"Great men are almost always bad men," Lord Acton famously said. If that is so, we are going to have to tolerate flaws if we want to celebrate "great" Canadians. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century particularly tries our tolerance of several of our textbook heroes.

It was Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who coined the term "eugenics" (Greek for "well-born") in 1883 to describe the process of improving or impairing "the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally." Eugenicists promoted sterilization, marriage laws and segregation of the mentally handicapped. The movement swept much of the globe, including Canada.

The pseudo-science behind eugenics was based on a crude misconception of heredity as "like begets like," which assumed that the "feeble-minded" inevitably passed on their pathology to their offspring. This false biology was an important propaganda device for the movement but the idea found its most fertile ground in Canada in the fears of Protestant Anglo-Saxons, who despaired that they would be "outbred" by degenerate immigrant groups.

One of eugenics' earliest advocates in Canada was the psychiatrist Charles Kirk Clarke, who took the lead in connecting "feeble-mindedness" to immigration, deprecating the peoples of central and eastern Europe as "defectives." But the person who did more than anyone to persuade Canadians of the need for eugenics was Helen MacMurchy, who in 1915 became Ontario's "inspector of the feeble-minded." She guided the National Council of Women to endorse sterilization as a means of preventing mothers from "filling the cradles with degenerate babies."

Helen MacMurchy, who in 1915 became Ontario's "inspector of the feeble-minded" (Courtesy University of Toronto Archives/A1973-0026/293/67).

Women's suffrage and temperance groups played particularly compelling roles in the eugenics movement. They had their greatest influence in Alberta, where Canada's first woman magistrate Emily Murphy lectured widely on the dangers of bad genes. "Insane people," she proclaimed, "are not entitled to progeny." Another prominent campaigner for sterilization was the suffragist Liberal MLA Nellie McClung, whose promotion of the benefits of sterilization, especially for "young simple-minded girls," was vital to the passage of eugenics legislation in Alberta. Another of the "Famous Five," the Hon. Irene Parlby, repeatedly alarmed the public to the growing rate at which the "mentally deficient" were propagating. Her "great and only solution to the problem" was sterilization.

Despite this fervent support, the United Farmers of Alberta government was hesitant to pass sterilization legislation. Premier John Brownlee expressed "anything but enthusiasm." The Camrose United Farmers Women's Association submitted a resolution declaring that "sterilization constitutes a violent and drastic invasion of the most elementary human rights," an objection that is hard to improve upon even today.

Nevertheless, the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act passed on March 7, 1928, creating a Eugenics Board with the power to authorize the sexual sterilization of individuals. From 1929 to 1972, the board approved 4725 of 4800 cases brought before it, of whom 2822 were officially sterilized. (British Columbia passed a similar act in 1933 but was far less vigorous in its implementation. In any case the BC records have been destroyed.)

The Alberta Eugenics Board took on a life of its own. Neither the wave of revulsion that followed the revelations of Hitler's policies to "purify" the German people, nor the strong repudiation of eugenics ideas by leading scientists had any impact on the operation of the board, which continued its work with the full support of the Social Credit government. The new Conservative government of Peter Lougheed finally erased the law in 1972.

A celebrated law case finally brought the eugenics disgrace to light. Leilani Muir sued the Alberta government for wrongfully confining her, stigmatizing her as a moron, and sterilizing her. Rather than offering an acceptable settlement out of court, the Klein government insisted on a full trial, which took place in 1995. The Hon. Madame Justice Joanne B. Veit ruled that the province had wrongfully sterilized Ms Muir and ordered it to pay damages. "The circumstances of Ms Muir's sterilization were so high-handed and so contemptuous... and were undertaken in an atmosphere that so little respected Ms Muir's dignity that the community's and the court's sense of decency is offended," Veit wrote in her judgment.

The story of eugenics is the story of human fallibility, of people who resorted to extreme theories while being convinced that they were absolutely right. While citing science to support their presumptions, they ignored the basic principle of true science -- to think it possible that you may be mistaken. Whether or not we feel that the heroines of the fight for women's equality are diminished by their advocacy of a repugnant idea like eugenics will depend not only on our own values of tolerance, but also on whether or not we expect more of our heroes than their own times would allow. The real hero in this story is Leilani Muir.

The taste for the eugenics of earlier times has diminished but the spirit is hardly crushed in the current atmosphere, confused over the moral implications of genetic engineering and stem-cell research, and subject once again to a worrisome and absolutist faith in collective solutions to intimate moral problems.