Alberta Sterilization Settlements

The success of Alberta’s Leilani Muir in her lawsuit against the Alberta Government for wrongfully sterilizing her and confining her in an institution opened the floodgates for similar claims. By 1999, more than 950 claims had been commenced against the province on behalf of persons sterilized under Alberta’s now infamous eugenics law. This represented roughly one-third of the 2,832 persons sterilized in Alberta between 1928 and 1972, when the law was in effect.

The law, based on now discredited Eugenics’ theory, authorized a four person Eugenics Board to direct the sterilization of persons deemed to be mentally disabled or mentally ill. Relying on the Reasons of Madam Justice Joanne B. Veit in the Muir case, the Plaintiffs argued that the Board routinely acted outside the law and that all sterilizations directed by it were wrongful.

Throughout the three-year course of the litigation, the Plaintiffs were led by a three-lawyer committee consisting of P. Jonathan Faulds of Field Atkinson Perraton, Allan A. Garber of Parlee McLaws and Gary W. Wanless of Chapman Riebeek. The Government of Alberta retained Macleod Dixon to conduct its defence. Their litigation team was led by Douglas A. Graham.

From the outset, the claims were case managed by Associate Chief Justice Allan H.J. Wachowich of Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench. The unique circumstances of the case resulted in a number of novel case management procedures including the joint management of all cases in a single proceeding, the appointment of a Plaintiffs’ Committee, and common document production and discoveries to apply to all the actions. Ultimately, the case management process led to the selection of a sample of 17 Plaintiffs out of the hundreds of claimants. The 17 cases were fast tracked towards a Trial scheduled to commence on September 7, 1999.

Three months prior to the start of that Trial, the Province turned to retired Alberta Court of Appeal Justice, the Honourable J.J. Stratton, Q.C., of Lucas Bowker & White to attempt to negotiate a settlement on its behalf with the Plaintiffs. With the negotiations going well, the start of the Trial was adjourned for 60 days. Finally, on November 2, 1999, a settlement was announced by Alberta’s Justice Minister, David Hancock. The November 2nd settlement of $82 million coupled with settlements the previous year, brought the total tab to $142 million. The settlement money was coupled with a formal expression of “profound regret to those who have suffered as a result of being sterilized”. “It is important that this very sad chapter of Alberta history is now closed for the hundreds of victims. The compensation can never fully deal with the trauma suffered by these individuals,” said Hancock.