Woman who successfully sued Alberta over sterilization dies
Gwen Dambrofsky , The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, March 16, 2016 7:36AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, March 16, 2016 3:53PM EDT
EDMONTON -- A woman who made history by successfully suing the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization -- eventually leading to payouts for hundreds more victims -- has died.
Leilani Muir-O'Malley, 71, died on the weekend at her home in Devon, Alta., said Nicola Fairbrother, director of Neighbourhood Bridges, an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities.
Muir-O'Malley's fight for compensation was national news in 1995 and became the subject of a National Film Board documentary as well as of her own book "A Whisper Past."
The judge who awarded her $740,000 plus legal costs called the sterilization system "unlawful, offensive and outrageous."
Muir-O'Malley and almost 3,000 other Albertans were sterilized between 1928 and 1972 under a law intended to prevent people the province called "mental defectives" from passing on their genes.
Muir-O'Malley was a hero, Premier Rachel Notley said Wednesday.
"It's not often that you see someone who's that vulnerable be so successful, to be able to stand up to something as big as a government and tell them that what they did was unjust and wrong," she said.
Kerri McEachern of the Self-Advocacy Federation said Muir-O'Malley spent her life as an activist and was supposed to have been the keynote speaker at an event the organization is having in June.
"Her legacy was bringing awareness of the survivors of institutions and the hideous things that were done to people with disabilities," said McEachern. "She was one of the first people who lived it, and was able to talk about it. She talked for people who can't."
An unloved child whose mother did not want a daughter, Muir-O'Malley was left at what was known as the Provincial Training Centre in Red Deer, Alta., just three days before her 11th birthday.
She was discharged in 1965, but did not learn until a year later that she had been sterilized in 1959 after an intelligence test that she does not remember taking suggested she was a moron.
Muir's case opened a floodgate of claims. About 600 of them were settled in 1998. Claimants classed as "dependent adults" were given $100,000 each.
The Alberta government embarked on a disastrous attempt to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to limit the rights of the remaining "independent adults" to sue.
In the end, the government reached an $80-million settlement with more than 200 people who had been subjected to forced sterilization.
"The trial brought so much to light and gave hope to many, many other victims," said Doug Wahlsten, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Alberta. He became friends with Muir-O'Malley and helped edit her biography.
He said she was intelligent and didn't deserve to be in the institution, where she only received a Grade 5 education. After she was released, she struggled to get a job and earn money.
"Then the thing that was really devastating for her -- she wanted more than anything in life to have children, to have a family of her own. And she couldn't have that."
She had operations to try to reverse the sterilization, then tried to adopt but was rejected because she had been labelled mentally deficient as a child, Wahlsten said. Her second marriage ended when she couldn't have children and she contemplated suicide, he said.
"And then she had, I guess you could say, an epiphany. She tells it she had a visit from an angel and she decided to sue the government."
Muir-O'Malley never stopped fighting for social justice and at one point was an NDP candidate for a seat in the Alberta legislature.
"Leilani was really the picture of what bravery in the face of chronic institutional stonewalling looks like," said Fairbrother, who was also her friend and worked with her on a project called the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada.
"It was her complete unwillingness to have any settlement conditional on secrecy and confidentiality that made Albertans aware of the legacy of sexual sterilization in Alberta."