February 25, 2024

Canada has a dark past as a champion of eugenics for the disabled

Canada is acquiring a reputation for being the most progressive place on the planet for euthanasia. An article in the National Post by Tristin Hopper points out that its dalliance with eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s is an embarrassment nowadays – but then it was, in Roaring Twenties parlance, “the cat’s pyjamas”.  

But eugenics wasn’t some obscure passing fad. A century ago, it was Canada’s progressive cause du jour. For a good 20 years, churches, universities, the media and the public health establishment all took it for granted that the country’s ills could be solved by selective human breeding: Marriage would be limited only to “fit” people who could pass a government medical examination, and “defectives” would be sterilized outright. Eugenics was the subject of bestselling books, its benefits were shouted from the front pages of major daily newspapers and it became the passion project for Canadians as well-known as telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Cities across the country had eugenics societies, while church groups and service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary all enthusiastically took up the banner of racial hygiene…

Like any number of modern social fads, eugenics was enthusiastically embraced by the celebrity class. In the late 1920s, the Canadian entertainment press abounded with updates on American actress Katie Pullman, who boasted of having given birth to a “eugenics baby” sired by a one-off partner chosen exclusively for his favourable genetic characteristics. “This boy is to be a real athlete. I have planned a course of training for him,” Pullman told the press…

But it was the public health establishment that would prove the loudest and most credentialed backers of eugenics. “In Canada…. The most vocal defenders of eugenics were to be found in the ranks of the medical profession,” reads Our Own Master Race, a 1990 text on the history of Canadian eugenics. The Canadian Medical Association Journal and the Canadian version of The Lancet were some of the first publications to openly advocate that the right to breed should be denied to criminals, degenerates and even “epileptics.” …

Canadian eugenicists generally advocated for one of two policies. First was the “eugenic marriage,” the idea that couples should only be allowed to marry if they could procure a doctor-issued “eugenics certificate” following a physical examination. The second policy was forced sterilization. “Positive” eugenics wasn’t enough; there would also need to be a system of “negative” eugenics to ensure that criminals, the “insane” or just the dim-witted would be forcibly deleted from the national gene pool. Both kinds of eugenics would find their way into Canadian policy during the 1920s and 1930s, most notably with Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, a 1928 law that authorized the forced sterilization of inmates of mental hospitals.