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A People’s History of Canada Column

The residential school system brought forth a multitude of horrors for the Indigenous population of Canada, as the government attempted to assimilate Indigenous people into Catholic registry. Graphic by Siobhan Wilkinson

The signing of the Canadian Confederation in 1867 saw the birth of our great country, Canada. What many people fail to see looking back on this period is that Canada was, in fact, not all that great.

Canada, at the time of Confederation and in the years following, was a dominant Euro-Canadian society, focused on fulfilling its own manifest destiny—a term coined in the 1840s for the United States’ philosophy of spreading democracy and expanding its territory by taking over land that belonged to Indigenous populations found across the territory we’ve come to know as North America.

Only “legitimate heirs”—children born of European men and Canadian women—were seen fit to fulfill this manifest destiny, and all mixed-race heirs and illegitimate offspring of Indigenous women were considered to be “undesirable.”

This was amplified with the rise of concern for race and purity brought on by the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

The eugenics movement sparked in 1904 in England and can be viewed from the perspective of positive and negative eugenics. While eugenics is an ongoing ethical debate even to this day, the Canadian Encyclopedia defines positive eugenics as “encouraging the procreation of individuals and groups possessing desirable characteristics and genes, strengthening the overall gene pool of society.”

Negative eugenics, however, involve discouraging or inhibiting the procreation of individuals or groups deemed undesirable by society through methods such as institutionalization, prohibiting marriage, and sterilization.

As the Euro-Canadian population searched to “better their race,” they attempted to rid themselves of those they felt to be “undesirables.” This included criminals, the mentally ill, the blind, the deaf, and the Indigenous population.

The roots of the sterilization movement begin in 1928, with the introduction of the Sexual Sterilization Act, which first passed in Alberta. This legislation allowed for, and actively promoted, the sterilization of those deemed undesirable.

While the Métis and Indigenous communities made up around 3 per cent of Alberta’s population at the time, they made up 25 per cent of the number of individuals ordered to be forcibly sterilized under the act.

In 1933, a similar act was passed in British Columbia, and tied to the residential school system.

The residential school system brought forth a multitude of horrors for the Indigenous population of Canada, as the government attempted to assimilate Indigenous people into Catholic registry.

Inmates of the residential schools, the Indigenous youth, were victims of rape, torture, medical experiments and murder. A prevalent reality for many residential school inmates was also forced or coerced sterilization.

In British Columbia, the act allowed school principals in residential schools to carry out the sterilizations, and as their legal guardian could have any Indigenous child under their charge sterilized. Often, sterilization procedures were carried out on whole groups of Indigenous children once they reached puberty.

Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act was under legislation for nearly 50 years, repealed only in 1972 with the newly elected government of Peter Lougheed in place.Before the act was repealed, an astounding 2800 sterilization procedures were performed in the province of Alberta. Many individuals who were sterilized under the act were not told they were undergoing a sterilization procedure, and remained unaware of their sterilization until many years later.These surgeries were often passed off as other surgeries and given without consent. Often, sterilization procedures were carried out on whole groups of Indigenous children once they reached. According to witnesses and victims of the sterilization movement interviewed by Leonardo Pegoraro, a graduate student […]

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