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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Eugenics and the Firewall: Catching on in Canadian media

Eugenics and the Firewall: Good discussion begins

Jane Harris-Zsovan writes to say that her just-published book Eugenics and the Firewall, about the history of social Darwinism in Alberta (province of Canada), has received favourable reviews so far.

Ian Stewart, reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press opens,
IN this suggestive piece of investigative journalism, Albertan Jane Harris-Zsovan exposes one of her home province’s wretched little secrets.
Published, oddly enough, by a Winnipegbased house, Eugenics and the Firewall retells the story of how Alberta’s progressive and populist Social Credit government abused some of its most vulnerable citizens’ basic human rights for almost half the 20th century. Its message is clear: somebody’s Utopian vision can lead to another’s Orwellian hell.

In 1928, Alberta elected its first Social Credit government, led by the apocalyptic "Bible Bill" Aberhart. The government was under the sway of the burgeoning eugenics movement and quickly passed the British Empire’s first sexual sterilization legislation, which was not rescinded until 1972.
He also cheered her on personally, no surprise from a seasoned reporter who knows when someone is taking a risk to just start talking about the documentary evidence.

Similarly, Lana Michelin for the Red Deer Advocate did, in Harris Zsovan’s view, “an amazing job sorting out all those facts and figures I gave her in lightening time.”
While B.C. used eugenics sparingly, sterilizing only a few hundred citizens, Alberta seized the opportunity from 1928 to 1972 to target nearly 3,000 “undesirables,” including the mentally disabled, chronically ill and sexually promiscuous.

Many of these 2,832 sterilizations were done at Red Deer’s Michener Centre, said Harris-Zsovan.

The author has been interested in Alberta’s dark eugenics history since she overheard, as a young girl, her parents discussing a neighbour’s son who they suspected was sterilized.
I first became interested in the early1970s, when I noticed that the whole episode was a memory hole as far as just about everyone was concerned.

Why does it matter?, some ask. Compulsory sterilization was done in Alberta a long time ago, and the enabling laws were repealed in 1971. Well, two reasons it matters:

First, for the sake of the facts: Social Darwinism (the belief that a government-directed application of Darwin’s theory of evolution to a human population would produce a fitter human) is far more often denounced than it is explained. There is a good reason for that. As Harris Zsovan shows, progressives and evangelical Christians promoted and enabled it, not just goose stepping Nazis. Everyone was wrong, but the last group was socially despised, thus in line to take the fall. While everyone else acted self-righteous, false history drove out true history.

Second, social amnesia is no way to prevent a similar occurrence. Put simply, it happened because it was widely popular, and a similar event would happen today, if it were as popular. So we really must look at what made it popular and with whom. And that’s a fascinating read.

Many Canadians are in the process of recovering our history, and no, it is not always fun, but - as with our bodies - the less fun parts may be the most necessary.

Note: Eugenics and the Firewall, about the history of social Darwinism in Alberta (province of Canada), is distributed by University of Toronto Press.

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