, and maximize the outreach of the project via in-person delivery, curriculum bundling, and public dialogues on relevant contemporary issues. Living Archives will:
1) create and develop innovative academic resources for scholars across academic fields, including history, sociology, philosophy, medicine, law, and education;
2) actively involve community organizations and vulnerable individuals whose stories have most often been left out of the Canadian collective memory; and
3) highlight the contemporary significance of a neglected part of Canadian history via curriculum bundling, public dialogues, and barrier-free digital accessibility.

Throughout the history of eugenics, vulnerable individuals have been treated, in large part, in exclusionary ways—via institutionalization, family and community segregation, and sterilization. A project that focused primarily on extracting knowledge from the experiences of sterilization survivors, or that viewed them primarily as vehicles to disseminate that knowledge, would repeat that error. Our vision instead is one where vulnerable individuals, community organizations, and academic researchers with a commitment to improving our community’s inclusivity, work together to build resources dedicated to an inclusive history of eugenics and sexual sterilization in Western Canada. Thus, community partnerships play a crucial role in Living Archives, and their development to date has been guided by this vision. We expect the list of community partners to grow as work on the project develops over the next few years, and invite interested government and community partners to contact us.

Students interested in participating in the project should contact any member of the leadership team directly, or the project manager via the addresses below.

Contact and further information:

Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada
Department of Philosophy
2-40 Assiniboia Hall
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T6G 2E7


Telephone 1-780-492-3307

Further information on the project and related past group activities are available at