In Pursuit of Perfection: The Political and Social Factors Contributing
 to the Rise and Decline of the Canadian Eugenics Movement

 Jessie-Lane Metz
Camosun College


When Sir Francis Galton first proposed his idea of positive eugenics, it was unlikely that he could have imagined what his ideas of selective human reproduction would eventually come to represent. Initially conceived as an opportunity for exceptional people to reproduce with others deemed to have extraordinary traits, a number of countries around the world adopted what instead came to be a policy of enforced sterilization, institutionalization, and in some cases, elimination. There was great variation in the extent to which different nations practiced eugenics within their populations, with much exchange of ideas between them. The period of forced sterilization within our nation can be traced through the political and social atmosphere during the years spanning the rise and decline of the eugenics movement within Canada.

The roots of eugenics in Canada, to a great extent, are associated with the medical profession, as eugenics was viewed mainly as a way to improve public health. As doctors gained power with advances in the understanding of health, their opinions were both more highly regarded, and more readily accepted. According to McLaren (1990) there was an even greater emphasis on a medical solution such as eugenics due to a variety of factors including, industrialization, urbanization, declining fertility among the Anglo-Saxon population, and rising immigration in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Confidence in the medical profession was further bolstered by the successful role of doctors in maintaining the health of soldiers in WWI. 

Helen MacMurthy was one Canadian doctor, and eventual first chief of the federal Department of Health’s Maternal and Child Welfare Division, whose work in the early 19th century had a great impact of the public acceptance of eugenics policies in Canada. As a well-known expert on infant and mother deaths, MacMurthy helped to cement the reliance of the Canadian pubic on the word of health professionals. Dowbiggen (1997) goes so far as to credit her as the person at the forefront of those who convinced Canadians that eugenics was a legitimate solution to the problems posed by the alleged feeble-minded population. Although an advocate of many social initiatives, MacMurthy firmly believed that biological factors determined much about an individual, and that this could not be remedied in those afflicted with a poor genetic inheritance (McLaren, 1990). This belief led her to advocate for the institutionalization of those that were deemed irreversibly feeble-minded, not only removing them from the presence of potentially harmful vices, but also preventing them from reproducing, provided that they could one day return to the community following the sterilization. MacMurthy’s outspoken belief in the heritability of mental degeneracy, which many believed could now be ascertained through IQ testing, combined with her statements about the correlation between social ills and mental weakness were both precursors to the eugenics movement in the nation.

The early feminist movement in Canada, often referred to as maternal feminism due to its celebration of the traditional roles of women, was another major source of support for ideas of selective reproduction with the aim of excluding certain genetic combinations from the gene pool. According to McLaren (1990), the support of these women was extended to institutions that included schools, hospitals, and asylums. Above everything else, maternal feminists believed that children were a first priority and therefore eugenics fit within their ideology, providing a solution that was preventative in nature, while still related to reproduction, an area of great interest to the feminist movement at the time (Dowbiggen. 1997). McLaren (1990) notes that Nellie McClung, a well-known Canadian suffragette, “was of the opinion that Germany, with its Repopulation Society, League for the Protection of Motherhood, and League for Infant Protection, provided a model for Canada in the ways the reproduction of the healthy could be sponsored” (p. 80). Many wives of prominent farmers were avid supporters of the eugenics movements having seen for themselves the effects of selective breeding on their own livestock. McLaren (1990) states that full support of eugenics legislation in Canada by the United Farm Women of Alberta was offered as early as 1924. These women felt that their children needed to be protected from undesirable elements, and that this right to safety took priority over the rights of unfit individuals. These prominent views helped set the stage for the eugenics movement to rapidly spread in Canada. 

With enormous population growth in Canada in the early 1900’s, the threat of foreign degeneracy was added to the existing concerns about feeble-minded Canadians and their ill effect upon society. Three million non-Anglo Saxon immigrants came to Canada between 1896 and 1914, and this influx was not welcomed by many Canadians, who perceived these individuals to be a public threat (McLaren, 1990). Pre-existing ideas of Anglo-Saxon superiority was bolstered by the belief that conformity to these ideals could be achieved with preferential immigration policies for those deemed most desirable. The reality of a need for a large workforce resulted in the massive immigration of those perceived to be undesirable, which the Canadian public responded to with great prejudice. Although this intolerance did not have a genetic basis, one can deduce how an argument for genetics would appeal to those who held these viewpoints about non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. 

Despite a social climate that was open to theories that suggested the superiority of some people over others, eugenicists attempted to keep distance between their beliefs and those aligned with less scientific ideologies (McLaren, 1990). However, much of the data used by eugenicists only claimed to establish an empirical basis for previous prejudices, so this attempt to distance the movement from that of the Anglo-Saxon nationalists seems somewhat contradictory. Eventually eugenicists came to see that the common belief, held by much of the Canadian public, in the inferiority of non-Anglo Saxons was extremely successful. Eugenics advocates found that “when they targeted immigrants, both as victims and as the source of poor public health conditions, many native-born Canadians paid close attention” (Dowbiggen, 1997, p. 136).  As the movement for reproductive control over the mentally ill began to grow in Canada, those that the eugenicists had initially avoided associating themselves with, became an audience supportive of their ideologies. They used their allegedly empirical information to intensify public fear of a growing non-Anglo Saxon population within Canada, and subsequently set in motion the steps that they proposed needed to be taken to address the issue. Good

Dr. Peter H. Bryce, who served the Canadian government as a medical expert within a number of roles from 1882 to 1921 helped to publicize the view that the native Canadian birthrate was falling while that of the immigrant remained frighteningly high, which contributed to concerns of the degeneration of the Canadian population (McLaren, 1990). As it was unrealistic that all Canadians could return to a rural lifestyle, which Bryce believed would eliminate feeblemindedness, he suggested as an alternative that those deemed inadequate be prevented from reproducing. McLaren (1990) notes Bryce and other implied that the threat of immigration was twofold; by increasing their family sizes and subsequent social problems, immigrants were limiting the number of children that Canadians could afford to have, effectively forcing population control upon the Anglo Saxon Community. There was a declinein immigration toCanada during WWI, but upon the end of the war a second wave of immigrants followed, as well as a resurgence of intolerance towards non-Anglo-Saxons and a growth in the development of the eugenics movement in the nation.

The efforts of institutionalization and segregation to prevent pregnancies among the mentally ill was extremely costly to the Canadian public, and it did not appear to be effective, the medical profession believed that sterilization could be used to redress these failures, and these beliefs were communicated to the general public (McLaren, 1990). This idea spread quickly as it was widely believed that medical advances had allowed the feeble minded not only to live into adulthood, but to also reproduce at a rate that far exceeded that of the normal population. Despite the flaws in research design that resulted in inaccurate characterizations of the mentally ill as burdens creating a large financial drain on the economy, many people lobbied the government for some protection against the growing population of degenerates. In Alberta, the Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in 1928 and in 1933 British Columbia did the same. The major difference between the legislation of the two provinces was that in order to sterilize a mentally ill person in Alberta the consent of a guardian was needed, while in British Columbia, a board of experts including a physician and psychiatrist was required, as well as that of the individual or an appropriate guardian. In 1937, the act was altered in Alberta waiving the consent requirement (McLaren, 1990). 

Pringle (1997) states that in Alberta “the province’s eugenics board wielded its lawful powers with such giddy righteousness that sterilization of the most capable training-school inmates at puberty was not the exception but the rule” (p. 33). Now that the laws had been passed, the sterilizations could be performed without concern about legality, and in fact in many instances the nature of the operations were extreme and unnecessary. For example, young boys with downs syndrome, who were consequently infertile due to the genetic nature of the illness, were castrated in some cases. Pringle (1997) notes it has been documented that a number of people in Alberta were sterilized for a variety of reasons that were not genetic in nature. Cases have been sited where approvals were signed before the entire official process had been gone through, leaving individuals no chance of affecting the decisions made by the board. Due to the lack of documentation from the actions of the eugenics board in British Columbia, there are no recorded cases of such human rights abuses, but it is not difficult to imagine that similar cases existed in Canada’s westernmost province.

Much publicity was maintained regarding sterilization of the mentally unsound in Canada through the growth of eugenics in the 1930’s. The use of fear tactics to inspire the support of Canadians feeling threatened by the depression was used in conjunction with the scientific theory that eugenicists claimed to base their movement upon (McLaren, 1990). This combination surely was a strong proponent not only in the passing of the act in British Columbia in the 1930’s, but also in the large number of sterilizations that took place in both British Columbia and Alberta during those depression years. It was believed that sterilization, and subsequent release back into the community without the threat of degenerate offspring, was much more affordable than institutionalization overall. Like the maternal feminists that had spoken so strongly in favor of a widespread sterilization program, many Canadians affected negatively by the depression felt that the mentally unsound would reproduce children dependent upon charitable institutions needed by the average Canadian family during strained financial times. The considerable plight that many Canadians were undergoing through the depression years seemed to strengthen their argument for the spread of eugenics legislation, rather than a sense of understanding for those who were persecuted under such laws for things beyond their control. The demographic reality of those that were targeted for sterilization were mainly from minority groups including many eastern Europeans, Aboriginal Canadians, and Métis, as well as a disproportionate number of women (Pringle, 1997). This bias clearly displays the basic social beliefs of the time about the values of different people, and their relative power in relation to those views.

Eugenicists achieved a major accomplishment in 1933 when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Dr. R.A. Bruce, a respected and charismatic politician publicly defended and offered to support sterilization of the unfit in Canada (McLaren, 1990). Growing support in the medical and psychiatric community was also essential in creating public assurance in the movement, and many members of the medical profession could be counted among those belonging to the Eugenics Society of Canada (ESC). MacMurthy again made her opinions on sterilization known with her publication of the book Sterilization? Birth Control? A Book for Family Welfare and Safety (1934), which praised the progress of the eugenics movement in western Canada (McLaren, 1990). This publication was one effort among many, through which supporters of eugenics attempted to spread sterilization legislation across the nation.

With growing professional support, the public was roused into putting much pressure on the province of Ontario to enact similar laws to those of British Columbia and Alberta. Catholics considered sterilization a form of birth control, and their large populations in Ontario and Quebec effectively kept the government from passing legislation to meet the demands of the ESC (McLaren, 1990). In Quebec, the church continued its campaign against eugenics into the 1940’s. Although many non-Catholics were hesitant to align themselves with a church that disallowed any contractive practices, within Quebec the Catholic Church held great power. It was suggested that to lower the reproduction rate of the Quebecois could greatly harm francophone culture, and this further buffeted the population against government approval of sterilization legislation. Regardless of the relentless pressure that the ESC exerted in eastern Canada no legislative headway was made by the organization.

This stubborn opposition did not deter the ESC. The society continued to push for the adoption of similar legislation in other provinces, writing articles, voicing the opinion of popular members, and even holding up the example of the German campaign as a model for Canada. Despite the support that the Eugenics Society of Canada and other defenders of sterilization were able to garner, the movement began to flag before laws were passed in any other provinces, although Dowbiggen (1997) notes that eugenics was practiced illegally in Ontario outside of the standard requests for birth control and therapeutic assistance. Although the popularity of eugenics was on the decline, the ESC remained in the public eye well into the late 1930’s as an audible voice in Canadian politics, and the organization as a whole was not disbanded until 1940 (Dowbiggen, 1997).

An especially outspoken supporter of the adoption of sterilization laws in the eastern provinces was Madge Thurlow Macklin whom McLaren (1990) cites as a geneticist and as major defender of the eugenics movement. Macklin initially characterized herself as a positive eugenicist but eventually was convinced that a sterilization campaign was necessary in protecting the Canadian nation (McLaren, 1990). Her scientific writing was widely published, and many of her ideas about eugenics came from a belief that children are born with some characteristics that cannot be altered. Macklin went so far as to argue that the entire families of those with certain mental illnesses should be sterilized, and that in the case of diseases that were not inherited, it was still important to sterilize individuals with theses medical complaints as they would make unfit parents overall. As contraception gained popularity in Canada, Macklin publicized the idea that although birth control was a viable option in controlled undesirable populations, sterilization was the better choice as it was both a guaranteed and a permanent solution (McLaren, 1990). Macklin even   visited Germany in 1937 to gain an understanding of the approach to eugenics overseas.

When the press first began to question the soundness of eugenic theory, most of it was done in good fun. Poems were published in jest, and small idiosyncrasies of certain supporters were mentioned. However, as the reality of the situation in Nazi Germany emerged, with Canada fighting a war with Hitler’s Germany, the press began to show some of the extreme outcomes of eugenicist policies that were taking place in Europe. The ESC was somewhat insensitive to the public opinion surrounding Nazi Germany’s massive sterilization and extermination campaigns, with William Hutton, while speaking on the behalf of ESC, suggested that Ontario could emulate Nazi Germany’s success by enacting eugenics legislation in the province (Dowbiggen, 1997). Clearly the major supporters of eugenics were losing their touch with the general public. As popularity for eugenic legislation waned, public praise of the Nazi program ceased, and professionals previously aligned with the ESC stopped coming to its defense. Many outspoken supporters of the ESC now spoke against the movement. Asstated above this led  to the demise of the organization in 1940, as the link between German atrocities, and the arguments of many Canadian eugenicists began to make the general public uncomfortable. Pringle, in Barren Alberta (1997) notes that the Nuremburg trials marked a complete rejection of eugenics by most of the Canadian public, which in turn signaled the end of outspoken eugenicists appealing to the general public for support. 

In Our Own Master Race (1990) McLaren states that a changing social climate in Canada was another major proponent in the loss of public support for eugenic ideology. People were becoming less welcoming to the idea of the privileged determining who was unfit, especially when these decisions carried such serious consequences. Eugenics policies had affected a number of individuals within a number of social strata and communities, and the only people who seemed immune to its physical implications were those who were in charge of determining who was feeble-minded. “With the outbreak of the Second World War the pendulum of popular opinion swung swiftly away from the crude individualism of the eugenicists and toward the social interventionism of the welfare-minded” (McLaren, 1990, p. 157), and although this did not result in an immediate repeal of the laws in Alberta and British Columbia, public opinion was taking a definitive shift. The welfare state was developing in Canada, and this would represent a reprieve for the mentally ill from intolerant views that had dominated public opinion and policy in previous decades. 

Even scientifically, the concept of eugenics began to lose its credibility in Canada. McLaren states (1990) that the development of scientific research in genetics could not support the outrageous claims made by eugenicists in the past. As science advanced, it could not support the theories acted as a foundation for those in support of legislated sterilization. Within scientific communities, it eventually became clear that the science of eugenics was indeed fallible. Genetic combinations were proving to be endlessly complicated, and obviously could not be used in an argument to credit feeble-mindedness to the simplistic logic of the ESC (McLaren, 1990). This lack of scientific evidence was the final blow to the mass support that had buoyed the movement to spread eugenics into eastern Canada. Previous statements about the abnormally large families of the mentally unfit were disproved, the methods of achieving these questionable facts condemned, and fears of the threat to so-called normal society quelled. Dr. B.T. McGhie, a former member of the ESC and the Ontario deputy minister of health, expressed his anti-eugenic views publicly, finding that efforts at monitoring and sterilization were both expensive and illogical (McLaren, 1990).  Despite the loss of widespread public support the sterilization acts of Alberta and British Columbia were not repealed for a number of decades. 

Many of the arguments used to justify the sterilization laws were not proving true. Most of the people who underwent sterilization were never returned to the community at large, and the necessity of permanently interfering with their reproductive systems lacked any arguable legitimacy. As well, “in Alberta at least, the Eugenics Board went against the advice of its own attorney general’s department in order to apply the sterilization law in an overzealous fashion […] a handful of castrations – not sterilizations—were preformed on men and women […] testimony that once eugenicists had the power they wanted their zeal often carried them beyond the letter of the law” (Dowbiggen, 1997, p. 189). These practices were not what Canadians had been led to advocate support, and therefore the support of the public waned considerably, and the laws were eventually repealed, after the incidences of sterilization had dropped off to the point of near extinction.

The sterilization acts in both Alberta and British Columbia remained in effect until 1972, with attempts at understanding which populations were affected, and to what degree occurring more recently. McLaren (1990) wrote in some detail about the difficulties faced in trying to quantify those affected by the sterilization acts stating that “we know that in Alberta, between 1928 and 1971, 4,725 cases were proposed for sterilization and 2,822 approved. In British Columbia the total number sterilized is impossible to determine since the files of the Board of Eugenics were either lost or destroyed, but no more than a few hundred were subjected to the operation” (p. 159). In addition to these numbers, Dowbiggen (1997) suggests that up until very recently a number of unauthorized sterilizations were likely taking place in many Canadian institutions. Doctors were practicing sterilizations privately, and did not appreciate the attention draw to the practice by the ESC and other outspoken supporters of eugenics.

Eugenics as it was practiced in Canada, despite its recent role in Canadian history, is not something that is widely known within the general population. However, the development of a movement that so clearly violated the rights of a number of individuals from a variety of social backgrounds can easily be traced through the social and political trends of the time in which the movement developed and eventually collapsed. There is variation throughout the world on the extent of the practice of eugenics, as well as the development of legislation and the swaying of public opinion. Still the growth of the eugenics movement in Canada not only shows how eugenics was able to gain credence so quickly, but how any ideology, with the right background of facts and respected advocates can leave the arena of debate and actively affect the rights of individual people.



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McLaren, A. (1990). Our own master race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Pringle, H. (1997, June). Alberta barren. Saturday Night. 31-37, 70, 74.

Wahlsten, D. (1998). The eugenics of John M. MacEachran warrants revocation of honours, History and Philosophy of Psychology Bulletin, 10 (2), 22-24.