‘She was an inspiring woman’: Albertans honour Leilani O’Malley
Leilani Muir, who was later known as Leilani O’Malley, is being remembered as a woman who courageously stood up to the Alberta government on behalf of victims of forced sterilization and who also changed the way the public perceived disabilities.
“She was a visionary,” Premier Rachel Notley said. “She was courageous. She was a person who stood up against very, very difficult odds and established a very, very important principle. She was a hero that way.”
O’Malley made history by successfully suing the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization, eventually leading to payouts for hundreds more victims.
“It’s not often that you see someone who’s that vulnerable be so successful to be able to stand up to something as big as a government and tell them that what they did was unjust and wrong,” Notley said. “She did that and we thank her for it.”
O’Malley, 72, died over the weekend at her home in Devon, Alta.
“Leilani was really the picture of what bravery in the face of chronic institutional stonewalling looks like,” said friend Nicola Fairbrother.
Fairbrother also worked with O’Malley on the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada project and is the director of Neighbourhood Bridges, an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities.
“It was her complete unwillingness to have any settlement conditional on secrecy and confidentiality that made Albertans aware of the legacy of sexual sterilization in Alberta.”
O’Malley and almost 3,000 other Albertans were sterilized between 1928 and 1972 under a law intended to prevent those the province called “mental defectives” from passing on their genes.
Her fight for compensation was national news in 1995, and became the subject of a National Film Board documentary, as well as her own book, “A Whisper Past.”
The judge who awarded her $740,000 plus legal costs called the sterilization system “unlawful, offensive and outrageous.”
“It was a dark era in Alberta’s history, but Leilani’s strength and perseverance will ensure we will never forget it, or forget her,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said in a statement.
“Leilani went on to make it her life’s work to give a voice to those unable to speak up and to bring awareness to survivors of these appalling practices and the unthinkable treatment they endured.”
Alberta NDP MLA Marie Renaud was the head of the LoSeCa Foundation, which works with people with developmental disabilities. She was a colleague of O’Malley’s.
“Leilani was just an incredible woman, a trail blazer,” Renaud said.
“She forged the way for thousands of Albertans that were subjected to forced sterilization. Thankfully that act was repealed in the early 70s.”
In the end, the Alberta government reached an $80-million settlement with more than 200 people who had been subjected to forced sterilization.
“I think she opened the doors to looking at the life of someone with a developmental disability,” Renaud said. “For her, at age 11, she failed an IQ test and as a result was subjected to eugenics.”
“She showed the human side of legislation that has the potential to harm people deeply.”
Those who knew O’Malley said she had an incredible zest of life, despite all she’d been through.
“She was still very much a happy person, interested in people and very caring,” Keri McEachern with the Self Advocacy Federation said. “She loved life.”
McEachern said O’Malley was also so strong she made history.
“Not many people would be brave enough to stand up towards the province and say, ‘what you did was wrong and I want compensation and I want an apology.'”
But McEachern said her courage impacted so many other people.
“She helped bring awareness to what people with disabilities had to go through while they were basically imprisoned and what the survivors still deal with today.”
Many feel O’Malley’s experience brought – and continues to bring – a number of social issues to the forefront.
“It helped shift, in many ways, the way in which all of society perceives their relationships with people with developmental disabilities,” the premier said. “They are part of our community. They are active parts of our community. They are equal parts of our community and they deserve to be respected as such.”
Renaud recalled O’Malley’s work to improve community inclusion and advocate for tolerance and love.
“Her legacy is not just what she did for people who were subject to sterilization. It was so much larger than that,” Renaud said.
“She was an inspiring woman.”
With files from The Canadian Press
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