Doreen was born in 1926 to Russian immigrants Dave and Mary Befus who farmed in southern Alberta. Her parents had been periodically estranged, but in early 1926 they reunited and Mary delivered twin girls that December: Ella Glanda (Doreen) and Edna Marie. Ella had two extra toes when she was born and the attending physician removed them within a few days, recommending that the weak infant remain in the hospital for further observation. The family had no funds to pay for the extra care and required government assistance to cover this expense. From birth then, Ella became entangled in the provincial welfare system.
Returning home with her mother at two weeks, Ella continued to require extra attention. Over the next year, Mary and Dave once again separated and the girls were sent to live periodically with their maternal grandmother. Overwhelmed by a lack of money and the burden of children, Mary ultimately decided to put the twins up for adoption. According to another version of the story provided by a former neighbour of the Befus’s, Dave disappeared, and Mary claimed to be a widow who was then “forced to surrender both girls to the Department of the Lethbridge Courts”.
A Norwegian family living in Iron Springs, Alberta, adopted Edna at the age of 22 months. Still unhealthy, Ella was put under the care of the Alberta government as part of the Children’s Protection Act and lived in a number of foster care homes until the age of seven. Her last home was operated by a couple who were reportedly drunk and abusive. Under these circumstances the Department of Public Health transferred the young girl to the Provincial Training School at Red Deer (later renamed the Michener Centre), where she lived for the next twelve years. At the point of admission, the medical superintendent claimed that: “Ella was too much of a grown up name for a little girl” and changed her first name to Doreen. Changing her name was a gesture that further reinforced the power of the state and this doctor over this young girl and her identity.
Despite the lack of a family setting, “Doreen” recalled her time at the Provincial Training School as a positive one, likely comparing the school to life with her mother and in various foster homes. “I was not unhappy,” she claimed in a 1990’s magazine article. “Reports by the staff described me always laughing and singing, I was well-liked by both staff and residents. I was never ill-treated in fact, the nurses were loving and understanding.” Doreen’s comments are all the more poignant given that she had been sexual sterilized as a teenager at the Michener Centre. She was assessed with an IQ of 55 and anyone with an IQ under 80 was recommended for sterilization. It is quite likely that Doreen did not know she was being sterilized, as individuals considered low-IQ were not necessarily told they were having these operations. Doreen might have been told that she needed her appendix taken out, or she might not even have understood the word or the concept.
When Doreen left the institution she did not spend much time reflecting on her sterilization, but later in a letter to a lawyer she stated that: “at the time we were sterilized it was an accepted fact that we, the patients, had no control over our bodies, and a lot of the patients that were in the Training School had no rights and most of them had no one to speak up for them.”