Eugenics in Canada

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the human population through controlled breeding. It includes “negative” eugenics (discouraging or limiting the procreation of people considered to have undesirable characteristics and genes) and “positive” eugenics (encouraging the procreation of people considered to have desirable characteristics and genes). Many Canadians supported eugenic policies in the early 20th century, including some medical professionals, politicians and feminists. Both Alberta (1928) and British Columbia (1933) passed Sexual Sterilization Acts, which were not repealed until the 1970s. Although often considered a pseudoscience and a thing of the past, eugenic methods have continued into the 21st century, including the coerced sterilization of Indigenous women and what some have termed the “new eugenics” — genetic editing and the screening of fetuses for disabilities.

Exhibit photograph scanned from Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York (Baltimore: William & Wilkins Co., 1923). (Wikimedia CC)

Key Terms and Facts

Eugenics A set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the human population through controlled breeding.
“Positive” eugenics A form of eugenics that encourages the procreation of individuals and groups who are viewed as possessing desirable characteristics and genes. Methods include baby bonuses and other financial incentives.
“Negative” eugenics A form of eugenics that discourages and decreases the procreation of individuals and groups who are viewed as having inferior or undesirable characteristics and genes. Methods include sexual sterilization and institutionalization.
Supporters/Proponents of Eugenic Policies Dr. E.W. McBride, Professor Carrie Derick, Dr. Helen MacMurchy, William Aberhart, Ernest Manning, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Social Credit Party of Alberta, United Farmers of Alberta, United Farm Women’s Association, Eugenics Society of Canada
Sexual Sterilization Act (Alberta), 1928–72 This legislation created a Eugenics Board that could authorize the sexual sterilization of inmates of mental hospitals who had been proposed for release, if the Board determined that there was a risk that they could transmit “disability” to their children. Over 2,800 people were sterilized under this legislation.
Sexual Sterilization Act (British Columbia), 1933–73 This Act closely resembled the Alberta legislation, but was applied more narrowly. It is estimated that between 200 and 400 people were sterilized under this legislation.

Eugenics: Beliefs and Goals

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the human population through controlled breeding. The word "eugenics" is derived from the Greek word meaning "well-born." It was first used in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton (cousin of Charles Darwin), who is widely considered the founder of the eugenic movement in England. The movement focused on both “positive” and “negative” eugenics, though with greater emphasis on the latter. “Positive” eugenics included the encouragement of procreation by individuals and groups who were viewed as possessing desirable characteristics and genes, thereby attempting to improve and strengthen the overall gene pool of society. “Negative” eugenics involved discouraging and decreasing procreation by individuals and groups who were viewed as having inferior or undesirable characteristics and genes. The goal of “negative” eugenics was pursued through several different methods aimed at limiting the capacity and opportunity for procreation, including sexual sterilization, marriage prohibition, segregation and institutionalization.

Social and Scientific Assumptions of Eugenics

The eugenics movement was based on certain social and scientific assumptions. One such assumption, based on the work of German scientist and friar Gregor Mendel (1822–84), was that certain characteristics and traits were thought to be hereditary. Another was that these characteristics and traits were believed to be socially undesirable. Hence it was thought to be in society's interests to reduce the spread of these undesirable traits by limiting the reproductive power of those individuals and groups who possessed them.

Eugenicists believed that the following “undesirable” characteristics were almost exclusively hereditary: intellectual disability, mental illness, alcoholism, poverty, criminality, and various types of “immoral” behaviour, including prostitution. Supporters of eugenics also believed that these groups had a higher reproductive rate than other people. One of the most dominant and recurrent themes of eugenics philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century was the emphasis on a link between intellectual disability and criminality, and the consequent "menace" which intellectual disability posed to society.

Support for Eugenics in Canada

In the early 20th century, eugenic policies were considered progressive among many Canadians, including some socialists, feminists, farmers and psychiatrists. Their assumption was that Canadian society could be improved by encouraging reproduction among certain groups — particularly Anglo-Saxon Protestants — and discouraging or limiting reproduction among other groups, including Eastern European immigrants and, increasingly, Indigenous people. (Similarly, immigration policies like the Chinese head tax were aimed at limiting the population of Asian Canadians.)

Many prominent Canadians of that era were advocates of eugenics philosophy and eugenic sterilization, including Dr. E.W. McBride, Professor Carrie Derick and Dr. Helen MacMurchy. Support for eugenic sterilization was also expressed in the 1920s by many prominent Alberta women, including Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung. Maternal feminists like McClung, for example, argued that women were the mothers and guardians of their “race.” They therefore championed legislation, including sterilization, which aimed to curtail prostitution, alcoholism and “mental defectiveness.”

Other Canadian individuals and institutions, however, opposed eugenic policies. For example, the Roman Catholic Church in Canada was vehemently opposed to sexual sterilization legislation.

Sexual Sterilization Laws

Eugenics philosophy was highly influential in the enactment of sexual sterilization laws in North America in the early part of the 20th century. This type of legislation was passed in 32 states in the United States, and in two Canadian provinces: Alberta (in 1928) and British Columbia (in 1933). Countries around the world passed similar legislation, including Nazi Germany.

Eugenic Legislation in Alberta

In 1928, the Alberta government passed the Sexual Sterilization Act. There was broad public support for this legislation, which was passed by the United Farmers of Alberta under premier John Edward Brownlee. The Act established a Eugenics Board with the power to authorize the sexual sterilization of certain individuals who had been institutionalized under the Mental Diseases Act and Mental Defectives Act and recommended for release. According to the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act, patients could be sterilized if “the board is unanimously of opinion that the patient might safely be discharged if the danger of procreation with its attendant risk of multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny were eliminated." Consent was required, either from the patient or his/her parent, guardian or spouse.

In 1937, the Act was amended, removing the need for informed consent from those considered “mentally defective.” According to the 1937 amendments, such persons could be sterilized to prevent the transmission of “mental disability or deficiency” or to avoid the “risk of mental injury, either to such person or to his progeny.” Similarly, “psychotic” patients could be sterilized to prevent the transmission of mental disease or the risk of “mental injury.”

In 1942, the Act was altered yet again, expanding its scope to include candidates who had not been institutionalized. Both amendments were passed by the Social Credit government led by William Aberhart. The Alberta legislation was repealed in 1972 by Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government. During the 44 years in which the legislation was in effect, the Eugenics Board approved 4,725 cases for sterilization, of which 2,834 were carried out.

In 1996, an Alberta court awarded approximately $740,000 in damages to Leilani Muir, who had been wrongly sterilized at age 14 while she was a patient at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives. Hundreds of other sterilization survivors have since come forward and settled out of court with the province.

Leilani Muir speaks at an Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week event (22 October 2011). (GrammarLab/Wikimedia CC)

Eugenic Legislation in British Columbia

In 1933, the British Columbia government under Conservative premier Simon Fraser Tolmie passed its own Sexual Sterilization Act. It closely resembled Alberta’s legislation but was applied more narrowly. Under the Act, a Board of Eugenics could order the sterilization of any institutionalized patient who “if discharged… without being subjected to an operation for sexual sterilization would be likely to beget or bear children who by reason of inheritance would have a tendency to serious mental disease or mental deficiency.” There was broad support for the Act in British Columbia, including political support from the Liberal Party of British Columbia. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church loudly protested the legislation.

According to historian Angus McLaren, a few hundred people were sterilized in British Columbia, far fewer than in Alberta. As records were destroyed, the exact number is unknown but is estimated to be between 200 and 400. The British Columbia legislation remained relatively narrow in scope compared to the Alberta Act, which was twice amended and enlarged. According to historian Amy Samson, many of the individuals sterilized through the program had come through Riverview Hospital (formerly Essondale Hospital). British Columbia’s Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed in 1973, under the NDP government of David Barrett. In 2005, nine women who were sterilized at Riverview Hospital between 1940 and 1968 were awarded $450,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Eugenics in Other Canadian Provinces

Although Alberta and British Columbia were the only two provinces to pass sexual sterilization legislation, most provinces considered implementing eugenic policies in the early 20th century. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario all drafted sexual sterilization legislation, but these were defeated in the 1930s due to increased resistance, particularly from Catholics.

Moreover, as historian Erika Dyck points out, other provinces have engaged in eugenics as well. Beginning in the 1960s, Quebec practised “positive” eugenics, establishing baby bonuses and other financial incentives for large families, in the hope of increasing its population. In the Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia institutionalized women considered unfit for motherhood.

Eugenics and Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Indigenous populations have been targeted by eugenic legislation, particularly sexual sterilization, since the 1930s. In the first few decades of Alberta’s sterilization program, Eastern Europeans were the group most affected by the legislation. Under the province’s mental health campaigns, many Eastern Europeans were institutionalized and therefore subject to the Sexual Sterilization Act. But by 1972, First Nations and Métis people represented over 25 per cent of those sterilized under Alberta’s sexual sterilization legislation.

Even since the repeal of sexual sterilization laws in the early 1970s, Indigenous women have been coerced into sterilization, some of them pressured to sign consent forms for tubal ligation while in labour or on the operating table. According to Dr. Karen Stote, about 1,200 Indigenous women were sterilized in the 1970s alone, about half of them at “Indian hospitals” operated by the federal government between 1971 and 1974.

Coerced sterilization has continued into the 21st century. In July 2017, a report titled “Tubal Ligation in the Saskatoon Health Region: The Lived Experience of Aboriginal Women,” revealed that some Indigenous women in the Saskatoon area had been pressured into sexual sterilization. According to co-authors Yvonne Boyer, then Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health and Wellness at Brandon University, and Dr. Judith Bartlett, an Indigenous physician and former associate professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba, many of the women were pressured to sign consent forms while in labour. The same year, some of the affected women launched a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatoon Health Region, Saskatchewan government, federal government and individual medical professionals. Since the report’s publication, more women have come forward, alleging similar treatment in other regions, provinces and territories.

In November 2018, Amnesty International brought the issue to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The following month, the UN committee made two recommendations: that all allegations of forced or coerced sterilization be impartially investigated, and that concrete measures be taken to prevent and criminalize involuntary sterilization.

The New Eugenics?

Many Canadians assume that the eugenics movement is a thing of the past, particularly after it was discredited as a pseudoscience following the Second World War and the eugenic policies of the Nazi regime in Germany (see Canada and the Holocaust). However, this ignores the fact that sexual sterilizations continued in Canada, even after sterilization legislation was repealed in the 1970s.

Moreover, some experts warn that Canada is sliding into a new form of eugenics in the 21st century. In 2004, for example, professor Tanis Doe of the University of Victoria argued that prenatal testing of fetuses is akin to Nazi-style eugenics, a purging of the disabled from society. According to Doe, there is a widespread acceptance among Western societies that disabled fetuses should not be brought to term, with many parents choosing to abort fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, for example. Whether genetic screening and genetic engineering constitute a “new eugenics” is a matter of debate, one which raises pressing questions about scientific ethics, human rights, and (dis)ability (see also Disability Rights Movement in Canada; Population Genetics; Genetics, Ethics and the Law).

Further Reading

  • Diane B. Paul, John Stenhouse and Hamish G. Spencer, eds., Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa (2017).

  • Erika Dyck, Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization and the Politics of Choice (2013).

  • Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (1990).

  • Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women (2015).

  • Leslie Elaine Baker, “Institutionalizing Eugenics: Custody, Class, Gender and Education in Nova Scotia’s Response to the ‘Feeble-Minded,’ 1890–1931,” University of Saskatchewan, Doctoral Dissertation, (2015).

  • Claudia Malacrida, A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta's Eugenic Years (2015).

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