Saturday, October 3, 2009

Manning, Aberhart and the Stain of Eugenics

A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada

Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin, was the first to establish the "science" of eugenics. In 1869, his book, Hereditary Genius, became the basis for the study of genius and greatness, the notion being that if animals could be bred to produce the best stock, why not people.

The book helped to launch a popular movement, that eventually spread to Canada. Surprisingly the feminists were the first to promote sterilization to prevent birth defects, and two of the biggest supporters were Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy.
Indeed, Murphy set aside her more celebrated battle to obtain recognition of women as persons under the law to tour Alberta in 1926 with fervent speeches and films taken from the province’s mental institutions. “We protect our public against diseased and distempered cattle,” she wrote in one of her many articles. “We should similarly protect them against the offal of humanity.” Mesmerized, women’s groups lobbied hard for legislation and in due course the United Farmers of Alberta government drafted the Sexual Sterilization Act. Under its provisions, an appointed board would be granted authority to order sterilization of any person suffering from mental defect ... (1)
In 1928 a four-member Eugenics Board was set up in Alberta and another soon followed in British Columbia. Initially, sterilizations could only take place with the consent of the patient, but in 1937, William Aberhart and Ernest Manning changed that.

The Social Credit government of William Aberhart, which came to power in 1935, and was keen on speeding up the works, expanded the board’s powers in 1937 by dispensing with the need to acquire consent for sterilization from mental defectives; five years later, another Social Credit majority broadened the net to include some individuals with epilepsy and Huntingdon’s chorea.

But even as Aberhart, the young Ernest Manning, and other Social Credit members were registering their endorsement of eugenics, other observers, such as the future NDP leader Tommy Douglas, were repudiating it in the wake of revelations from Germany, where thousands of mentally retarded citizens were being sterilized and later gassed, in the service of Nazi aster-race theories. It was the start of the Holocaust. By the late forties, in the forum at Nuremberg, the civilized world had judged forced sterilization a crime against humanity. (1)

And the place where the majority of these sterilizations took place was at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, in Red Deer.

Later court cases by individuals who had been stripped of their ability to procreate, revealed the horrors that took place at the facility, and the Alberta government was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. But it would appear that Manning was already aware that there was a problem, but ignored it.

In early 1952, a poignant ten-page letter landed on the desk of Premier Ernest Manning. Penned by a middle-aged Calgarian, it described in detail wheat had befallen the correspondent’s sixteen-year-old son, who was a resident of the Provincial Training School. It seemed that, a few weeks earlier, staff members had caught the boy talking alone with a female student behind one of the buildings. This was forbidden. The boy was according bundled off to one of the school’s quiet rooms, and there, a day later, an attendant had found him, lying dazed in a great pool of blood amid a litter of shards from an earthenware chamber pot.

The teenager was rushed to a Red Deer hospital, where he was treated for a five-centimeter deep wound to the groin. A week later he was still pale and weak from loss of blood. School authorities, however, brushed off the incident, intimating that the boy, “a confirmed masturbator,” was himself to blame. The father had a different theory. His son was a severe epileptic. With its chronic staff shortage, he suggested, the school had failed to detail someone to keep an eye on the boy. Locked in a hot, stuffy room alone, he had suffered a major seizure.

The writer took the opportunity to unburden himself to the premier about other disturbing school practices, clearly confident that the Christian preacher whose “National Bible Hour” broadcasts echoed over the airwaves each Sunday would be sympathetic. “It is easy to love children that are clever,” he concluded sadly, “but I think it takes grace to love these unfortunate ones.” Manning’s two paragraph reply is preserved in the provincial archives. Promising vaguely to improve educational facilities in the school, the premier sided squarely with the school’s administration. “I feel that the staff of the Training School is doing everything possible within existing facilities to give proper care to the youngsters at the Training School.” (1)

The school did not improve and the complaints continued. Then in 1960, Manning surprised everyone by sending his own son to the facility.

Then, around 1960, the premier committed to its care his eldest son, Keith, who was afflicted with both epilepsy and arrested mental development as the result of a birth injury. The Mannings had spent much time and money chasing a cure and had finally sent the boy away to a New York State school. But according to Preston Manning’s autobiographical reminiscences in The New Canada, American medical care for Keith had stretched the Manning family budget to the limit. The Red Deer school offered welcome relief.

And there, in Pine Villa, in the Small Boys section of the school, the premier’s son, then a young man, was ensconced, to be treated “like royalty,” according to Glen Sinclair, who roomed next to him for a time. It was one of the more cynical chapters in the training-school saga. Everyone seemed to know who Keith was, showering him with privileges and the small acts of kindness so notably missing from the other’s lives. While everyone else slept four to a bedroom, Keith got a special double room, number ten Pine Villa, and was permitted to pick his own roommate. As a rule, personal possessions were discouraged; Keith was free to keep games, snacks, and even a typewriter in his room.

School officials frowned on family visits, but Keith’s parents dropped in at least once or twice a month on their way to Calgary for the premier’s weekly “Bible Hour.” They often took him along for a day trip. Instead of continual chores, Keith, in his late teens or early twenties, got piano lessons. More enviable still, Keith, who had an explosive temper, was handled with kid gloves. “They’d take him out for a walk and try to calm him down,” recalls a former resident, Donald Passey, who ended up at the school despite a recent test that indicated he has an IQ of 113. “Or they’d go to his room and try to discuss things with him.” In contrast, Passey remembers being disciplined by a staff member who pinned him to the wall and slapped and punched him; another resident lost part of his finger when an employee deliberately kicked a door shut on it. Even the most profoundly impaired children were sometimes beaten.

Keith Manning remained at the school for several years. Just how far the red-carpet treatment went to protect him from the Sexual Sterilization Act is unclear. He married in late middle age, though he remained childless, and succumbed to a brain tumour in 1986 while living in a nursing home in Edmonton. Preston Manning has firmly declined to be interviewed about his brother.(1)

Preston does mention his brother in his book, stating that he resented that he was unable to play with him and also complained that he always lived in fear that his brother would have a seizure when they were together. He does, however, praise the religious community for embracing his brother and treating him as an equal. (2)

When the Conservatives beat out the Social Credit party in 1971, the first bill they passed was the Alberta Bill of Rights, and with it the repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act. In its forty-four years in force, 4,278 sterilizations had been authorized. A study by a law professor at the University of Alberta suggested a consistent bias against minority groups: Indians and Metis, predictably, but also Poles, Ukrainians, and other eastern Europeans.

Another dark stain on the history of the Social Credit party.


Alberta Barren: The Mannings and forced sterilization in Canada, By Heather Pringle, Saturday Night Magazine, June 1997

2. The New Canada, By Preston Manning, 1992, MacMillan Canada, ISBN: 0-7715-9150-0, pg. 14-15

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