Notes on 32d Text for Reading Field: McLaren

Canadian History, Week Five

Angus McLaren. Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

Angus McLaren describes the rise, from the late 19th century to the Second World War, of eugenicist notions to a position of respectable knowledge positioned to influence political policy in Canada. Awareness of Nazi programs of extermination brought about an abrupt decline in popular support.

According to McLaren, despite the lack of a body of scientifically determined evidence, the popular appeal of eugenicist notions was legitimized and sanctioned by members of the Canadian intelligentsia working in numerous, newly professionalized, occupations. There were supporters in the fields of medicine, public health, and social work. Authorities in other university-based disciplines — especially biology and psychology — accepted, and sought to apply, eugenicist precepts that were being put forward in Britain and the United States.

The ideas espoused were simplistic, based on theories of cultural exceptionalism, and imbued with value judgments that calculated human worth on the basis of class, gender, and racialized criteria. The underlying argument was that survival of the fittest was only achievable if the unfit were prevented from reproducing. This idea was based on the belief — as malicious as it was erroneous — that all characteristics of a human individual are heritable. People, who were supposedly learned, asserted that it was not mere aspects of intelligence, personality, and physical characteristics that were passed from one generation to another, but the complete and identical set of characteristics. Thus, an acquired characteristic such as a crooked leg that had resulted from a broken bone was said to be heritable — similarly, an individual’s acquired immunity to a disease.

Allegedly, the exact reproduction of parental characteristics was only modified by the fact that the attributes of two parents mingled. The result of the intermingling of appreciably ‘different’ human beings (those whose ‘value’ was presumed to be highly unequal) was held to be disastrous for any offspring. The fear expressed was that medical science, combined with misplaced human sympathy, had interfered with the ‘natural order.’ Put baldy, ‘undesirable’ people were surviving who should not have.

The ‘danger’ was twofold: first, modern nations were progressively being placed at a competitive disadvantage in the world arena so long as their ‘best’ representatives were interbreeding at a lower rate than their ‘unwashed masses.’ Second, in what some perhaps regarded as a more reprehensible scenario, the ‘best’ were suspected of increasing the number of the ‘unfit’ by intermingling with them. Eugenicists were determined to reverse this trend. They concentrated their efforts on addressing:

  • questions of sex education (eugenically understood),
  • birth control (deemed a bad idea for the ‘fit,’ but potentially an important program for the ‘feeble’),
  • segregation (possibly only a temporary policy, but arguably a necessary one),
  • sterilization (of ‘defectives’ only and the most effective option available; ultimately an act of kindness),
  • restrictions to immigration (argued to be a source of population pollution),
  • the devising and presenting of solutions that those in government would find both politically and economically expedient.

McLaren describes both the successes and failures of the movement – relative to the goals of its adherents — prior to its demise. From the eugenicists’  perspective, on positive side of the ledger, their theories served to bolster the argument that the field of medical endeavor had to be professionalized: it was critical that doctors be educated and accredited in a formalized and regulated manner (and, consequently, medical practice would be masculinized, racialized, and imbued with class bias). Committed eugenicists were also able to disseminate their views widely, publishing articles in magazines such as McLeans, Saturday Night, and Chatelaine. They succeeded in attracting notable, if only temporary, adherents such as Nellie McClung, Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth (especially, but not exclusively, during the Great Depression). The appeal of the eugenicist message apparently proved useful in rounding out English Canadian arguments on such issues as Empire, French Canadian fertility, feminism and suffrage, and religion and the emergence of a socialist political party. If they were not exclusively or directly responsible, Canadian eugenicists did help ensure that restrictive immigration policies were put in place and that Canadians of non-Anglo Saxon cultures or countries of origin were accorded inferior status and treated as undesirable, unassimable aliens. Eugenicists succeeded in labelling children as ‘defective’ or ‘feeble-minded’ if they deviated from physical, behavioral, or intellectual standards associated with a middle-class-or-above, Anglo Saxon, Protestant upbringing. Once labeled, those children were more easily removed from the general population, and, when and where possible, incarcerated in institutions. McLaren credits eugenicists with seeing coercive sterilization legislation enacted in two provinces – Alberta and British Columbia. It appears from McLaren’s statistical data that the procedure was primarily practiced on young, unwed, Aboriginal mothers. He also notes that eugenicists supplied support sufficient to see arbitrary sterilization without legislation take place, without public protest, in at least one other province — Ontario. Finally, McLaren suggests that eugenicist concerns and vocabulary persist in debates on the importance of heredity over environment in human affairs.

The movement’s failures, from McLaren’s anti-eugenicist perspective, include the inability of ostensively learned proponents, to acknowledge, or to comprehend, heredity and genetic theory as it developed after Darwin’s followers had discredited the formulations presented in 1801 by French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark. Included among the ignorant were:

  • obstetrician Helen MacMurchy (a major figure in the movement to improve maternal and infant health care),
  • geneticist Madge Thurlow Macklin (the respected founder of medical genetics),
  • and progressive medical reformer William Hutton (the Canadian ‘father of fluoridation’).

McLaren observes that intellectual failure did not entirely escape detection – scientists in Quebec were vociferous in denouncing the fallacies that underlay eugenicist theory. He attributes their ready, and well-founded, skepticism to their Catholic orientation.

Despite instances of what eugenicists would have counted as ‘successes,’ McLaren emphasizes that these instances were conspicuous in their rarity. In fact, he argues, vociferous though eugenicists were, they had limited real support. Political will was not solidly behind them because of strong overall resistance, among all sorts of Canadians, to the idea that the state should determine family formation, orientation, or approaches to care-giving. Canadians were not convinced that society’s ills where the fault of the ill or infirm within their own household, and it was impossible to establish a ‘fitness norm’ that satisfied the majority that they and their loved ones would be accommodated within the ‘best sort’ category.

There are two warning to be taken from McLaren’s case study of a relatively minor group of social activists in Canadian history. First, it is clear that experts are as prone to promulgating nonsense as anyone else. Second, although only a few were committed to the cause and their window of opportunity was protracted, in their determination to exert influence, there is no question that they inflicted fiscal, physical, and emotional hardship on too many.

Additional Sources:

Guy Grenier, revue, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945, par Angus McLaren, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 45, no. 4 (1992): 612-614 [available online at é,]

On a related note:

1930s American Newsreel on the importance of ‘nipping criminals in the bud,’ advocating ‘continuous supervision’ of children from the ‘other side of the tracks.’


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 5 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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