The Leilani Muir Case

Born in Calgary in 1944, Leilani Muir was an unwanted child who was frequently neglected by her alcoholic mother.  After unsuccessfully placing her into a convent school, her mother was finally able to place Leilani into the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta when she was eleven years of age.  There is no indication that Leilani was ever formally diagnosed as being intellectually disabled and the school admitted her solely on the basis of information that her mother provided.  It was also her mother who authorized the school to sterilize Leilani in compliance with the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta.

Under the auspices of the Alberta Eugenics Board, the Sexual Sterilization Act passed by the Alberta legislature in 1928 led to the forced sterilization of individuals deemed to be "mentally defective" or otherwise unfit to bear healthy children.  Candidates for sterilization included those with low  IQ's and "those who had suffered serious mental breakdowns, and therefore could not be recommended for parenthood by any physician".  Family consent was usually needed to carry out the sterilization although, as with Leilani Muir, family permission to sterilize was often required as a condition for admission to facilities designed to care for children with special needs.  If no one was eligible to provide consent, the Minister of Health could do so. 

The Alberta Eugenics Board was made up of four panelists who were to meet and discuss each sterilization on a case-by-case basis.  Among the most prominent and long-serving members of the board was the Chairman, Dr. J.M. MacEachran, co-founder of the Canadian Psychological Association and first Chair of the Psychology and Philosophy department of the University of Alberta.  To facilitate the board's operation, it was agreed in 1933 that  Dr. MacEachran (who served as Chairman until his death in 1965) would have the authority to dictate when an operation for sterilization would take place (usually for mental defectives as family permission continued to be needed for sterilizing the mentally ill).

From 1928 until the act was finally repealed in 1972, an estimated 2,832 sterilizations were carried out.  Approximately 25 percent of those sterilized were aboriginals and Metis but a disproportionately high number of young females from poor backgrounds were also sterilized.   The rationale for sterilizing young women was that they would likely turn to prostitution (or at least promiscuity) and that sterilization would prevent them from having "defective" children. 

Leilani Muir was at the Provincial Training School for two years before her case was reviewed by the Eugenics Board.  She was given an IQ test which determined that she had an IQ of 64 and it was on that basis that she was formally diagnosed as being a "Mentally Defective Moron".  This diagnosis, in conjunction with her developing sexuality and her presumed incapability of being a good parent, led to Leilani's sterilization in 1959 at the age of 14.  She was never told that she would be sterilized and only thought that she was having her appendix removed.  She remained at the school for another six years before being removed by her mother. 

Leilani blossomed and became independent in the following years but it was only during her first marriage that she finally learned why she and her husband were unable to have children.  Adoption was also impossible for her due to the stigma of having been a resident at the Training School.   In 1998, during her second marriage, she was administered another IQ test which determined that she was of normal intelligence.  This led Leilani to conclude that she had been wrongfully sterilized and she sought financial compensation from the Alberta government.   It would take years of legal battles but Leilani finally won her case. 

On January 25, 1996, a court awarded Leilani Muir $740,780 CDN and a later $230,000 CDN for legal costs.  In making her decision, the presiding judge Madame Joanne B. Viet, concluded that the province wrongfully surgically sterilized Leilani Muir.  She also added that the “particular type of confinement of which Ms. Muir was a victim resulted in many travesties to her young person: loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace; pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal developmental experiences, loss of civil rights,  loss of contact with family and friends, and subjection to institutional discipline”.  About 700 other claimants were also awarded undisclosed damages as a result of a class action suit that arose out of the Leilani Muir decision. 

Leilani Muir now lives in Alberta and is currently working on an autobiography.  A movie titled The Sterilization of Leilani Muir was produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1996. While her sterilization was hardly unique to Canada and similar tragedies occurred in other countries around the world, her case represents a warning of the ease with which people regarded as "marginal" can be stripped of their basic human rights.  It is a lesson we would do well to remember for the future. 


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