The Truth about Archives: Part III – Eugenics in Western Canada and how records (or lack there of) affects Social Justice

Hi everyone, this is Vino again with my last blog in The Truth about Archives series. In this blog, I would again like to highlight one particular session I attended at the Archives Society of Alberta’s (ASA) 2016 conference. This session looked at eugenics in Western Canada and how the records, or lack there of, affects social justice.

Eugenics in Western Canada

Eugenics derives from the Greek word meaning “well born”. The movement consisted of both positive and negative eugenics, but with greater emphasis on the latter. Positive eugenics consisted of encouraging procreation among people who were thought to have desirable characteristics, whereas negative eugenics consisted of discouraging procreation among people who were thought to have inferior characteristics. So the goal of negative eugenics is to prevent the creation of people who were likely to have undesirable characteristics or genes, which could mean such things as mental disorders or involvement in criminal activities. And the goal of negative eugenics was carried out by many different methods: sexual sterilization, marriage prohibition, segregation and institutionalization. (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/eugenics/)

 

I entered this session about eugenics with a vague idea of its existence in Canada. But I came out of this session with a much more saddened understanding of its extent here. In Canada, both Alberta and British Columbia passed Sexual Sterilization Acts in 1928 and 1933, which would not be repealed until 1972 and 1973, respectively. Over this time, 2,822 Albertans and over 200 British Columbians were sterilized through the program. Over those years, Alberta would amend the act a couple of times, which resulted in removing the need for consent from subjects, and also move the eugenics program beyond institutions. This resulted in more children being identified in schools, communities, and public health centres. Even though these were the only two provinces who legally passed acts, most of the other provinces/territories participated in eugenics as well. Another jarring moment for me was learning that the Nazi eugenics program actually visited Alberta to do research before developing their program. All of this information played out to me exactly how the session presenters said it would for those who encounter this information. First there is “surprise, which leads to shock, shame, and disgust”.

Where are the records?

Eugenics has played a role in every part of our country, however, it is not as well known among the public. Why is this the case? One answer possibly is the lack of records on eugenics. 80% of the records dealing with the eugenics programs in Western Canada have been destroyed. This severely hampers the movement for social justice where victims of these programs seek restitution. To date, only one woman has successfully sued the Alberta government for being wrongfully sterilized. Since then, 700 victims have settled their cases out of court. The remaining records, however, are being used now for a wide variety of research on eugenics in Canada.

 

The presenters of this session, Courtney Maxwell-Alves and Moyra Lang, were part of a team that saw this lack of literature on eugenics in Western Canada so they decided to address this gap in the records. As a result, they have produced this wonderful website, http://eugenicsarchive.ca/, that looks at the history of eugenics. It not only covers Canada, but also looks at other places in the world that have implemented eugenics. I strongly recommend that people check this site out. You will learn more about their efforts in this project, such as working with eugenics survivors in Alberta to tell their stories in interviews, hosting public outreach events, and developing creative accessible online resources to engage the public on this matter.

Eugencis Archives webpageHome webpage of the Eugenics Archives

 

I believe this is another great example to show that archivists actively involved in both unearthing and sharing about hidden cultures can lead to tremendous results for not only posterity but also the potential to aid social justice. This hearkens back to the argument that archivists have a strong role to play in our decisions of what we decide to keep in the archives. And it is a tremendous responsibility placed upon us.

 

Thank you for reading these blogs on my experiences at the ASA conference. I hope readers will become more aware of the level of responsibility that archivists have toward shaping the historical narrative and our continued efforts to better understand and represent marginalized and underrepresented peoples.