While teaching eugenics in past undergraduate philosophy classes on biology and society, Department of Philosophy professor Rob Wilson drew from well-known historical examples, like Nazi Germany and the U.S. eugenics movement. But for some of his students, the discussion hit closer to home.
“Much to my surprise, I found out that there were people in the class whose relatives had been sterilized,” he says. “I was really struck.” This was the mid-1990s and the native Australian had come to Canada just a year before. Like plenty of life-long Albertans, he was unfamiliar with the province’s history of eugenics. He was stunned to learn that between 1928 and 1972, nearly 3,000 supposedly “mentally deficient” people were sterilized, most without their consent and many without even their knowledge. It is a disturbing part of Alberta’s history — particularly since it is so poorly known.
Wilson then met some academic colleagues who had provided expert testimony in a 1996 lawsuit brought forth by eugenics survivor Leilani Muir against the government. When one of these colleagues introduced him to Muir — who was sterilized as a 14-year-old at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, and is the first person to win a lawsuit against the provincial government for wrongful sterilization — Wilson became committed to exploring the area further. “I’m not a historian, I’m a philosopher,” he says, “but I got pulled in more personally.”
So, he and a team of researchers applied for a large grant to preserve and analyze the history of eugenics in Alberta and surrounding regions, and its current ramifications. With funding from the Community-University Research Alliance program of SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and plenty of support from UAlberta, Wilson and his team began a five-year project called the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada. “There’s a sense in the university that we have a responsibility to the larger community to preserve difficult moments in history and provide a place where they can be addressed,” he says.
Currently in its fifth and final year, the project — of which Wilson is the lead investigator — has now launched an interactive website, eugenicsarchive.ca. The site provides a wealth of information, from legal documentation to compelling video interviews with survivors and those close to them, for both researchers and the general public.
In fact, after compiling so many interesting interviews, Wilson and his team decided to wade into an even more ambitious spin-off project: a documentary film called Surviving Eugenics, which screened recently in Edmonton. “We didn’t set out to make a film,” he says, but with so much material, it made sense to disseminate it publicly.
The team is currently at work on a second documentary that focuses on parenting around disability in contemporary Alberta. Wilson hopes to bring both films to a number of North American film festivals.
Like the website, the film is meant not only to stimulate discussion about eugenics history, but about what some scholars call “newgenics” — modern day practices that will influence the genetic makeup of future generations. Examples include immigration practices that restrict the admission of certain ethnicities and prenatal screening for disorders like trisomy 21, also known as Down syndrome. “We’re just trying to sketch out potential connections and try to get people to think of [them] a little more,” he says.
“I’m not a historian, I’m a philosopher — but I got pulled in more personally.”
Busy as he is, Wilson has another big community outreach project on the go —Philosophy for Children Alberta, which he founded in 2008.
The organization runs the campus-based Eurekamp each summer, offering programming that encourages kids to be thoughtful about their lives and communities. “We provide a safe environment for kids to learn critical thinking skills and wonder about things,” he says.
Like Wilson’s work around eugenics, the camp stems from a desire to take scholarship out of the ivory tower: “I think academics need to be responsible to the larger communities they work in and benefit from.”