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Abuse of Government Power: An Historical Perspective on Medical Coercion in Canada

Joel Chute

December 17, 2021


Historical examples of government-sanctioned medical malfeasance and human rights violations are many. They are chapters of history we don’t like reading, and people often skim over them in pursuit of a bright and brave new world. Yet, the old and tired adage still rings true: Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

Heinous infringements of free and informed consent for medical treatments are not the monopoly of distant regimes; they happened right here in Canada by government order and continue today. To forget this truth is to invite tyranny. Free and informed consent, a cardinal principle of medical ethics, is not an option. It is an absolute necessity.

The name Leilani Muir-O’Malley should be known to every Canadian. At 10 years old she was cast away by her mother and wrongfully committed to the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta. Deemed “mentally deficient” by medical experts, she was subjected to the most degrading early life. In 1959, with the sanction of the Alberta government, both of her fallopian tubes were cut out at age 14. She was told they had removed her appendix, but in fact, they had sterilized her for life. She would never be able to hold a child of her own in her arms.

The Alberta Eugenics Board, a government body, sought to weed out “degenerates” and “undesirables.” Free and informed consent and basic human rights were hindrances to their goal of a perfect genetic society, free of sickness, crime, and defect. This was law.

In 1928, the Alberta government passed the Sexual Sterilization Act, inspired by the practices of gene culling common on farmlands across the prairies. The Eugenics Board was established to decide which “defects” ought to be rooted out of society and to authorize the sterilizations of those considered a detriment to the common good. The most common “defects” were mental deficiency, indigenous ethnicity, poverty, hereditary disease, and immorality. Consent was technically required for sterilization, either from the patients themselves or from a guardian, but an amendment in 1937 loosened that burdensome restriction. If the board deemed a person “incapable of intelligent parenthood” then consent was no longer required. From 1928 until the repeal of this act, 2,832 Albertans were surgically sterilized.

Epoch Times Photo

Leilani Muir speaks at an Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week event on Oct. 22, 2011. (GrammarLab/[CC BY 4.0 (])

Indigenous Canadians, particularly women, were disproportionately targeted by the Sexual Sterilization Act. Researchers examining the records of the act determined that rates of sterilization of indigenous Canadians tripled in the 1940s and ’50s. Consent was obtained in only 17 percent of these surgeries. In the last three years of the act, indigenous women amounted to 25 percent of all sterilizations by the government.

Doctors, professors, and other trained and highly respected professionals made up the Eugenics Board and treated human beings like cattle. Indeed, the Nazis were inspired not only by then-prevailing “science,” but also by the eugenics movement that swept Canada and the United States. They implemented their own forced sterilization programs prior to embarking on the “final solution.”

One would be hard-pressed to find even a handful of Canadians today who would support such a vicious government program. But this was the law for over 40 years in Alberta, with similar legislation in place in British Columbia.

How could this happen in our beloved and polite Canada? How could it possibly be that we were precursors to the Nazis’ racial hygiene program? But the question we should be asking ourselves is: Who holds ownership over our bodies, the government or we ourselves?

The repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1972 was a victory for human rights against government coercion. The adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 10 years later was supposed to further protect Canadians from coercive government laws and policies.

Canadian law has echoed and reaffirmed the right to bodily autonomy and security of the person in many cases since then. Justice Robins of the Ontario Court of Appeal said it best: “The right to determine what shall, or shall not, be done with one’s own body, and to be free from non-consensual medical treatment, is a right deeply rooted in our common law. This right underlines the doctrine of informed consent.”

Justice Robins continues: “With very limited exceptions, every person’s body is considered inviolate, and, accordingly, every competent adult has the right to be free from unwanted medical treatment. … It is the patient, not the physician, who ultimately must decide if treatment — any treatment — is to be administered.”

It was on this basis that Leilani Muir-O’Malley successfully sued the government 36 years after her bodily autonomy was horrifically disregarded. Her victory in the battle over ownership of our bodies, however, seems to have been a hollow one. Governments and medical authorities have continued to subscribe to the flawed ideology that they have the right to dictate the medical choices of citizens.

A class-action lawsuit was launched against the Saskatchewan government and health authorities by nearly 100 indigenous women who claimed to have been threatened and coerced into surgical sterilization as late as 2018. Some women were told after giving birth that they wouldn’t be able to see their newborn until they signed the consent form, while others had forms thrust upon them in the pains of labour or under medication.

The fight against the government for bodily autonomy is perpetual, and it continues today as governments aggressively pursue the goal of injecting every Canadian—including children and even infants—with the new COVID vaccines.

Coercion is now law as students are being expelled from universities, tens of thousands of Canadians are losing their jobs and livelihoods, and citizens’ mobility rights are restricted. Canadians are no longer able to make free medical decisions. The principle of free and informed consent in Canada is now sterile and barren. Canadians refusing COVID vaccines, which have not been subjected to long-term safety testing, and which scientific evidence has increasingly shown to be ineffective, are treated as second class citizens for exercising their right to bodily autonomy. They are today’s “undesirables.”

Are we surprised that governments are violating free and informed consent and the right to bodily autonomy once again? Are we astonished that history is repeating itself as a new generation of ideologically based “medical experts” brushes aside the principles of medical ethics for a collective goal? Anyone cognizant of Canadian history should not be.

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