A note that today’s episode includes explicit language and discussions of sex and sexuality. And a warning that this will discuss explicit sexualized violence, medical violence, forced sterilization and eugenics.
I subscribe to this thing called PassionFlix. And they make erotic movies for women,
and it's all ran by women, and it's all based on romance novels, and I am a romance novel junkie.
So one day, so you know, they are rated on this thing called the barometer of naughtiness.
I was watching one that was rated "Not Safe For Work". And I told the nurses, I'm like, "I'm going to watch this movie. It's Not Safe For Work. Can you close my door please?" And they're like, "Of course we can do that." And I'm like, cool.
And then, uh, I was watching this one movie one time, and there was some kitchen stuff happening, on counters and stuff, and the nurse just walked right in while they're doing the thing on the TV, and I was like, "Oh, hi!"
Hey, I’m Megan. I am a disabled researcher and writer passionate about understanding and making known the conditions of disability and institutions in Canada, and this is Invisible Institutions.
Access to sexuality is an important way to understand the history of institutionalization and its ongoing impacts on the lives of people labelled with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
I was 18 the first time I was in a psych ward. I remember giggling with another patient about the lore of the conjugal room. Did it exist? Did you have to book it? Was it JUST a bed? I asked the nurse, and her face turned BRIGHT RED. She gave me a lecture about the ability to consent, in retrospect, pretty funny, considering I hadn’t consented to being there in the first place so why was she so concerned about this?
If you’ve never heard the phrase, conjugal rooms are rooms, generally in prisons and hospitals, set aside specifically for sexual activity. And it turned out that psych ward didn’t have a conjugal room, and the look of horror on the nurse’s face made it pretty clear that this wasn’t a question to ask. But as I giggled, the wheels started churning.
I started out my work in disability researching sexuality policies in places, the place where you don’t have a choice to be there. Places like prisons, psych institutions, like group homes, and like Vicky, long-term care homes.
You heard Vicky at the top of the show, she’s 30, unwillingly living in a nursing home in Nova Scotia, trying to watch porn in her room. Her access to sex is limited because she lives in an Institution. We’ll get back to Vicky in a bit.
Today, people labelled with intellectual/developmental disability too often are forced into institutions as a result of failures to fund housing and access to supports.
Being forced into an institution where you don’t have privacy or aren’t allowed to have partners over is but ONE way that access to sexuality, reproduction & intimacy are controlled. And it’s one that stretches back.
Here’s Dr. Alan Martino, a researcher and instructor at the University of Calgary.
What were seeing is that people in institutions were segregated in multiple ways they weren't able to build connections in the community, they weren't able to form relationships and have experiences that a lot of people outside of institutions would have.
You know when we look at the history of Canada and other countries the way that we have, you know “dealt with” in quotes, sexualities of people with disabilities is quite bleak, right?
There were cases of involuntary sterilization in our country, people with disabilities also with Indigenous people in Canada and other social groups that are marginalized.
Forcing people into institutions is one way that Canada used to deal with the sexualities of people with disabilities. This is one part of Canada's history of eugenics, deeply embedded in settler colonialism.
Eugenics is the attempt to control the human population to make it more productive, to improve the “stock” and manage the population. Eugenics has been implemented in a few interconnected ways, today we’re going to dig into institutionalization and forced sterilization.
Eugenics and the history of reproductive injustice have particularly targeted those at the Indigenous women and women labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
And maybe history is an over-statement, as coerced sterilization of Indigenous women has been reported as recent as 2019, and coerced sterilization of labelled people has been reported in the last decade.
We have a history of institutionalization-- ways of controlling, uh surveilling the sexuality for people with disabilities. And I think the saddest part is that it's when we do research with community members with intellectual disabilities, for example, we continue to see some of those practices still happening.
And the nurse just like, walked right in while they're doing the thing on the TV, and I was like, "Oh, hi!" Um, and luckily, they were really, like, funny about it, they were like, "Ooh, what are you watching?" And then they stood there, and like, we laughed about it, because the nurse thought the dude was hot, so she was like, "Oh, I'm going to stay here for a minute!" And, uh, you know, we joked about it, we laughed. But, that was a little awkward for me, initially.
Sex is often a taboo subject to talk about. But this is even more the case for people with disabilities, especially the label of intellectual/developmental disabilities.
Because although explicit eugenics policy isn’t in legislation anymore it still is apparent in policies of institutionalization, and in social understandings of disability that asexualizes and infantilizes people labeled with intellectual/developmental disabilities. By not having access to supportive decision-making, and instead having decisions made about you.
I think about a recent story covered by Kelly Egan for the Ottawa Citizen.
Sherry Brachfeld had her wedding all set for Dec. 29 — the venue, the dress, the ring, a man she loved. But the Ontario guardian stops the wedding of disabled woman by refusing to allow her to move out of her group home.
So today, we’re going to talk about sex, and by doing so were also going to talk about some darker things ––eugenics, sexualized violence, and sterilization.
Now Across Canada, provincial policies varied with regards to sterilization and eugenic policy.
So in places like Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, there weren’t explicit sterilization policies. Instead eugenics took place through the use of institutions which were used to remove people from their communities and sexually segregate them.
As one report of the Ontario government reminds us,
“So keen were the officials that there be no possibility of sex or propagation by these deviants that upon death men and women were sometimes buried in separate burial grounds”.
Now Alberta ran a different kind of terrible: a massive active eugenics program that operated mainly out of one institution in Red Deer Alberta. Like most institutions, it was known by a few different names. The Provincial Training Centre, Deerhome, Alberta School, and today, the Michener Centre.
When it opened in 1923, it was a single building with 108 people. By the 1970s there were more than 2,000 people, incarcerated amongst the massive 66 buildings. We’re gonna hear a bit more about this institution, and its place in the history of eugenics in Canada with Dr. Claudia Malacrida People First of Canada’s and The Freedom Tour.
Here’s Dr. Malacrida, a Professor of Sociology and the author of several books on disability, health and the body. But the one were really diving into is A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years, in this book there’s rare interviews with former inmates and workers, institutional documentation, and governmental archives. Claudia Malacrida helped shed light on Alberta’s history of institutionalization and eugenics. As a researcher she has focused on historical eugenics but also it’s connection to present-day restrictions on disabled people's sexuality and reproduction. Here she is!
BC’s history of sterilization was much more covert than that of BC. So, in Alberta, the Famous Five, you know, they got women the vote, and they were great people. But the notion of progressivism, the notion of an improved world, the notion of families as the center of how an improved world would come into being was firmly entrenched in Alberta in characters like Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung, who were early social workers.
Nellie McClung was the first judge in Alberta and she had the portfolio of family services. And these women did-- they were liberal, and they were progressivists, and they did believe in the improvement of the human race. And they lobbied hard for legislature that would protect children, which often meant removing them from their homes, and for legislature to improve human stock.
"[...] to bring children into the world, suffering from the handicaps caused by ignorance, poverty, or criminality of the parents, is an appalling crime against the innocent and hopeless, and yet one about which practically nothing is said. Marriage, homemaking, and the rearing of children are left entirely to chance, and so it is no wonder that humanity produces so many specimines who, if they were silk stockings or boots, would be marked “seconds”. "
So you can hear there just how fully of a eugenicist Nellie McClung, advocating for sterlization, advocating that disabled children are burdensome, and broken. McCLung, and her famous five kindred advocated for a kind of first-wave feminism that was rooted entirely in white supremacy.
And she’s not the only famous Canadian part of this. Here’s Dr. Malacrida,
A lot of these social reformers were, as we know, like Tommy Douglas, you know, who was pro-eugenic, who were racist, who were worried about the influx of immigrants who were over-breeding, and the middle classes who were ceasing to produce at those same rates. This freaked people out.
Megan: Yeah… Tommy Douglas, I mean his master’s thesis was titled “The Problems of the Subnormal Family”. Ok Back to Claudia.
So there was a lot of lobbying in the teens and twenties. And finally, in 1927, there was a bill put forward, the Sexual Sterilization Act. There were protests against it. But what it essentially did was it enticed people to voluntarily undergo sexual sterilization. It was passed really quickly and without a lot of debate in March of 1928. And I think that social reformers really thought there’d be a bit of a, you know, a charge to try and get yourself sterilized because it would give you a better life.
Here’s some newspaper articles from Alberta at the time, collected by Rob Wilson for the Eugenic’s Archive… link obviously in the show notes.
in The United Farmers of Alberta, January 3, 1927 “Resolutions for Women’s Convention Deal With Important Issues: Feeble Minded”
The United Farmers of Alberta, January 16, 1928 “For U.F.W.A. Convention: Segregation or Sexual Sterilization?”
“Sterilize Feeble Minded” in Chinook Advance, March 15, 1928
And these eugenicists thought in earnest that people would line up to get sterilized.
People did not, you know, storm the gates to get sterilized. And so, with the voting in of the Social Credit Party, which was very socially and religiously conservative, an amendment to the Act was proposed by Dr. W.W. Cross, the Minister of Health, and it passed.
So a bit of background on who this fresh Social Credit government was. Now at the time Alberta was lead by radio evangelist Bible Bill Aberhart, known for his “Bible Belt fundamentalism”, antisemitism and anti-science. In this environment, in 1935 major amendments were made. (425)
Bill Aberhart radio clip
This is the Calgary prophetic institute, broadcasting the regular Sunday afternoon programs over Canadian State CFCN the voice of the prairies
Now at the time Alberta was lead by radio evangelist Bible Bill Aberhart, known for his “Bible Belt fundamentalism”, antisemitism and anti-science environment
It is claimed that we are mixing religion and politics. There is no sphere of this life in which religion does not play its very important part.
The Social Credit Party, was an explicitly Christian, anti-communist party commited to Social Credit Theory,
As a matter of fact, we’ve had rather more to say about economics than about politics.
an antisemitic monetary theorythat the folks at Alberta Advantage do a much better job of explaining.
At the time Alberta was lead by radio evangelist Bible Bill Aberhart, known for his “Bible Belt fundamentalism”, antisemitism and anti-science. In this environment, in 1935 major amendments were made.
So in this environment, major amendments were made for the act.
The issue that really was the biggest intervention in that Act was that it produced the Alberta Eugenics Board, who, in the Act, became exempt from any civil action by individuals taking part in the surgical operation. So, basically legislated their impunity.
Megan Ok so now we’re going to get into the nitty gritty logistics, go behind the scenes logistics of these powerful bureaucrats, who made the decisions around life, death and ableist violence.
things called Guidance Clinics were brought into being. And these were groups of doctors, nurses, public health nurses, social workers, and often family physicians or church leaders in communities. They used to do like a little tour around the province once or twice a year and visit, you know, your local health clinic or your local, you know, family doctor, and find out who was unfit, what families needed to have some kind of intervention.
Once those kids were in the system, and especially once they were institutionalized, it became very difficult for them to avoid sterilization because of the ways that the Eugenics Board operated. And I’d be happy to talk about that.
The Eugenics Board included people like the superintendent of Michener Centre, what was originally called the Alberta Training Hospital or Alberta School Hospital in Red Deer. So, there was a kind of a, you know, a conflict of interest, I suppose you could really say.
The Eugenics Board hardly changed its membership in the 44 years of its operation. So it came to be a pretty sleek kind of an operation. The other members of the Eugenics Board included people from other institutions across the province. And a case would come before the Board for a hearing.
And of over 5,000 cases heard, there were really less than 100 that resulted in a negative decision. It was pretty much an inevitability that you would be approved for sterilization. That didn’t mean that you would actually necessarily be sterilized.
But it increased the likelihood, particularly if you had a consent form that signed over the right to make decisions about health to the institution itself, which is something that did happen regularly at Michener.
Now the reason that happened regularly at the Michener Centre was that these really were children, totally isolated from their families and potential advocates.
So, you know, the kids who came into Michener Centre were very young. And often, not informed of what it was that was happening to them. I mean some of the stories that people told were almost cinematic, you know, it’s like,
I’m out in my dust bowl farmhouse, and a black car comes up the roadway, and out steps a lady. And my mom steps out of the house with a suitcase, and I get in the car and I never saw my family again.
This severed relations between communities, and had really profound impacts on not only the institutionalized person, but also their family and their entire community. Here’s Teda, a survivor of the Michener Centre and advocate for deinstitutionalization.
welI I was in michener center in red deer for 20 years.
At the age of 15 that's when I left my family completely I went to michener center when I was 15 years old. But I'll never forget there was just a great big brick building and that's when I said goodbye to my family for a whole year. We could not see family for a whole year. I was really scared but I did what they wanted and I worked really hard.
The familial isolation Teda shares is devastating, and it’s not isolated from the experience of eugenics. Dr. Malacrida links them together…
Dr. Claudia Malacrida
One of the problems with Michener Centre - and I refer to it at as a form of passive eugenics - was that it did separate people from their communities.
So there’s sort of ripples of trauma that have come out of these experiences.
These severed relations expedited and permitted the violence against these children as they did not have allies outside to expose the institution and make it accountable for its actions. Because of course the institution nor the province itself were accountable for such violence.
Dr. Claudia Malacrida
There are many, many instances in the record of what are called extraordinary events or unusual events: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and sometimes death. Escapes that ended in death.
From the archives Dr. Malacrida expedited: For example, it “X” received a stab wound behind right ear– approximately 1 inch in length... treated with cold compress and application of buttery bandage– clinical noted– stitches given– returned from doctor 1030 hr
memos included procedures on the appropriate use of RCMP search dogs, the composition of internal search and rescue teams, the proper chain of command for reporting escapes, and the procedures for billing various authorities for costs relating to searches.
We’ve heard this time and time again. These conditions were punishing, traumatizing, earth shattering. So much violence. Now I’m going to introduce you to some sisters in Alberta, Jude and Bonnie,
My name is Bonnie picaud and I'm Judy's youngest younger sisters Judy has two other sisters. Judy's the oldest in our family.
Jude doesn't use words to communicate so the doctors kept recommending to my mom pushing my mom to put her into Michener centre and so my mum did not want that to happen but finally she did give in to the doctors and she put Judy into Michener Centre at the age of eleven. It was really built up for our family that it would touch base.
to this day Jude really still suffers very much emotionally from the things that happened to her and Michener centre she doesn't sleep at night she just cannot sleep at night she's a very afraid of the dark she can go three to four nights without sleeping you know my sister lived with 65 other people in her bedroom in that in Michener and the door was locked from the outside so there was lots of awful things that happened in those rooms at nighttime.
M: And I think it’s important to put those awful things that happened at night-time, alongside the things that happened in broad daylight––forced sterilization.
So, how it operated for people who lived in Michener was they would kind of hit puberty and it was rote that you would go before the Board. And if you didn’t have somebody who could advocate for you, if you didn’t have somebody who had to provide an individual rather than a blanket permission, you’d go. So, 5,500 cases. 28 and change cases were actually implemented with involuntary sterilization.
And most of those did come from places like Michener Centre where it was children who were intellectually disabled and without resources in the community.
M: Here’s Bonnie again, talking about the medical violence that Jude experienced.
So when she was 24, they pulled all her teeth.
She was 17 when they they gave her hysterectomy they sterilized her at the age of 17. They had said that what they didn't even tell us what that she actually had that we just read that in a report that that had happened that she had been sterilized but there was lots of reasons that we'd heard about afterwards. so that was a terrible terrible thing that happened to her.
Well I think that the reason that they sterilized her was because there was a lot of sexual abuse happening in this institution by staff and I think that that's why they were sterilizing people it was really built up for our family that it was being a nice place and then when it in reality it turned out to be one of the biggest nightmares of her life.
M: I want to make clear the horror of Jude’s story. Jude was sterilized at the age of 17 because of repeated instances of sexual abuse happening in the institutions by staff. Her sterilization, and medical abuse used to cover the biggest nightmares.
And this legislated impunity wasn’t that long ago. The Sexual Sterilization Act was open for 50 years, until 1972 when the Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed government explained that the government feels “very, very strongly that the bill is offensive and at odds with the proposed [Alberta] Bill of Rights”.
M: And for some, the violences of the Michener Centre haunted them for lifetimes, across possible generations.
[freedom tour, Bonnie]
Now still even if you mentioned the word Michener centre to her she's upset for at least two days afterwards she just is so it sucked has taken such an emotional toll on her I think that you know always say her down syndrome is not Jude's problem she has these emotional problems that she deals with on a constant basis and still deals with those every day they the horror of what happened to her at Michener Centre.
She's had her nose broken, she's had her knee kicked out like her knee was dislocated somebody kicked it. Lots of those kinds of things have happened to her in Michener centre. She had lots of abuse there very unsafe places. I think that people are harmed there's lots of abuse and neglect that still happens in those facilities it was it was just something you wouldn’t do to your animals. The treatment was unbelievable.
These were places that were supposed to provide care. Where people, children, were subject to torture: solitary confinement, abuse, sensory deprivation, isolation, Here’s Dr. Malacrida.
So, things that happened in the institution that were about a culture of violence and terror, beyond this estrangement and hopelessness of ever coming out.
These people came to be profoundly damaged by the institution, so that when Michener Centre was opened as the Training School, it was the intention that children would be returned to society by their 18th birthday. But of course, they were incapable thereof. So, in the mid-40s, Michener Centre expanded its facility and added another 2,000 adult beds. And so, you have a population of children who come in and basically cradle-to-grave, without hope, live these lives.
So, it was a place of horror and…. yeah. In the, from the people with whom I spoke, nobody wanted to go back. Very, very few positive memories. And a lot of emotion in the interviews, you know, reliving some of those experiences.
I want to tell you about one more story, one you should definitely read. Leilani Muir was institutionalized into the Michener Centre as a child. When she was 14, the Centre told her she was having her appendix taken out. They lied to her.
Years later, Leilani Muir left the institution and got married, she was trying to become a mother when she found out she was irreversibly sterilized. She was one of 2,834 people in the Alberta eugenics program who were legally subject to sexual sterilization surgery.
In 1996, Leilani Muir sued the province of Alberta and won, inspiring other survivors to take the government of Alberta to court for its many violences of institutionalization and sterilization. But winning the lawsuit would not return her access to reproduction and motherhood.
You can hear Leilani’s story through the National Film Board, film “The Sterilization of Leilani Muir”, and in her book A Whisper Past - Childless After the Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta.
In 1999, the Premier of Alberta apologized, airing that they
“extend regrets for the actions of another government, in another period of time. It's unfortunate. I mean it's, I won't say criminal, it was the law at that particular time. But it was a bad law”
That’s a half apology But the apology didn’t end the impacts of eugenics in Canada. Here’s Dr. Malacrida once more,
Dr. Claudia Malacrida
I want to say that we know the numbers of people who came under the knife as part of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. But I believe strongly this is the tip of the iceberg. I think that Indigenous children had these things happen to them in Indian Hospitals, as did adult women, particularly.
We are conscious of these events occurring today, also in parallel kinds of forms between people with disabilities - profound physical disabilities and intellectual disabilities primarily - and Indigenous people, where hospitalization can be a very dangerous event, where consent is very loosely given.
Although explicit eugenics policy isn’t in legislation anymore it still is apparent in policies of institutionalization, in social understandings of disability that asexualizes and infantilizes people labelled with intellectual disabilities.
Dr. Claudia Malacrida
And I think for kids, children, and young adults or dependents who have intellectual disability, although it’s punitively impossible to involuntarily sterilize someone, active eugenics persist in the form of decisions that are made around hygiene or, “She can’t manage her periods,” or that, “These relationships would be really dangerous.”
And I mean, I would argue that making somebody sterile can be a really good smokescreen for being a victim of sexual abuse for people with profound disabilities.
Sterilization is a practicality. Sterilization is a smoke screen. And sterilization is an ongoing reality in Canada. Part of the living histories of eugenics policy.
Institutionalization continues to remove the sexuality of people labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities,. [replaced with ‘social understanding of disability that infantalizes and desexualizes people with disabilities]
Many of the old buildings of the Michener Centre were blown up, but in their remnants, out on their grounds, many group homes for labelled adults remain.
Group homes don’t have conjugal rooms, they have single beds and triple rooms. The impacts eugenics, of sterilization echoing off their walls.
And not too far from the Michener Centre, a long-term care home in Red Deere boasts about having a wing just for young people.
I am an Indigenous disabled woman from Winnipeg, I live at Riverview Health Centre
Shoshana and I spoke in 2020,
I don’t feel my needs are best suited living in a 388 bed facility .
Institutions features make it really difficult to access sexaulity, relationships, privacy and intimacy.
I wish I lived in the community where my friends and family can visit me. If my husband wants to sleep over he can.
We’re gonna go back to Vicky once more, to talk about how her long-term care home affects her love life.
15:33 Um, a lot. You know, my friends tell me not to. But when they come over to the house, I'm embarrassed of where I live, and I'm ashamed.
Privacy, another thing I worry about. Depending on who's on.
[Interview with Vicky]
16:21 Yeah, so can you tell me a little more about the, the privacy problem?
[Interview with Vicky]
16:26 Uh, well, you know, when somebody's door, like when you are in somebody's house. When you go to someone's house, you knock on their door, and you go, "Hello, can I come in please?" And they, they, some of the nurses - not all of them, but some of them don't respect that. And they-- because as far as I'm concerned, this room is my house. And if you are going to come into my house, you have to knock, you know?
So, they don't always do that, depending on the person. And it can be very awkward for me, especially like I said, if I'm, either, in a meeting or, you know, girl's got needs, so occasionally I watch erotic movies. And.. uh, that can be awkward.
So people ask me what we can––How can we move beyond eugenics and how we can support the sexual lives of people labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities?
Well I think ending institutionalization is a pretty great place to start.
Robust movements towards reproductive justice must include people with disabilities and institutionalized people. It’s about more than sex, but sex is great!
/we gotta close
reusable session: Megan group-homes-1 #3
(bara music underneath)
Invisible Institutions was created by me, Megan Linton, with support from People First of Canada & Inclusion Canada’s Joint Task Force on Deinstitutionalization. Audio recording by Megan Linton with production assistance by Kendal David. This episode was advised by the Joint Task Force on Deinstitutionalization. With additional audio narration by Helena Krobath and Alex Johnston. Audio post-production and sound design were by Helena Krobath, and our theme music was composed by Bara Hladik. Special thanks to Claudia Malacrida, Alan Martino, Vicky Levack, Shoshana Forester Smith, Erika Dyck and the Eugenics Archives,to the wonderful creators and narrators of the freedom tour. And an extra special thanks Leilani Muir, institutional survivors, researchers and self-advocates. Talk soon!