Eugenics in Canada

Written by Olivier Jasmin

Mankind pursued to improve races by selective breeding as far as back to the intermarriage of royal families members in feudal Europe. This trend became drastically stronger in the previous centuries with the development of science, leading to eugenics: the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics (Oxford Dictionaries). In other words, it is the process of improving ''the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally'' via the promotion of sterilization, marriage laws and segregation of the mentally handicapped (Marsh, 2012). Eugenics were based on pseudo-scientific facts misinterpretating Darwin's theory of evolution, notably the ''theories'' of biological regression of genetic strains, the basis of eugenics ("Canada's Eugenic Movement", 2007).

Eugenism proved widely popular across the globe in the first half of the 20th century, notably in the United States, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Australia, and others, but particularly in Nazi Germany and in Canada, despite their widely different tolerance toward differences. Put in practice only in British-Columbia and in Alberta, the movement showed popular across the country. It is in some way Canada's little dirty secrets, as country autoclaiming itself tolerant and a human rights defender denied basic freedoms to so many of its own citizens.

In Canada, the debate on Eugenics intensified at the turn of the century for the arguments that the ''feeble-mindedness'', often associated with immigrants and Aboriginals, was hereditary and passed on to their offspring. It served as propaganda to install fear that the protestant Anglo-Saxon ''race'' will be diluted by degenerate populations. It is important to note that a sizeable portion of the Canadian society desired its own maser race ("Canada's Eugenic Movement", 2007). The movement became important enough to be promoted by influential personalities, such as Alexander Graham Bell, Nellie McClung (who appears on CBC's list of greatest Canadians), and professors from the University of Toronto and McGill University, and found strong support among the suffragists and temperance groups ("Canada's Eugenic Movement", 2007) ("Eugenics Equals Fauxgenics", 2008). The Eugenics Society of Canada was created, promoting eugenism in claiming that "developments in Nazi Germany as worthy of emulation" and that ''Canada, too had to be 'purified,' but in its own particular way'' ("Canada's Eugenic Movement", 2007).

In 1928, the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act was passed along with a creation of a Eugenic Board whose purpose was to authorize the sterilization of individuals (Marsh, 2012). Sterilizations were typically granted on grounds of undesirable physical or mental conditions that seemed heritable and for those judged unsuited to bear and raise children. The application of the legislation was set in quite an aggressive fashion: marginalized minority groups were largely targeted wherein the poor, the Aboriginals and the Métis were overrepresented (Grekul, Krahn, Odynak, 2004). Representing merely 2.5% of Alberta's population then, Indians and Métis formed the quarter of those sterilized ("Canada's Eugenic Movement", 2007). However, women, teenagers, and young adults of Northern-European descent also showed overrepresented in the groups targeted (Grekul, Krahn, Odynak, 2004).

The sterilizations took place from 1929 until 1972, during which 4725 cases were approved for sterilization, with 2834 that actually underwent sterilization (Marsh, 2012) (Grekul, Krahn, Odynak, 2004). British-Columbia passed a similar act in 1933, but the records have been destroyed, therefore, no figures remain on the number of affected people. Nevertheless, Canada carried on the sterilizations long after the movement faded worldwide following the fall of Nazi Germany, who gave eugenics a ''bad name'', which leaded to voluntarily set aside of all North American sterilization programs (Grekul, Krahn, Odynak, 2004).

In the years following the erasure of the law, several cases came up and revealed the horrors of the eugenics program. One famous law case is that of Ms Leilani Muir, the first who dared to sue the Alberta government, in 1995. At ten years old, she was sent to a school for mental defectives on assessment of being an abused child, where she was held over a decade against her will, on reason she was ill (further tests proved she was not). Ms Muir later discovered she had been sterilized through appendectomy. The court ruled that she was wrongfully confined and sterilized, and the judge awarded her $1 million. In the three following years, hundreds of lawsuits were filed from victims of the past sterilizations (Canada's Human Rights History).

The history of eugenics in Canada is a good example of the danger of extreme ideas supported by scientific proofs that are assumed as absolute truths, and serves to show that scientific proofs does not prevent the fallibility of mankind in the dilemma of moral versus science.


Grekul, J., Krahn, A., Odynak, D. Sterilizing the "Feeble-minded": Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972. Journal of Historical Sociology. 2004. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

Marsh, James H. Eugenics: Keeping Canada Sane. The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2012. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

N. a. ''Canada's Eugenic Movement During the Interwar Period.'' Five Minutes to Midnight. n.p. Apr 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

N.a. ''Eugenics Equals Fauxgenics: Canada's Awful Experiment With Genetic Manipulation.'' Conspiracy Archive. n.p. 30 Dec. 2008. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

N.a. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. N.d. Web. 14 Mar 2012.