Alberta's eugenics history

(Edmonton) Agata Derda grew up in Poland, but, intrigued with studying cultural differences, lived in Ireland as a young undergraduate arts student.
Along the way, she discovered something that inspires her work: “People are similar to each other, no matter where they were raised or where they live.”

Now, as a master’s student in the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts, Derda’s explorations in printmaking contemplate the great human chain, and are included in The Collective Memory Project, an art show that opens Oct. 23 at the U of A’s Faculty of Extension Gallery at Enterprise Square. An opening reception has been planned for 2 to 4 p.m. that day, with everyone welcome to attend.

Featuring a range of contemporary art such as paintings, digital printmaking, sculptural mixed media and archival photographs, The Collective Memory Project caps off Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week, Oct. 15–23, and contemplates both the legacy and contemporary attitudes about eugenic ideas in Alberta.

“There’s a danger of forgetting Alberta’s history with eugenics and that sort of forgetting is not an idle happenstance; I would argue that eugenics—while being a dark, traumatic event in history that begs remembrance for ethical reasons—hasn’t ended,” said Anne Pasek, curator for the exhibit, and a recent U of A Faculty of Arts graduate.

Between 1929 and 1972, more than 2,800 people who were deemed unfit by the government to raise families of their own underwent reproductive sterilization in Alberta. Other dark examples of Canadian eugenics policies include a head tax levied on Chinese immigrants and a residential school system that saw Aboriginal children seized from their families and their cultures.

But while those past actions have since been acknowledged by governments as unjust, some contemporary policies are also troubling, Pasek said.
“There are many aspects of public policy and collective ethics that are still profoundly influenced by eugenic ideas,” including selective immigration policies that screen out people with disabilities, and future ethical quandaries such as the question of “designer” babies, Pasek said.

The Collective Memory Project investigates how the concept of “personhood” “is unequally distributed in society,” she added.
The show features 20 works submitted by artists from across Canada, including an incarcerated woman, a man with a learning disability and, from an East Coast artist, an ambitious piece of performance art from a walk through an Edmonton park named for Louise McKinney. McKinney, who became Alberta’s first female MLA in 1917 and was a pioneer of women’s rights, was also a supporter of eugenics policies.

Students from the University of Alberta also contributed to the Collective Memory Project, Derda among them. Her three black and white digital photo compositions in the show pay tribute human individuality, and at the same time, explore a common human bond.

“We are all elements, puzzles, pieces of a much bigger construction, which we all create and influence. By excluding some of the puzzles we make that image incomplete,” said Derda. “Believing naively that our own experience is the most important and unique, we tend to overlook the fact that there is a world around us and we are all part of it.”

The show aims to widen the public’s understanding of eugenics and make it a “contemporary concern, so hopefully when people view the art, they’ll get a sense of how they can act on some of these problems,” Pasek said.

The show will also feature a community board where people are encouraged to write their reflections on sticky notes that will be posted for a collective remembrance in keeping with the exhibit theme.

The Collective Memory Project runs at the Faculty of Extension Gallery in Enterprise Square, 10230 Jasper Avenue, until Nov. 23 and can be viewed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.