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Leilani Muir is shown with her files that detail her sterilization at 14 years of age.

John McKay

Raised by an abusive mother, wrongly diagnosed as a "moron," then subjected to the forced removal of her fallopian tubes, Leilani O'Malley endured a life of pain, stigma and humiliation but eventually regained her dignity in a landmark lawsuit that exposed a dark chapter in Alberta's history.

Under her married name, Leilani Muir, she launched a court case against the Alberta government for sterilizing her while she was a teenaged ward of the state at a government-run institution in Red Deer.

"Nobody has the right to play God with other people's lives. Nobody," she told the court.

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She won her litigation in 1996 and was awarded $740,000, opening the door to financial settlements for hundreds of other survivors. That same year, the National Film Board produced a documentary about her case.

Ms. O'Malley died during the weekend, at her home in Devon, Alta. She was 71. She is believed to have been suffering from complications related to diabetes, according to her friend and fellow advocate Kerri McEachern of the Self-Advocacy Federation.

"It's really a shock for the whole community because she was the face of abuse and surviving it," Ms. McEachern said.

"She was a tireless advocate. She was a warrior."

About 2,800 people were forcibly sterilized in Alberta between 1928 and 1972. There had been some quiet court settlements before but it was Ms. O'Malley's highly publicized case that put a spotlight on the province's now-defunct eugenics board and forced the government to offer financial compensation, said Nicola Fairbrother, also a friend and fellow human-rights advocate, and director of Neighbourhood Bridges.

"What made Leilani important to Canadian history was that she was unwilling to have any settlements or court hearings to be secret or confidential," Ms. Fairbrother said in an interview.

"So Leilani's gift to other eugenics survivors and to the history of Alberta was that she made her case public in the face of intense scrutiny."

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After her court victory, she changed her family name to O'Malley, to mark a break with her past, Ms. Fairbrother said. "It was a rebirth for her."

Nevertheless, Ms. O'Malley kept busy as a human-rights advocate and found time to run as a New Democratic Party candidate for a seat in the Alberta legislature.

She also helped with the creation of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, a comprehensive academic records collection on the policy that had marked her life.

The woman once labelled as a mentally defective troublemaker was a witty, articulate public speaker.

At a 2012 speech in Edmonton, she alluded to the extraordinary circumstances that took her from an unhappy childhood on a farm in Black Diamond, Alta., to conferences in Ottawa and Paris.

"It is my privilege to speak all over the world when I was told I could not do anything on my own," she said.

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"I think I got the last laugh on everybody, the government and my family."

Leilani Marietta Draycott was born in Calgary on July 15, 1944, the fourth of the six children of Amy Scorah (née Novakowski).

She grew up believing that her family name was Scorah and that her father was Harley Scorah, a farmer and the town constable.

She later discovered when she was in her 20s that the man listed as her father on her birth certificate was Earl Draycott, whom her mother had married in 1941.

She doubted that he was her biological father, however, because he had enlisted in the military and had shipped out to Europe by 1942.

She also grew up believing she had four brothers, having been told that a fifth one, Alvin, had died as a toddler.

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He was actually alive and had been put up for adoption, which his siblings learned when a cancer-stricken Alvin reappeared in 1986, looking for his birth family before he died later that year.

"It took me years to figure out who my real family was. Even now, some of the details are not certain," Ms. O'Malley wrote in her autobiography, A Whisper Past.

She described a troubled childhood with an abusive mother who doted on her brothers but yelled at her, beat her and deprived her of food.

"It felt like she was taking out on me all of her anger about whatever was upsetting her so much in life," she wrote in her memoirs.

The abuse and malnutrition led her to steal her schoolmates' lunches, she recalled.

According to the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta judgment in her litigation against the government, she was seven when her mother first took her to a "guidance clinic," which aimed to help troubled children but often steered them toward sterilization.

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Her mother admitted to the clinic that she had been a heavy drinker while pregnant with Leilani.

The girl was examined by a doctor, Leonard Jan Le Vann, who described himself as the clinic's psychiatrist, but in fact had never received full accreditation.

Just days before she turned 11, Leilani was admitted to Alberta's Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives.

She later testified that her parents drove her to "a big grey building" and simply told to get out.

"Nobody came out [of the car] to give me a hug or say goodbye or anything. I looked back and my mother had a big smirk on her face as they drove away."

Her admission file included an assessment describing her mental condition as "seems intelligent – moron," and a form signed by her mother stating: "I am agreeable that sterilization be performed on my child … if this is deemed advisable by the Provincial Eugenics Board."

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In a follow-up assessment in 1957, Dr. Le Vann gave her an IQ test. The resulting score, 64, placed her "in the Defective Category," he wrote, concluding that she was "mental defective – moron."

The court heard testimony indicating that later tests found she had an average IQ.

Nevertheless, after nearly two years at the PTS, Leilani was brought to the attention of the Eugenics Board because she had started to show an interest in boys.

Under the heading "Reason for sterilization," her file said: "Danger of the transmission to the progeny of Mental Deficiency or Disability, also incapable of Intelligent parenthood."

Ms. O'Malley said she was told she needed to have surgery to remove her appendix. An appendectomy was indeed performed on her, but her fallopian tubes were also removed in January, 1959.

She left the school, without having been officially discharged, when she was nearly 21 years old, in March, 1965.

She worked as a waitress, a retail clerk, a building manager and a daycare worker.

She told the court that for a decade she went from one medical specialist to another in a vain attempt to conceive a child.

Her first marriage ended after just a year in 1970. She married again in 1980. She and her husband applied to become adoptive parents. They met a pregnant woman who wanted them to raise her child. Ms. O'Malley even purchased a bassinet and diapers.

However, their adoption bid was blocked by social workers. She said they told her she was unfit for parenthood because she had been institutionalized. Also, the judgment said, there was an unfounded allegation of abuse against a child that she had been babysitting.

By 1993, she was 48 and living by herself in Esquimalt, outside Victoria, where she worked at a cafeteria, when she decided to sue the Alberta government.

She was later told that, during a meeting, the government's lawyers noticed her presence and asked her counsel: "Why are you bringing a retarded person in here?"

"I wish I had heard that because I would have stomped on a few toes," she wrote.

The incident showed, she said, that even decades after she had left the PTS strangers still judged her based on the way her files misportrayed her.

In January, 1996, almost exactly 37 years after she had been sterilized, Madame Justice Joanne Veit ruled in her favour, ordering the Alberta government to pay her $740,000.

"The circumstances of Ms. Muir's sterilization were so high-handed … and were undertaken in an atmosphere that so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity that the community's, and the court's, sense of decency is offended," the judgment said.

The provincial government was not gracious in defeat. Thanks to her court victory, hundreds of sterilization victims had also filed court claims. The province introduced Bill 26, which used the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to force the courts to cap judgments at $150,000 a person. However, a public outcry forced the government to withdraw the bill after only one day.

About 500 claimants settled for $48-million in 1998. The following year, Alberta agreed to an $82-million compensation package for another 247 victims of forced sterilization.

At the announcement, the justice minister, David Hancock, only said he was sorry after he was pressed by a reporter. Then-premier Ralph Klein did not attend the packed news conference and, when asked for comment, told reporters: "We extend regrets for the actions of another government in another period of time."

But it was vindication for Ms. O'Malley, who sat front and centre at the press conference, wiping tears from her eyes.

"I'm glad it's coming to a closure for everybody," she said.

Information about surviving relatives was not immediately available.

Ms. O'Malley's parents had died before her court case. In her book, she described her brothers as having joined in the physical abuse initiated by her mother.

She only expressed sympathy for her elder brother, Alvin, who died before she could get to know him.

"We'll meet again some day in heaven," she wrote about him in her memoirs.

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