To say that Leilani O’Malley had a horrible childhood would be an understatement.
Since her mother starved her as a child, O’Malley ate out of pig troughs and stole kids’ lunches at school in order to survive.
O’Malley regularly received harsh beatings; her mother often hit her with a hammer or pieces of wood, all because she didn’t like having a girl.
She was an “invisible child.”
Many locals and family friends didn’t know she existed.
Whenever guests would visit them at their home, Leilani’s mother would lock her in the attic or hide her under the porch stairs.
She wasn’t allowed to talk with anyone, not even with her five brothers.
Looking for ways to remove Leilani from the family, her mother sent her in 1955, to be institutionalized at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer (now known as the Michener Centre).
It’s here, where her mother signed the papers to have her sterilized at the age of 14, which changed her life forever.
Decades later in 1996, O’Malley became the first person to successfully sue the Alberta government for her forced sterilization in 1959, which set a precedent of class action lawsuits against the province.
Now, she’s revealing her incredible story with her self-published autobiography, “A Whisper Past,” which will be available for purchase in bookstores and on amazon.com by the end of April.
“I got butterflies in my stomach… I keep watching for the delivery truck to bring them,” O’Malley said, looking out the window from her house in Devon.
“It was a tough book to write,” O’Malley said. “It was very hard; writing it brought back a lot of bad memories.”
The book will be dedicated to “all the children in the world who have been abused in any way.”
“This book is to help children… I went through the abuse as a child and I don’t want to see another child go through this.
“So, if the book saves even one child, then I know I’ve done something,” O’Malley said.
Her face lights up as she joyfully talks about her years living in Victoria, B.C., baby-sitting many children in the community.
“Word got out; everyone wanted a good babysitter,” O’Malley laughed.
Her albums are filled with photos of all the children she babysat and the numerous pets she’s cared for over the years.
O’Malley recalls the time a vet in Victoria told her that her rescued cat’s feet were so badly infected, they had to be amputated.
But O’Malley knew better.
She regularly soaked the cat’s feet in warm water mixed with baking soda three times a day, which removed the infections, saving the cat’s legs.
Her soft-heartedness and care for other beings starkly contrasts to the ordeals she went through in life.
When she was 10 years old, O’Malley was admitted into Red Deer’s institution without any diagnostic testing.
Her admittance was based on the “lies” her mother told the officials — that O’Malley was incapable of tying her shoes, couldn’t dress herself, was incapable of living on her own.
The school officially diagnosed O’Malley as a “Mental Defective Moron,” even though it was later determined that she was of normal intelligence.
Her diagnosis was reason enough to be forcefully sterilized.
Forced sterilization was first commonly practiced in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 19th century.
As part of the eugenics movement, people considered inferior to the human race were sterilized to prevent them from reproducing.
These undesirables include people with mental disabilities, criminals, psychotics, epileptics, mixed races (such as Polish-Irish), immigrants, First Nations people, unwed mothers, the poor and others.
Hitler admired the eugenics practiced in the U.S; the Nazis copied their practices in World War II, to “genetically cleanse” the population of “degenerates.”
“The Nazis first came to Canada to find out how to do the sterilization,” O’Malley said, outraged.
After World War II, forced sterilization was declared a crime against humanity in the Nuremberg trials.
Sterilization programs started to die down in the U.K. and U.S., but it continued in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In Alberta a vigorous sterilization law was implemented.
Between the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 and its repeal in 1972, nearly 3,000 people were sterilized by the order of the Alberta Eugenics Board.
“You can see this happening in the third world,” O’Malley said.
“But in our country of all places? That’s a big black mark on our history.”
O’Malley underwent the surgery when she was 14 years old.
Doctors told her they removed her appendix, while they actually cut off her fallopian tubes.
From that point on she ended up in the hospital for a few days every month, suffering from hemorrhages whenever she got her menstruation.
“For years I would end up in the hospital because the blood would just pour out of me,” O’Malley said.
“I had pain so bad, I couldn’t move… I was suffering too much all because of that one surgery.”
Her doctor said her stomach looked like a slaughterhouse.
It wasn’t until a decade later that she found out she couldn’t bear children.
A doctor told her the scar across her stomach isn’t an appendix scar since the appendix is located on the side.
O’Malley stayed in denial for many years and underwent two surgeries to try to get her fallopian tubes repaired, but it was impossible.
She hit rock bottom during Christmas of 1989.
With a failed marriage and an adoption that had fallen through, she was alone and suicidal.
But then she suddenly decided to write a poem.
“It was like God was on my shoulder,” O’Malley said.
“I’ve never written anything in my life before this, but He had me write a poem word-for-word and it was like God was telling me what to say.”
The poem which saved her life, expanded into a journal over the years and evolved into what is now her autobiography.
She sought professional help from the Mental Health Association the next morning.
“He [the doctor] couldn’t believe that they did the sterilization on me, he didn’t know it was being done,” O’Malley said. “He told me, ‘You sue those bastards.’”
On Jan. 25, 1996, the judge ruled in favour of O’Malley. The Alberta government paid $740,780 in damages for wrongful sterilization and an additional $230,000 for legal costs.
Since her successful lawsuit, the Alberta government apologized for the forced sterilization of more than 2,800 people.
Nearly 850 Albertans who were sterilized under the Sexual Sterilization Act were awarded $142 million in damages.
“If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be here today,” O’Malley said. “My belief in God is very strong.”
Her story grabbed the interest of the National Film Board of Canada who produced the award-winning documentary in 1996 called “The Sterilization of Leilani Muir.”
The play “Invisible Child: Leilani Muir and the Alberta Eugenics Board” was performed at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival in 2012.
Her autobiography will include key trial transcripts, which are being made public for the first time.
They contain testimony by key witnesses who were part of or studied the history of eugenic sterilization in Alberta.
Speaking out in international conferences and writing this book has helped O’Malley to heal.
By sharing her personal story, she hopes to shed light on this portion of Canada’s shameful history and to encourage others who have experienced similar abuse to speak out.
Published in the Devon Dispatch on March 6, 2014