The bare walls were closing in on me, there was nothing to look at, no pictures of perfect cottages and meadows bathed in the morning sun, just white stark walls. I didn’t know what to look at so I looked down at my hands.Read Francine Cunningham's 2822
2822, is a novel that explores The Sexual Sterilization Act in Canada, primarily in Alberta from 1928 to 1972. This act was brought into law as a means to get rid of the mentally defective and morally evil, people in society and to stop them procreating and passing on their genes to a new generation.
This act targeted; females, males, mentally ill people, people of low economic background, minorities and immigrants. This act also heavily targeted First Nations women. Officially, there were 2822 people sterilized in Alberta during the time that this law was in effect, that number is believed to be low and does not represent the actual number of people that were sterilized.
Often, the women who were sterilized were not made aware of this fact; they would be told they were having routine surgery like an appendectomy. When a person was brought before the Eugenics Board, their file would typically be reviewed by 3-5 people for an average of 13 mins, and they almost never turned down a case. Sadly, it did not take much to have a case approved, and by the later years of the act it required no consent from anyone in guardianship.
My novel tells the story of a woman named Tiffany Steinhaur, a Cree woman, who I have given a last name from my own family. The story takes place in three time periods; 1966-1982 when Tiffany is sterilized, told about what happened in her late twenties and her eventual suicide in 1982, and the present 2013-2014, in the form of a court case.
The third time period is 2093 and tells the story of Jasime, a 15 year old Aboriginal girl, who under the new eugenics laws of the future has been deemed unfit to be a mother. It looks at her rebellion after the decision and how she changes how people see the practice of eugenics. I choose to have these three time periods because I believe that history might repeat itself, with the advancement in technology and the types of eugenics we currently posses, I think it would be really easy to ignore what has happened in our past. I hope to start a conversation about what has happened and what might happen again in the future.
June 6, 1980
The small bell that hung above the door dinged as I entered the building. The waiting room was stuffy and the heat engulfed me. There were three fans, one on the receptionist’s desk blowing warm air at her red sweaty face, and two stationed facing the almost empty chairs lined up against two walls. I took off my light jacket and walked to the desk.
“Hi,” I said.
“Pease take a seat, I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
I looked around again; the only other people in this room were a mother and her young son who was lying limp in her arms. I looked back at the woman. She was dressed in tight white scrubs. The spaces underneath her armpits were damp and expanding outwards. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun that stretched the corners of her melting makeup eyes. The rest of her face sagged towards her bust. She was filling in a crossword. I didn’t move.
“I’m here for an appointment, ” I repeated.
“I know that dear, take a seat. The doctor is in with a patient and you see those people over there? They are before you, so…”
I breathed deep, “Can we at least open the door?”
She put down her pen and looked up at me, “And let in the hot air? Besides, aren’t your people supposed to be able to handle the prairie summer heat?”
I stared into her eyes; she broke first and looked me up and down before leaning back into her chair. I knew I wasn’t going to win this, I never did. I lowered my head and walked to a chair in front of one of the fans and sat down. She picked up her pen and looked back down at her crossword. I peeked over to the other woman but she avoided my eye line and looked down at her son in her arms. I was used to that too.
The bare walls were closing in on me, there was nothing to look at, no pictures of perfect cottages and meadows bathed in the morning sun, just white stark walls. I didn’t know what to look at so I looked down at my hands. They were always older than I remembered. More wrinkled, more scared, the brown deeper, but now there was something new on them, a ring- a simple gold band with a tiny diamond that sparkled out happiness. It didn’t quite fit; it was loose and slid down to my knuckle too easily. My finger curled inwards, keeping it from becoming lost in the beige carpet.
I twisted the ring around my finger and imagined what our children would look like; they would have his blue eyes and my copper skin. They would laugh with an infectious boom like he did, one that stole smiles from everyone around. We had spent the night he proposed talking about our life, our future, everything we would be. He wanted five children, I said three was more than enough; he smiled and said as long as they all look like you I’ll be happy.
We’d been trying to get pregnant for the last six months but had been having a hard time. I didn’t know why, so when he suggested I go to the doctor I had shrugged and suggest we just try harder. When he suggested it again a few weeks later I could tell he was concerned so I had went. I knew everything was fine but it was just easier to go and then I could get back to planning the wedding, my wedding, I smiled, I could see the dress, the cake, the fireworks.
“Ms. Steinhaur,” the voice said.
I shook my head and looked up. The waiting room was empty. My back was covered in sweat and my hair hung damp, clinging to the side of my face.
“I’m ready for you now,” he said, as he flipped my file open.
The doctor was tall, his face was red and sweaty like mine, The stethoscope around his neck gleamed; his bow tie was tight against his neck and matched the little bit of sock I could see peeking out from his dishelved left trouser leg.
I stood up, my legs trembled, I took a deep breath and forced my legs forward.
He is fine, he is nice, he is fine, I repeated to myself as I walked towards him. He was nice, the last time I had seen him he had shown me pictures of his own children. It was just the coat, if could take the coat off everything would be better. I looked at the receptionist’s desk as I passed, it was empty, and the crossword sat open and almost finished. The doctor walked ahead of me, his head down reading. He stopped at a door and motioned me inside. My face cracked into a smile as I edged past him, he looked past me and out the small window on the opposite side of room. I took a seat on the thick patient bed, the paper crinkling under me. He sat on the stool opposite of me and continued to read the file. We sat there in silence until he finally spoke.
“So, Ms. Steinhaur, how are you today?”
“Hot,” I said.
“Aren’t we all,” he said, “so I guess you would like to know the results of that test we gave you two weeks ago.”
I nodded yes.
“Well, the results of your hysteropingogram are not good, Ms.Steinhaur. I don’t know why you didn’t tell me you had a bilateral salpingectomy.”
I looked at the doctor; I had no idea what he just said. My mind was trying to process all the words he had thrown at me.
He sighed before mopping his face with his handkerchief, “You have been sterilized Ms. Steinhaur, that is why you cannot get pregnant. I don’t know why you came to see me, there’s nothing I can do at this point and frankly if you would have been honest at our initial meeting I could have told you that then and saved us both the trouble.”
I blinked. My body went ridged and my breath caught in my chest.
“I don’t, I don’t know what you are saying.” I said.
“I am saying that you had the entirety of your fallopian tubes removed, which was confirmed by the x-ray. Now I went through your medical history and you had this procedure done when you were 15.”
“What?” I was only able to take in tiny gasps of air.
“It said you went in for a bilateral salpingectomy and a routine appendectomy on the 2nd of December 1966.”
The doctor was looking down at his notes and I wanted to grab him and shake him. He was wrong, he was so so wrong. I’d never had any of that done. I could feel myself start to tremble as tears started to course down my cheeks. He looked up at me and I could feel his soften. He put down his file and pulled his chair closer to mine. He put a hand on my arm.
“Tiffany, did you not know?”
I shook my head. The image of blond haired children running across my lawn filled my vision. I could hear his voice, the flipping of pages, I could see the anxious look on his face as he looked from back down to the file.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“It means, it means you will never have children Tiffany, I’m sorry.”
“But you can fix it right?” I asked, my voice sounded strange in my ears.
“I’m sorry, I can’t, it’s an irreversible procedure.”
“But, I, I still have my periods and I, I am only 29 and I’m engaged and I have 5 names picked out…”
The room was choking me with its heat, I felt dizzy and put my hands on the bed to stabilize me. The doctor rolled closer to me and put a hand on my leg.
“Ok, take a deep breath.”
“But how? Why was this done?”
“You were a resident of, The provincial Training School, were you not?” he asked gently.
“You were under the guardianship of Father Michel Shlem?”
“Yyes,” my mouth was trembling so hard words could barely make it out.
“Well, under the Sexual Sterilization Act, you were deemed unfit to be a mother and had your fallopian tubes removed.”
I shook me head, “no, no you are mistaken, please, please look again.”
“I’m so sorry Tiffany, ” he said, while standing up and moving closer me. He put an arm around my shaking shoulders. His white coat touched my bare arms and flinched back from him.
“NO,” I screamed.
He pulled back and took a step back.
I forgot about the heat, I forgot about the ring that didn’t fit. I forgot about the receptionist in the white scrubs with makeup melting down her face, I forgot about everything. My mind was blank and I could feel myself screaming no but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear anything. I tried to stand but my body betrayed me and I collapsed onto the floor. The doctor knelt down beside and I could feel his hands on my shoulders. I could see white shoes on white tile and then I closed my eyes and all I saw was black.
Case 13 of 13. Tiffany Steinhaur- (W)- Resident at Provincial Training Centre, Red Deer Alberta- N=3406
Presentation date: September 16, 1966.
Date of Birth: June 04, 1951.
Age: 15 years.
Proceedings instituted by Father Micheal Shlem.
Medical History by J.L Gardner, M.D.
Sterilization recommended by Dr.Gardner.
Family History: Mother and Father are deceased. Extended family lives on the Saddle Lake reserve in Alberta Canada. Guardianship was handed over to Father Micheal Shlem when she was brought to the Red Deer Residential School in 1956.
Social History: Was living at the Red Deer Residential School until August of this year. She was committed to the Provincial Training center after the staff at the school noticed sexual delinquency in the form of touching with other males her age. She can speak but refuses to most of the time. She also a history of exhibiting unhealthy emotional tendencies.
IQ test score: patient would not take the test, when we tried to do the test orally the patient did not respond.
Diagnosis: Mental defective, high risk of social behavior problems, Feeblemindedness.
Bilateral salpingectomy will be performed by surgeon on staff at Red Deer general hospital during appendectomy. It will be up to Father Micheal Shlem to divulge said surgery to Ms. Stenhaur if and when he deems it safe to her mental stability.