Life Sentence is a work of literary fiction that explores the tragic personal consequences of the eugenics movement in Alberta during the 20th century.
The story is as arresting as it is tragic. With passage of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928, the Canadian Province of Alberta began sterilizing “feeble-minded” and “morally defective” individuals, usually without the consent of parents or guardians. Females had their ovaries removed or their fallopian tubes tied, while males underwent vasectomies or were castrated. The express intent was to stop these individuals from having children of their own. In the conservative, rural Alberta of the day, sterilization of these “undesirables” was commonly described as akin to using selective breeding to eliminate unwanted traits from a livestock herd. The proponents of the eugenics movement believed prairie society would be morally stronger, and economically better off, for their prescience.
Typical candidates for surgery included mentally challenged youth, Aboriginal and Métis children, orphans and non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Public health nurses and school teachers proved instrumental in recommending individuals for confinement and, by implication, sterilization. By 1969, more than 2800 young persons had been sterilized, frequently without their knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the effects of the surgery far outlived the legislation, which was not repealed for nearly 50 years and only then as the result of a successful legal challenge from a former inmate.
Life Sentence follows the tragic arc of Janek Blichowicz, the son of poor Polish immigrants in southern Alberta.
After losing his father while still an infant and then forcibly given up by his impoverished mother, Janek spends seven difficult years in the main Provincial sterilization facility. His release brings only more hardship as he struggles to earn a living without an education or a trade, flouts the law and escapes imprisonment, negotiates compromised relationships, and navigates a fraught marriage.
Despite the passage of the years, the emotional scars from his incarceration heal slowly. His gruff nature and general misanthropy further cement his enduring stature as a social outcast. When, in his old age, he becomes ill but refuses to abandon his isolated farm, the intervention of a well-meaning but naïve social worker makes matters worse by threatening his hard-won independence. Only the unconditional friendship of a troubled farm youth brings Janek a restorative measure of understanding, consolation and self-worth in his last years.
He was a boy like any other, born on a farm eight miles from the town of Cheatgrass. His parents, Stanislaw and Marta Blichowicz, had emigrated from southern Poland after the war. They were latecomers to the prairies and the best land was already taken. It was only through the help of a kindly land agent that they were able to find a homestead at all. With its steep slopes and rocky outcroppings, this was land no one else wanted. But when Stanislaw ran his hand through the stiff, dry grass of its upland meadows, he saw only the beautiful foothills of his homeland. To him, it was perfect. He would once again be a shepherd, but this time in a peaceful land, a land ripe with promise.
Stanislaw’s first concern was a house for Marta, who was heavy with child, and three-year old Anka. What little money he possessed was needed to buy his first flock, so his family slept beneath canvas under the stars until he was able to find a suitable cave for them. In his homeland, the ancient people had found shelter in caves. Here, on the eastern slope of the mountains, the caves were much smaller than the ancestral ones of his memory. The largest on his land, shrouded beneath a thin, protruding lip of sweet-smelling limestone, was only six feet high and twenty feet deep once he hollowed it out with his pick-axe. Beyond that point the fissure in the rock narrowed, making it impossible to walk or even crawl farther into the mountain. Snug and dry, the cave would shelter them from harm for now.
The cave commanded a beautiful view of the wide valley and as Stanislaw shoveled out the last of the broken rock, he paused to take in the view. The mountains at his back swept straight to the south and then arced southeast to meet the horizon like an impregnable grey fortress. Between them and the cave were acres of grass that rippled into the distance like soft folds in a velvet cloth. A snaking ribbon of budding trees marked the path of a sizeable creek. Directly below him was a broad bowl of grass—his upper pasture—that spilled gently downslope to a second meadow, the perfect place to build his house and barn. In the distance, he could just make out the buildings of Cheatgrass where they had disembarked from the train to walk to their new home.
Their new home: he shook his head in wonder at the thought, at their good fortune. True, the cave was not much, but it would do until he could afford to build a proper house. He could not have known that his unborn son would be living in the cave nearly seventy years later.
If finding shelter was hard, locating sheep to buy proved even more difficult. His inquiries in Cheatgrass, made in his halting English, came to nothing. This was cattle country, fenced cattle country. No one wanted to encourage free grazing on the range or risk loosing the scourge of scabies upon the grasslands. Sheep were nowhere to be found. The best Stanislaw could do on his trip to town was to trade his second-best jack-knife for two herding dogs that the local banker had acquired unexpectedly when an English remittance man went bust. The smaller of the pair, pitch black except for a ring of white around one eye, was called Patch. The other, larger and with reverse markings, was said to be Patch’s pup. His name was Cloudy. Stanislaw had nothing but the banker’s word that Patch and Cloudy could herd, but their price was within his means. The banker, pleased with the bargain he had struck with this newcomer, volunteered that Stanislaw would probably not find any sheep between Cheatgrass and Calgary. The auction house in the city, many miles down the line, was his best bet.
In preparation for the journey, Stanislaw spent weeks hunting mule deer, snaring rabbits and grouse, and stealing duck eggs from nests at the water’s edge. He gutted and butchered the animals and rigged smoking racks to cure the meat. He wove slender willows into a barricade that hid and protected the entrance to the cave. Marta boiled the eggs, picked balsamroot and burdock, stored her precious sack of groats on a natural rock shelf high up in the cave. There was no milk for Anka, but buying a dam would soon fix that. Stanislaw thought the round trip to the auction market in Calgary would take about three weeks, so they prepared enough food to last more than a month. On the day of departure, he sharpened his knife, filled a sack with deer jerky and a flask of water, and told Marta he would leave big Cloudy to guard her and Anka against attack from mountain lions, bears or wolves. He left her his loaded rifle as well. She held it between her swollen breasts and belly like an old friend.
As he walked north, always keeping the rail line to Calgary in sight, Stanislaw sought work at ranches and stock farms along the way. Prices for beef cattle were high and the stockmen did not mind parting with a meal, a bed in the bunkhouse or few dollars to have the strong, quiet newcomer repair a fence, dig a well, or castrate the bull calves. At one farm, they needed to cut out some heifers from the larger herd, which gave Stanislaw a chance to work his dog. Patch was good, very good. As he and the dog lay together for warmth that night, he rubbed the dog’s belly till they both fell asleep.
The city was large and noisy and smelly, even on the outskirts. He did not know where to go but understood that if he continued to follow the train tracks he would eventually get to the stockyards. The brisk north wind carried the fear of the condemned animals to him. Soon most would have their senses dulled by a hard knock to the forehead and their throats slit to drain their lifeblood so that they might be carved up and sent to the city’s many butcher shops. Other animals, the minority in this settled country, would meet a different fate in the auction ring. Cattle, horses, pigs, and even the odd sheep, would go to the highest bidders who needed to enlarge or replenish their farm stock.
Stanislaw saw few sheep. Determined not to miss out on those available, he took a seat in the ring where he could easily catch the eye of the auctioneer. There he waited all morning and part of the afternoon. Sheep were the least popular purchase, and their disposal took place only after the sale of all other stock. Finally, around mid-afternoon, two pens of ewes were offered. There were fourteen sheep in the first consignment—more than he could afford—so he just watched to see what price they commanded. Finding it hard to understand the auctioneer’s garbled talk, he turned to a man on a nearby bench for help. The man looked him up and down in silence, sniffed at his dirty clothes. He seemed to think hard before finally spitting out the number. Stanislaw nodded his thanks, but the man had already turned his back. The price was high, but not impossible to meet. He was hopeful.
The second pen held six black-faced ewes, two or maybe three fat with lambs. They were fine animals. He did the calculation; if the price held and he was successful in his bid, he would have enough money left to purchase a ram. But he was not the only bidder. A sallow old man in a dirty straw hat on the other side of the ring also wanted them. Stanislaw bid, the old man counterbid, and the existing ceiling fell. At the auctioneer’s urging, the price continued to climb. In the blink of an eye, it topped the first bid by half as much again. If the old man refused to concede after the next round, Stanislaw would not have any money left for a breeding ram. Yet he also knew that if he missed this chance, it might be a week before the next auction. And there was no guarantee that sheep would be on offer. He could not afford that. The flurry of bids continued. In minutes, the earlier price nearly doubled. The ridiculous bid was with the old man, yet the auctioneer still asked for more. Stanislaw sucked in his breath and raised his hand for what he knew must be the last time. The old man across the arena looked astonished. He stood, spit between the benches and slapped the air with his open palm as if to say, you’re crazy. Stanislaw’s gamble had paid off, but now he would have to hope that one of the unborn lambs was a buck.
The trip back to the farm took more than a week. Stanislaw set their course for home by the railway tracks, and Patch kept the small flock moving and in check. Each night, they bedded down near a creek or a slough, which kept the sheep from wandering. On the third day of their journey a freight train roared by, terrifying the sheep and scattering them in every direction. Once again, Patch proved more than a match for them. Stanislaw was pleased, for a shepherd without a good dog was worth nothing.
As they walked along in the spring sunshine, he constructed a pen for the sheep in his head. Most of the time, his flock would range between the lower and upper meadows of their farm, but a corral would be essential for shearing or dipping or castrating. Then there was the barn to consider; he would need to complete that before winter as well. Stanislaw had never experienced winter on the prairies, but the elevation of their farm above the plain told him he might expect the worst. Yes, he would definitely build the corral and the barn on the lower meadow, close to the creek where the sheep could drink if he cut a hole in the ice. And yes, the barn must come before the proper house; without the flock, his family could not survive. He smiled as their farm took shape in his mind; theirs would be a good life.
He had completed the rail corral and started on the stone foundation for the barn by the time Janek was born in mid-April, 1929. It was an easy birth and Stanislaw crossed himself in thanks. Their son was a sturdy boy, with dark hair and eyes, a crooked nose and ears that stuck straight out from his head like tiny wings. They thought he was perfect, and hugged each other in their joy. In the evenings, after Marta had nursed the baby and nestled him in his warm, wool-lined hollow in the floor of the cave, Stanislaw would often stand and stare at his sleeping son and imagine the day when the boy would be old enough to work beside him in the meadows. He found it hard to wait. Until then, he vowed, he would construct solid buildings and build up the flock and become known far and wide for the finest wool and mutton on the market. One day all of this, Stanislaw’s pride and joy, would belong to Janek.
The boy’s birth coincided with the first shearing of the flock. Soon after, the first lambs arrived in quick succession. There were six in all, four singles and one set of twins. Because Marta was sore and tired, Stanislaw took Anka with him to the barn each day to watch as the lambs were born. She stared with her big brown eyes as each lamb slipped from its mother. Stanislaw talked to her the whole time, explaining as best he could the messy miracle of birth and the slick beauty of new babies. She was torn between fear and wonder, and stayed close by his side, barely breathing until she heard each lamb bleat. Stanislaw held his breath as well until he saw that two of the lambs were rams.
With the wool from this first harvest, he journeyed to Cheatgrass where he traded it for needed supplies, garden seeds, a small work horse, harness and a singletree. He thought the prices high, but he did not possess enough English to barter effectively with the merchants as he would have in Poland. To a man, they were curious about the oddly-dressed stranger with the equally odd name. No matter how many times he said his name—Stan-e-slawv Blee-co-veech—these exiled sons of England and Ontario and Utah could not wrap their tongues around it. After several tries and much laughter, one of the men in the hardware store said, “Never mind, we’ll call you Bleek. That will do.”
Stanislaw’s new horse, which little Anka named Fuzzy because of his winter coat, made it possible for him to cut logs in the hills and drag them home where he could size, notch and assemble them into a barn. Marta turned her hand to the spade and, over the course of several weeks, dug a large garden from the tough sod of the meadow. With seed stock from the general store, she planted row after row of potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, turnips and parsnips. On one side of the garden, she wove a loose willow lattice for her peas and beans and cucumbers to climb as they reached for the sun. All summer long she and little Anka carried buckets of water from the creek to keep the precious plants alive. Rabbits and marmots nibbled constantly on the tender shoots, but Marta guarded her crop jealously and eventually dispatched many of the varmints with her rifle. Her stewpot was nearly always full that summer.
Autumn arrived with chill air and a blaze of color, with the larches and the sumacs competing for attention. Sensing change in the air, geese and ducks made their way south; pickled eggs in Marta’s larder were the only reminder of their former abundance. While she stored her root crops with Anka’s help, and put up jars of pickles and beans, Stanislaw cut and stacked hay. Then he and the dogs brought the ewes and their lambs down from the upper meadow to the barn where they would be safe from predators and winter storms. He had lost one ewe to a wolf already and could not afford to lose another. Normally, he would breed his ewes in late fall but the ram lambs were not old enough yet. Depending on how they developed, it might be as much as another year before he could enlarge his flock and sell off the extra tup. This also meant there would be no mutton in the pot this winter, so Stanislaw often took his rifle into the hills in search of game. As the nights grew colder, he cut more logs and fashioned a solid, mud-chinked wall and door for the entrance to the cave. When that was done, he and Fuzzy made more trips to the hills for logs. Soon many cords of firewood stood outside their home. Let winter bring its worst; they were ready.
It was the hardest winter in years. The oldtimers in Cheatgrass, who had vivid memories of the bitter cold, deep drifts and gale-force winds of 1906, claimed this was worse. The mercury began to fall just before Christmas and eventually hit thirty-five below. It then refused to budge. So much snow fell that it soon came up to a horse’s belly. Range cattle could find no grass and fed on brush when they could it. Many starved. Those that did not die were in such poor shape that the stockmen shot them rather than waste their scant supplies of hay on the lost causes. Calves born early in the spring froze on the plains. By mid-March, when the weather finally relented, it was too late for many.
Stanislaw and Marta knew little about the tragedy unfolding beyond the foothills. Their horse and few head of sheep were safe within the snug log barn on the lower meadow. Each day Stanislaw would break a fresh trail down the hill, pitch the flock a ration from his haystack behind the barn, and chop a hole in the creek to water them. Once a week, he would muck out the barn.
Marta rarely left the cave. She nursed Janek, cared for little Anka, and tended the fire and the cooking pot. Thankfully they had a good store of dried meat and root vegetables at the rear of the cave. When she was not making meals, she patched her family’s old clothes and knitted new ones of wool. She could perform miracles with her needles. As much as she felt like a prisoner in her own home during that endless winter, Marta was content. They had the children. They had each other. They had everything they needed.
Little Anka often accompanied Stanislaw to the barn. The snow was too deep for her short legs, so he would hoist her onto his broad shoulders and trudge down the hill. She loved to play with the growing lambs in the barn while he did his chores. Sometimes he would pause in his work to watch as she chased after the lambs, her soft brown curls streaming from beneath her wool hat, her sweet laughter ringing in the cold air. She always made him smile.
To Stanislaw’s surprise, there came a day in the middle of January when she said she didn’t want to go down to the barn. She said her head hurt. She began to sniffle and cough. The cough worsened to the point that Marta refused to allow her to go outside at all. It’s just a cold, said Stanislaw, she will be better soon. But she wasn’t. The cough deepened. It became an ugly hack that seemed to squeeze her chest like a blacksmith’s bellows. She felt hot to the touch. Marta tried all the old remedies she knew, but nothing helped. Soon Anka began to sleep all the time, coughing and squirming as she did so. Marta told Stanislaw he must get the doctor from town.
By the time they reached the main street of Cheatgrass, Fuzzy was covered from mane and tail with a thick crust of snow and Stanislaw’s beard and moustache were white with frost. His red cheeks and forehead burned from the cold. He dismounted, stabled his horse at the livery barn and asked where to find the doctor. He bounded up the stairs to the doctor’s office and blurted, “My little girl so sick. You must come.” The doctor had troubles of his own, having invested heavily in a bankrupt local ranch, and he was in no mood to ride for hours through the snowdrifts of the frozen foothills to coddle some foreign child with a bad cold. Stanislaw insisted. Again the doctor refused. Stanislaw began to yell in Polish. Seeing the mounting anger in his visitor’s eyes, the doctor handed over a large bottle of cough medicine, saying “Here, take this. One spoonful morning and night. It will make her good as new.” Still feeling concerned for his safety, he added, “You can pay me later.” Stanislaw glared at the doctor, grabbed the bottle and headed for home.
For the next three days, Marta refused to leave Anka’s bedside. The medicine stilled the little girl’s cough but she remained feverish and lost in a mysterious world of sleep from which she rarely roused. When she did open her eyes, Marta tried to get her to eat some potato soup. She pushed the spoon away. Each day she slept more, until it seemed she might never wake up again. Marta grew more concerned by the hour. Finally, unable to watch her baby girl slipping away, she told Stanislaw to get the doctor.
“Bring him back at gunpoint if you have to,” she cried.
Riding hard, Stanislaw reached Cheatgrass in the afternoon. As he was tying his horse to a post on Main Street, he saw the doctor walking towards him. He confronted him on the boardwalk outside the general store. The doctor repeated he would not accompany Stanislaw, claiming he had lots of patients right there in town who needed his attention; he couldn’t just leave them to check on what was probably nothing more than a bad cold. Soon Stanislaw was screaming at him in Polish, but the doctor was adamant. Desperate now, Stanislaw walked back to Fuzzy to retrieve his rifle. By then a small crowd had gathered to see what the commotion was about, and when Stanislaw turned back to the doctor with his .303 in hand, he found himself facing two drawn revolvers. Someone had fetched the local lawman as well. From down the street he yelled, “Put your gun away, son, before there’s real trouble.”
Stanislaw did not move or lower his rifle. “All I want is for doctor to help my little girl.”
“But Doc already told you he’s tied up here in town. Now get back on your horse and high-tail it before I lock you up.”
Stanislaw could hardly swallow. He felt the tears well in his eyes. His bottom lip quivered. He stood on the street like a statue, not knowing what to do. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Go home, you goddamn sheepherder.” The sheriff warned him again, saying this was his last chance. Stanislaw could not let himself be jailed, could not abandon his family. He turned back to his horse, mounted and galloped away.
Anka was dead before he reached home. All that day Stanislaw and Marta cried and hugged each other, but said little. Words would not make things better. The next day, Stanislaw walked down the hill to care for the animals and, when that work was finished, used his axe and knife to make a box in which to bury their daughter. Marta lined the box with a fleece, a reminder of the lambs Anka had loved so much, and gently placed their daughter upon its soft curls. Because the ground was frozen hard, Stanislaw carried the box to a smaller cave near theirs and blocked the entrance with rocks to keep the wild animals away. They would bury her in the spring.
Stanislaw and Marta could find no words for their grief. Day after day passed in silence. When they touched, which was not often, they separated as though jolted by an electric shock. It was only after a long time had passed that Marta sometimes felt for Stanislaw in bed at night, tried to pull him close, gently, almost imperceptibly pressing her pelvis against him. He did not move. He did not know what to do, did not understand what she was asking. Night after night he lay there in the dark, silent, inert. He felt his defeat so deeply that he could neither console nor be consoled. And so the weeks, and then the months, passed. Sometimes, he woke in the middle of the night from a vivid dream of making Anka, or from a dream of making another baby. But when he reached over and touched Marta, she now turned her back to him. Then he felt his failure completely.
As the late spring arrived, little changed. Marta busied herself with Janek and her gardening. When she and her husband talked, which was seldom, it was always about work that needed doing; it was no longer about the promise of the future. The only time Stanislaw felt alive was when he and his eager dogs tended the sheep in the meadows. He might be a poor shepherd to his family, but at least he could take proper care of his flock. He found himself spending more and more time with the sheep in the hills. One awful day, as they slowly traversed the upper meadow, he noticed that two of the yearlings were missing. The search did not take long. There, in a small stand of trees, were the gutted remains of his two tups. Wolves, or perhaps coyotes — he couldn’t be sure. There would be no breeding this fall, no lambing next spring.
His trip to Cheatgrass with the season’s wool made things worse. Merchants who had bartered with him for their goods during the previous spring now refused to deal with him. At first, he thought their refusal had to do with his run-in with the town doctor. When pressed, they offered a pittance for his wool, saying that they had little cash and fewer customers. The hard winter had pushed even the largest ranches into insolvency, and now the slump in the financial markets meant that everyone was hoarding what little money they had. The kindest of the merchants said they were sorry, but they could do no better. Reluctantly, because he had nothing else to sell, Stanislaw accepted their poor offers and returned home with few of the staples he and Marta needed.
He told Marta he had no choice but to work out. Some of the local ranchers must need help with cutting their calves, haying and then the roundup and branding in the fall. Together, he and Marta rigged a fleece with shoulder straps of leather so she could carry Janek to the pasture to care for the flock. He realized she would not be able to go out every day, but there was no help for it. When all was ready, he packed his kit, threw it across Fuzzy’s hindquarters, and rode down into the valley.
There was little work to be found. He went from door-to-door across many miles, sleeping rough and eating poorly, but returned after five weeks with only $2.50 to his name. Most ranchers paid in room and board, the going rate among the single men of the valley whose needs were simpler than those of a family man.
In his absence, Marta had found it impossible to care for Janek, make their meals, tend her garden, hunt for rabbits and waterfowl eggs, and watch the flock all by herself. Wolves, or perhaps a cougar, carried off three more sheep—two ewes and another yearling. She was tired and sad. Stanislaw felt the same. With each passing day, he seemed to care less and less about the farm. He would still go out to do his chores, or to hunt game, but he seldom spoke. Then he upset her further by collecting the discarded peels from the potatoes she cooked for each meal. He was making homebrew, just as his father had done in the old country, in the little cave where Anka’s body had lain through the winter. Every evening, once they had finished their supper and Janek was in bed, Stanislaw would pour himself a cup of his brew. And then another. And then one more. Because Marta found it impossible to be around him, she began to go to bed early. In the morning, she would often find him on the hard, cave floor, dead to the world. She would step over him, look down and wonder who it was she had married.
One day, Stanislaw failed to come home from a hunting trip in time for supper. His tardiness was unusual. He was a man who liked his meals on time. Marta waited, but eventually her impatience turned to concern and then to fear. She gathered Janek up in her crook of her arm and walked down to the lower meadow. The two dogs bounded alongside. Perhaps he was repairing the corral or tending to a sick sheep. As they approached the barn, the dogs suddenly took off ahead of her, barking and whining as they ran.
She found him among the poplar trees behind the barn. He was next to Anka’s grave. He lay on his stomach in the last of the melting snow, his rifle by his side. For a second, she just stared at him, not sure what to do. Her blood pounded in her veins. Slowly, she moved closer, grasped his shoulder with her free hand and turned him over. In the pool of blood glistening beneath him, her fearful face stared back at her. She jerked away violently, shielding little Janek from the gore, and let out a wail so long and mournful it was heard by every creature in the indifferent valley.