Imagine discovering, years after the fact, that you had been sterilized without your knowledge or consent. Impossible as this situation seems, it’s had hundreds of real-life counterparts as a result of the notorious Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta.
Director Alex Hawkins hopes to shed some light on this dark part of our province’s history in Walterdale Theatre’s production of Jennie’s Story. Betty Lambert’s 1981 play tells the tale of a woman who, upon discovering she was sterilized years earlier, confronts the two people responsible: her mother and a local priest. Though fictional, Hawkins notes that this story was not atypical for many of the more than 2800 Albertans who were sterilized under the legislation, which was in place from 1928 to 1971.
“If you were put into a mental hospital in Alberta and wanted to be released, then you went in front of a review committee,” Hawkins explains. “They decided whether you fell under this general category of feeblemindedness—which was not a medical diagnosis, but it was a kind of a social diagnosis. They would release you if you agreed to be sterilized sexually so you couldn’t procreate. And usually when it was done to minors, and very often when it was done to adults, they didn’t really understand what was being done to them. In the play, Jennie thought it was an appendectomy, which was pretty typical.”
Hawkins has wanted to mount this show ever since seeing a production by the University of Alberta’s drama department in the late ’90s. He describes the production as having a number of challenges that were not fully resolved.
“In every play there’s a pitfall that directors and actors have to be concerned about falling into,” he says. “One of the pitfalls of this one is to paint Jennie as some kind of victim: that she’s a victim of the system, and she is this hapless, helpless woman—poor, poor Jennie. I decided a long time ago this play is not about that at all. She’s a very strong woman; she knows her own mind. She’s very capable of facing all this and dealing with it.
While certainly a dark and shameful corner of Albertan history, Hawkins feels it important to remain aware and mindful of it—lest it become just another example of history repeating itself.
“This is the kind of thing that’s always done with the best of intentions,” Hawkins says. “And then the dark side is revealed later.”
Until Sat, Jul 12 (8 pm; 2 pm matinee on Sun, Jul 6)
Directed by Alex Hawkins
Walterdale Theatre, $12 – $18