Friday, February 4, 2011

It's time the right owned up to Alberta's eugenics horror story.

A friend emailed me this column by Michael Coren, a man esteemed in Canada's Conservative and Christian intellectual circles. Judging by his CV, Coren is a smart man, but if "The Barbaric Vision of Progressive Heroes" is any indication, it appears Coren only knows part of Canada's eugenics story.(The part his Socred, turned PC, turned Reform, turned Tory/WRA -- or whatever they're calling themselves this week-- buddies from Alberta aren't afraid to hear guys like Coren talking about.)

It's the part he thinks the 'progressives' were responsible for. An aside, Coren might be surprised to know just what progressive meant to early 20th century prairie populists. Ernest Manning, whom most conservative types from Toronto think was one of them,considered himself proudly progressive as well as conservative. As did and do most prairie folk.

But in Coren's discussion, progressive appears to mean left-wing, socialist, or a member of the 'godless' CCF. (By the way, the father of the CCF Tommy Douglas, Preacher and Premier of Saskatchewan, was a social conservative, fire and brimstone Baptist just like Premier of Alberta and radio pastor, Ernest Manning and his mentor, William Aberhart were.)

But why does Coren's discussion of Canadian eugenics omit the worst forced sterilization scandal in the British Empire (Commonwealth), the one in which nearly 3000 Albertans were sterilized at the hands of the provincial eugenics board? (Another 1900 were ordered sterilized, but escaped the knife.) Vulnerable Albertans were also lied to, beaten, used a cheap domestic labour, and made guinea pigs.

He references Douglas's university paper, "The Problems of the Sub-Normal Family," in which Douglas appears to favour legalization of sterilization for 'sub-normals' as a means to remedy illegitimacy and poverty. (Douglas's paper is vague and leave quite a few logical gaps. He's not clear whether this sterilization is to be voluntary or forced or if it is to apply to adults who already have children.)

But Coren fails to acknowledge that, when Douglas became Premier of Saskatchewan, he never set up a provincial eugenics board. Douglas's support for eugenic sterilization was scared out of him during a 1936 trip to Europe. (One look at the rising NAZI tide convinced Douglas that a great evil was loose and that NAZI eugenics would lead to mass murder. He was right and he never forgot the lesson.)

But, as Douglas had his epiphany about NAZI eugenics, Alberta's Social Credit Regime, led by William Aberhart, was hell-bent on ramping up is eugenic sterilization factory by weakening and/or removing consent provisions in the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act (brought in by the former UFA government.) Aberhart's Socreds -- and many of their constituents -- were frustrated by the low numbers of defectives who were sterilized under the UFA legislation.

After Premier Aberhart died suddenly, his protege, Ernest Manning, became premier. Contrary to a lot of right wing political revisionism, Ernest Manning remained Aberhart's disciple throughout his life. At his 1968 retirement from the premiership, Ernest Manning, declared William Aberhart was ahead of his time and 'one of the greatest men this country ever produced.'

Premier Manning held fast to the Socred's revamped eugenics legislation. Critics of the eugenics board were ignored --or sued. The province's travelling, and virtually unaccountable, appointed eugenics board violated even the weak protections within the law; and the Manning government clung to the Sexual Sterilization Act years after medical and mental health professionals (albeit belatedly) denounced the 'science' behind eugenic sterilization in Alberta.

When I wrote Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada's Nasty Little Secret, I hoped Mr. Coren and his colleagues in the Christian and right wing media would start talking about Alberta's UFA/Socred links to forced sterilization.

So far, no luck. Maybe the Manning legacy is too dear to Canadian evangelicals and the right wing, but surely, telling half the story does a disservice to Conservatism, Canada and Christianity. Doesn't it?


  1. Hi Jane

    You are quite "right". So is Coren. The SoCreds were not really conservatives. They were progressives of a socialist bent and bought in the Douglas' ideas for distributing the income. It was as "scientific" as socialism (the UFA and CCF). They all share the same "scientific" ideal of infinite human progress and improvement which also justified the communists and the Nazis. The same "progressive" ideal drives modern eugenic-in-the-womb of pre-natal testing, abortion, and the move towards the sanction of infanticide and euthanasia.

    Whatever "conservatism" was exhibited within Social Credit and other such movement was more a concession to particular circumstances than ideology. As a follower of the rise of the Reform Party movement in the '90's I soon realized it owed more to early 20th C "progressive" ideology than it did to conservatism and that Preston Manning considered that a selling point for his movement.

    As for "Bible Bill" and the religious aspect of Social Credit... well... there is no fad so outlandish that you can't find some mad cleric strumming his guitar and singing its praises. We still need to "test all things."

  2. Dave,
    Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your insights. (Mind you, Coren never ever mentions Aberhart and Manning when he mentions Douglas. To really understand eugenics and its hold on 20th century Canada, you have to tell the whole story --even the uncomfortable parts.) As I studied this debacle, the thing that most worried me about Alberta's political culture, and still worries me, is a direct hangover from the social credit days). It's the unthinking 'pack mentality', and the unwillingness to even discuss these issues and/or look critically at our history. I'm not sure most Albertans really are 'right' or 'left' in the traditional sense and our small business/agricultural heritage fits with corporatism (which is what the right is these days). But we seem to be willing to accept authoritarianism and ideologies that fly in the face of even our basic values if they are promoted as pro-Alberta. For example, why don't we ask questions about the populist legacy, about the Accurate News and Information Act, about the way the Socred governments treated critics of the mental health and social service system? (Suing them in at least one case.)We assume that legacy was good. But is it? And how would we ever know unless we start looking at it critically -- as you seem to have done. (Whether they're handed down from Back to the Bible Hour, The Social Credit League or the Reform and/or Calgary School at the U. of C., these ideologies usually defy common sense. Just the same as Marxism or other left-wing ideologies do. Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate that you are thinking about our history in a critical, non-pack mentality way.

  3. Sorry Dave, I made a typo above. It should read that be our small business/agricultural heritage 'doesn't fit with corporatism.' thks.

  4. Hi Jane

    The "pack mentality" isn't unique to Alberta. It's a phenomena to which we are all succeptible, and I have watched it manifest itself many different ways. Fans following celebrity, the messianic politician, the charismatic preacher, even the gang leader.

    I like reading history and the story of history is often a story of "pack mentality" manifesting itself. That's the power of demagogues to influence the masses (that's me) and unless the masses have been taught to think clearly they will be swayed. Teaching people to read and understand history is one way to innoculate people against modern demagoguery.

    I'm not certain what you mean by corporatism - I suspect you mean oligarchic capitalism - but corporatism as I have encountered it is like the UFA. Here is the philosophy explained

  5. Yes, I discuss that in my book. Everywhere eugenics has taken hold, the United States, Western Europe, Alberta, a pack mentality, coupled with a sense of self-entitlement/victim hood (threat),existed (or exists.) That, not progressive or regressive political philosophies,is what allows eugenics and other human rights violations to take place. (Mind you, centrists seem less likely to follow human rights violating ideologies than either the left or the right.) Alberta is a very interesting case, but not the only one. I discuss Alberta's political culture in comparison with these other places in Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada's Nasty Little Secret. What the right of conservative movement in Alberta are calling 'conservatism' is not Canadian Conservatism at all. It is a combination of corporatism (gov. by powerful blocks) and Neo-Classical Liberalism which comes from the United States. An ideology that denies the history of Conservatism in Canada, esp. Alberta, from Macdonald, to Galt, to Diefenbaker. And in fact often seeks to erase history and suppress it. That's why many conservatives in Canada appear to think it more important to protect the 'image' of Alberta than actually study it. From this, you may have guessed what I'm researching now. :)

  6. Hi Jane

    I wouldn't idealize Macdonald et al too much, they were much the same as our modern crop, oligarchic self interest - typical of politics in general. The interest groups change but the policy is still guided by the group mentality in the press and the intellectuals. The Senate was designed to protect corporate ologarchies and still adequately performs that task.

    The "image" of Alberta is, as far as I can tell, redneck farmers and roughneck oilmen. True as far as it goes but a friend of mine delighted in pointing out that Albertans purchased more books per capita than any other province (I don't know if that is true or to which years he was referring, but it sounds good). They also spent an lot of time listening to CBC in the tractor and were very well informed.

    The socialist/progressive movements came in through this intellectual bent on the part of the lumpen proletariat and Aberhart was its prophet - so was the UFA, but they ran into the great depression and had to call it quits. Its fun tracing cause and effect through history 8^>

  7. Alberta's love of education stems from the fact that most early settlers (and yes I can back that up statistically) were from ON, Quebec and the British Isles, including the ex-pats Sifton convinced to return to Canada. (Most of these landless farm-boys didn't take much convincing.) There's a large Scots/Protestant Irish (Ulster) make-up in Alberta's old families.(You're far more likely to have an Orange Lodger than an American redneck in your ancestry if you're a multi-generation Albertan.(Most of our early premiers came from this ON-Celtic loyalist heritage.Most of the early cabinets did too.) That's why education was so important and why the province took such care in establishing schools. (That's the good part of the progessive movement, but it actually pre-dates the progressive movement and goes back to the protestant reformation and the establishment of free schools in Northern Britain. Alberta has never been redneck. (That was a fantasy of the US based oil industry execs. who wanted to feel more at home here and got the Orange lodged mixed up with the Republican party. Quite a big mistake, I'd say.)
    Say what you want about Macdonald, but the end of his life is a testament to a huge turn around in his personal life. He was one of the most profound dreamers (visionaries) in the British Empire despite his crippling addiction. I do admire that as well as his vision for the whole of Rupert's Land/BC/BNA. Much of that was influenced by the thinking of Alexander Galt.
    As a result, Alberta contains the only city in Canada founded by a Father of Confederation - Lethbridge. It was named by a Governor General for his wife, a princess.
    Calgary started out as a government town and Edmonton started out as a fur-trading town. The great figures in Alberta history, Macleod, Galt, Lougheed (Sir James), along with the soldiers who fought in Boer War, the Barr colonists, Rutherford, and the generations that signed up to buy war bonds have been largely buried by those fostering the red-neck image.

  8. Hi Jane

    I rather like Macdonald. It takes a special sort of man to drink quarts of whiskey while building a country like Canada, made up as it is of such traditional enemies as the French and English and bordered to the south by an expansionist, manifest destiny, US. But the pattern laid was very much an oligarchic copy of the British Empire, right down to the Acts of Trade mercantilism which contributed to the American Revolution.

    I'm not that familiar with the history of Alberta and I was raised in Victoria. I arrived here in 1978. I'm not certain where I stand politically any longer. I'm definitely not Progressive, and Conservative doesn't really fit either. The whole political spectrum is heavily influenced by progressive ideology if for no other reason than Progressives infiltrated education.