The Sterilization of Leilani Muir (1996)

Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, FRCPC

Canada, 1996. Director: Glynis Whiting Colour, BetaSP, 47 mins.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Alberta and BC governments passed legislation that allowed for the forced sterilization of the mentally ill or defective. By the time the Acts were repealed, shockingly not until the early 1970s, the lives of nearly 4000 individuals were irrevocably altered. One of those individuals wrongfully surgically sterilized was Ms. Leilani Muir who in 1989 courageously began legal action against the province of Alberta. ‘The Sterilization of Leilani Muir’ is a National Film Board of Canada documentary (directed by Glynis Whiting) that focuses on this horrific and very personal story, and culminates in Leilani’s successful 1996 legal victory and award of approximately $740,000.00 in damages. She was the first sterilization victim to win a judgment against the Government of Alberta.

Is ‘The Sterlization of Leilani Muir’ a terrific film? Not really – at least not based on the usual critical parameters. It’s a traditional expository documentary, and offers a relatively matter of fact depiction of events. The central narrative revolves around Leilani’s personal story. The key facts are as follows: an unwanted child who grew up in foster homes in rural Alberta, Leilani was admitted at age 10 to the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta. Apparently based on the results of a single low IQ test, at age 14 she was told her appendix had to be removed. During the procedure, her fallopian tubes were also surreptitiously ligated. It was only in her twenties and in the course of investigations for infertility did she eventually learn she had been sexually sterilized under the Alberta government’s Sterilization Act. Her current IQ score is in the normal range.

As Leilani’s personal story and legal battle unfolds on film, we also learn the broader and no less horrific ramifications of the Sterilization Act. It transpired that those individuals considered “unfit” to bear children and summarily sterilized included new immigrants, alcoholics, epileptics, unwed mothers, the poor and the indigenous. And the Alberta Sterilization Act did not stop with simple sterilizations. The film cites castrations, hysterectomies, and other surgeries performed, as well as the testicular biopsies for research purposes of about thirty young men with Down’s syndrome.

The so-called science behind the Sterilization Act is also depicted within the documentary. In particular, there is fascinating archival material related to the history of eugenics and what became its subservient tool – the IQ test. For example, the viewer learns the story of HH Goddard’s retouched photos in his famous book on the Kallikak family. Goddard was the director of research at New Jersey’s Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys. In the early 1900s, he was the first to utilize Binet’s IQ scale in North America and Goddard’s extreme ideas about heredity quickly gave rise to the eugenics movement on this continent. In brief, Goddard wanted to segregate and institutionalize people based on their IQ scores and prevent them from having children. In his zeal, it appears that in his best known book, The Kallikak Family: A Study In The Heredity Of Feeble-Mindedness (1912), he was willing to retouch some of the family photographs to give them a more disturbing and sinister appearance. Such studies contributed to the social and political environment in which compulsory sterilization laws were passed. Overall however, despite such interesting digressions, ‘The Sterlization of Leilani Muir’ is too choppy and melodramatic. Too many interviews with too many experts distracts from the central story.

But is ‘The Sterlization of Leilani Muir’ an important film and worth seeing? Absolutely. Some films should be judged not on their entertainment value, but rather on their social value. The Sterilization Acts in Alberta and BC were first and foremost bad laws that were also based on bad science. Thanks to Leilani’s public victory, hundreds of former patients in Alberta successfully stepped forward to file similar suits. Similar lawsuits have now been filed in British Columbia where, unfortunately, legal action is still ongoing. One reason that historical (and indeed contemporaneous!) wrongs in the field of mental health go unchallenged is that those affected by mental illness may not always be able to act as effective advocates – either by nature of their illness or the social stigma associated with speaking publicly. Films such as ‘The Sterlization of Leilani Muir’ play a very valuable role in ensuring that such advocacy takes place.