Jennie’s Story Humanizes the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta

If upon such examination, the board is unanimously of the opinion that the patient might safely be discharged if the danger of procreation with its attendant risk of multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny were eliminated, the board may direct in writing such surgical operation for sexual sterilization of the inmate…

It’s hard to believe those words were once part of an accepted Alberta law – the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, which existed from 1928 – 1972. As you might know, the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta allowed anyone who a panel deemed “feeble minded” to be sterilized, in some cases without their knowledge or consent. Wikipedia cites a study from the University of Alberta that reports over 2,800 people were sterilized under the law and that these numbers skewed more towards “socially vulnerable positions including: females, children, unemployed persons, domestics, rural citizens, unmarried, institutionalized persons, Roman and Greek Catholics, persons of Ukrainian, Native and Métis ethnicity.”

You may have noticed I’ve been a bit quiet on After the House Lights recently – I’ve been assistant stage managing Jennie’s Story at Walterdale Theatre, which is revolves around a lady – Jennie – who was one of the victims of the Sexual Sterilization Act. Written by Betty Lambert, Jennie’s Story was a finalist for the 1982 Governor General’s awards.

Before working on the play, I had never heard of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta but it blows me away that this law was in force not just in my Grannie’s lifetime, but my parents lifetime as well. With the show opening the day after Canada Day, the play presents a very intimate and concrete example of one family’s experience with the after effects of an Alberta Eugenics Board-approved sterilization. In fact, Betty Lambert said the play was based on a story her mother told her about someone in their district. It gives me chills that this play isn’t just based on events that may have happened, but based on a story (some of which, I’m sure, was fabricated as it was passed along throughout the community) that Lambert grew up hearing.

In my (admittedly) totally biased opinion, Director Alex Hawkins (who you may remember from my interview with him for The Love of the Nightingale) and the actors have created a show that explores the real-life story behind the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta through these intensely real familial relationships and even the relationship between a community and its authority figures (in Jennie’s Story, a priest). One of the things I really appreciate about Walterdale is the long rehearsal time the shows have and, in this particular show, that long rehearsal time pays off in terms of the complex relationships between the characters and their resulting interactions and reactions that are so believable and relateable. One theme I think audiences will latch onto is the question of how do you react when those who you love and trust the most have betrayed you. For me, this play doesn’t answer that question, but the exploration of that question is what makes it so engaging.

I’m hopeful audiences (that means you, reader) will come out to Jennie’s Story. While we’re all going to be busy celebrating Canada Day and patting ourselves on the back for what nice, friendly, democratic people we are, Jennie’s Story gives us an opportunity to reflect on our past assumptions, institutions and social structures that allowed a law like the Sexual Sterilization Act to be in place for almost 50 years, and figure out how we can be the kind of province and nation going forward where discrimination and denial of human rights isn’t written into our laws.

Jennie’s Story runs at Walterdale Playhouse July 2 – 12. Tickets are $12 – $18 through Tix on the Square or at the door. If you are able to come out to the show, drop me a line and let me know what you think – or give me a wave as I’m changing props between the scenes!

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