The History of Eugenics in Quebec and at McGill

by Hailey MacKinnon

Montreal's St. Cunigunde church in 1905. (Philippe Du Berger/FlickrCC)

McGill University is known for its cutting-edge scientific research. Many may not know, however, that during the early 20th century, McGill was a communication hub between eugenicists in Britain and Canada.

Eugenics has its roots in England—the term was first coined by British scholar Francis Galton in 1883. Galton took eugenics to be “the science of improving stock—not only by judicious mating, but whatever tends to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable than they otherwise would have.”

Francis Galton (

Eugenics aimed for an enhanced human population by encouraging the reproduction and marriage of those with high moral character and physical attributes, who were considered ‘fit’ (positive eugenics), and halting reproduction of the ‘unfit’ (negative eugenics). This evolved in a time of rapid increase in birth rates among the lower class, which incited fear in middle to upper classes that the human race was facing national degeneration.

Eugenics grew out of two realities: The desire to avoid the degradation of the human race in the wake of racialized fears about illness and poverty, and an era of faith in scientific positivism and empiricism. It became a scientific way to assure the prosperity of the human race in the face of urban social ills like disease, alcoholism, and divorce.

Corner of Bleury and St. Catherine, Montreal, in 1915. (Source: McCord Museum)

Within a Quebec context, eugenics theories were largely disseminated among the anglophone community in Montreal—particularly within McGill’s academic circles. McGill was the most prominent university in Canada at the turn of the 20th century, and attracted professionals from England to research and teach at the school.

Sebastian Normandin is a professor of history and the philosophy of science at Ashoka University who has studied the eugenics movement within Quebec. According to Normandin, McGill was the centre for dissemination of eugenic ideas and theories between Britain and France at the turn of the 20th century.

“The idea [of eugenics] was brewing in the community of Fabian socialists, and also in a lot of the progressive movements in the [United States],” Normandin said. “The only place where you saw that going on [in Canada] on any scale was at McGill.”

Dr. Alexander Peter Reid is regarded as the first person to have brought forward the ideas of eugenics within a Canadian context. Reid, an English scholar, received his early education in London, yet moved to McGill—then known as McGill College—where he received his M.D. in 1858.

Reid introduced the concept of eugenics in 1890 in a talk before the Nova Scotia Institute of Natural Science, in which he read his work Stirpiculture/The Ascent of Man. After studying birds, skunks, and humans, he believed there could be a classification system for humans in the same way there existed one for animals. Drawing from Darwin’s biological science and applying it to the human population, he argued that, “racial improvement” based on positive and negative eugenics would ultimately lead to social progress.

Eugenic theory would continue to circulate at McGill near the end of the 19th century. In 1897, Dr. Ernest McBride was named the first Strathcona Professor of Zoology. A Cambridge-educated academic, McBride’s focus evolved from studies of sea urchins to the field of eugenics, where he held racialized ideals. In fact, McBride was a strong advocate of sterilization in order to eradicate the “slum” populations, including prostitutes, criminals, and drunkards.

“All attempts to favour the slum population by encouraging their habits of reckless production in throwing the support of their children on the State places a heavier burden on the shoulders of the Nordic race, who form the bulk of the taxpayer,” McBride warned in his book, An Introduction to the Study of Heredity.

The issue of solving social issues was an especially prominent concern within Quebec, and Montreal specifically, at the turn of the century. Montreal, in the early 20th century, was similar to cities like New York or Chicago that were rapidly industrializing. Infrastructure, plumbing, and clean housing were all concerns during this period. As such, early eugenic theory was largely concerned with social reform to mitigate the perils of urbanization. Normandin notes that eugenics was situated within the language of public policy, yet had a noticeable religious undertone of Protestant-inspired ideas of social reform.

“The idea of the social gospel that’s been talked about quite a lot—a kind of strange mix of secular elements of state-support social reform, mixed with elements of moral reform that [were] inspired by [a] particular view of Christianity,” Normandin said. “It’s hard to separate some of the moralizing and religious biases from these supposed reform ideas.”

St. James Methodist Church, Montreal, 1905. (Source: McCord Museum)

At the same time, eugenics can also be traced to the idea of population control and immigration. In the early twentieth century and into the 1920s, Canada saw an influx in immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Immigration became a scapegoat for many social problems that impacted the overall “quality” of the Canadian population and the declining Anglo-Saxon population. Early eugenics policy was understood to be a way to control for fears about ‘feeblemindedness,’ alcoholism, and poor genetic heritage being passed on. Yet the groups and people considered to be ‘feebleminded’ were judged with inherent cultural and linguistic biases, which ended up being a poor indicator of mental capacity.

“[Eugenics] is heavily influenced by this fear of immigration and the change in demographics that it represented,” Normandin said. “[These] ideas [were] intermixed with [thoughts] about class bias [and] racial issues. You have this strange blend of theory and politics [which] was really just bad social policy, but ended up being packaged in the whole framework of a science.”

Feeblemindedness was measured by arbitrary and culturally biased intelligence tests, which evaluated people in terms of language skills and comprehension.

“It depends on what language you were doing it in [and] you could do quite poorly in some [areas] if you didn’t understand the cultural context,” Normandin noted.

In 1906, a new set of Canadian immigration regulations prohibited the entry of the “feebleminded, idiots, epileptics, the insane, deaf, dumb, blind, and infirm.” Later in 1910, the Immigration Act further defined three categories that were to be restricted: “The mentally defective, the diseased, and the physically defective.”

  • Galton coined term “eugenics” to be “the science of improving stock.”
  • Canada’s first Immigration Act, which restricted the entry of undesirable immigrants, referencing “lunatics and idiots.”
  • Reid introduced the concept of eugenics in a talk before the Nova Scotia Institute of Natural Science about “racial improvements” based on positive and negative eugenics that would lead to social progress.
  • Immigration Act was amended to include those suffering from “loathsome, dangerous or infectious disease” from those ineligible to come to the country
  • A new set of immigration regulations regarded undesirable immigrants as the “feeble-minded, idiots, epileptics, the insane, deaf, dumb, blind, and infirm.” It gave the federal government power to deport immigrants if these qualities were uncovered..
  • Immigration Act defines three categories of immigrants that were to be restricted: the mentally defective, the diseased, and the physically defective. Entry could also prohibit “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirement of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation, or character.”
  • First International Eugenics Congress held at University of London. The Child Welfare Exhibit, in Montreal, with Adami as the chief organizer.
  • Encyclical of 1930—Casti Connubii—which declared the Pope’s official stance against eugenics, and sterilization in particula. These were forms of science that worked against the Catholic doctrine.

Among those advocating for social reform was Carrie Derick, who became the first female to achieve professor status at McGill, and any Canadian university, in 1912. As a professor of botany, she was interested in the topic of genetics and heredity. She was also a prominent Montreal feminist and social reformer. Derick’s membership in the Montreal Suffrage Association meant that she had the platform to disseminate ideas about eugenic social control of national ‘degeneration.’

Many middle and upper-class women were frightened by increasing crime, poverty, and disease on the streets. Derick held a strong belief in the need to halt reproduction among those she considered “feebleminded” or suffering from other forms of “mental degeneracy” in order to cure societal ills. At the same time, she believed that the key to dealing with the families of feebleminded parents was through both moral virtue through education and emancipation for women.

Derick represented the interestingly gendered aspect of the study of eugenics. In a lecture presented at McGill in 1914, Derick advocated for segregation of those considered ‘backwards’ from other students.

“It’s interesting the degree to which a lot of the early figures in the women’s movement […] like Carrie Derick [were rooted] in this [eugenics] discourse of trying to limit family size, and exert a certain amount of social control over reproduction,” Normandin said.

Carrie Derick (McGill Reporter)

Similarly, John George Adami was a British professor of pathology at McGill University. Adami was concerned with public health issues within Montreal, and held a strong belief that eugenics could be the best form of “hygienic defense” against the social problems facing the city. In 1909, Adami was named president of the City Improvement League, which dealt with issues relating to improving the general cleanliness and order on the streets. Tuberculosis, in particular, plagued Montreal, and led to the committee’s focus on the issues of infant mortality and child welfare.

Adami was the chief organizer for the Child Welfare Exhibit in 1912—the same year as the First International Eugenics Congress in London. Two McGill professors would attend this congress: Adami and William Osler. Adami continued to give speeches that veered into the realm of eugenics theory, which, similar to much scholarship in the field, were largely racialized. He believed Caucasians were naturally more resistant to diseases in comparison to people of different origins. As such, social issues were further linked with immigration.

St. Denis and St. Catherine, Montreal, in 1910. (Credit: McCord Museum)

The legacy of eugenics is thus complicated in its political origins. According to Normandin, it was hard to trace eugenics to either the left or right side of the political spectrum.

“[There was the] idea that you can engineer society in some ways for the good—and go so far as even to engineer into someone’s family and lineage,” Normandin said. “That was sort of the step that these social reformers took [...] that went too far. [But] I think you also see [...] a lot of the justification for it, and the rationale for it as time goes on, being much more associated with right-wing politics; the history of anti-immigration and the social conservatism that is involved in it becomes more seen as a right-wing phenomenon.”

Due to particularities within the province, eugenics did not propel into the mainstream in Quebec as in other provinces. Language and religion—two aspects that separate Quebec from most of the other Canadian provinces—fostered an identity that didn’t necessarily rely on mutual hereditary traits. The French-Canadian community was particularly disadvantaged politically, socially, and economically, causing tensions and differences with the English population within the province.  

“There [were tensions] between the English elite who were connected to this McGill community—who might go to literary and public lectures—[...] and the people who worked twelve-hour shifts in shipping or in factories along the Lachine Canal,” Normandin said.

In this way, French-Canadians, who were often poor and disenfranchised in comparison to the educated progressive scholars and intellectuals at McGill, were often considered not only a different race, but were racialized by the English community and by eugenics discourse.

“I think [French Canadians] were paranoid enough, and alienated enough, from the English scientific elite that they might be justified in [opposing eugenics] for fear it would be directed at them,” Normandin said.

Eugenics discourse often targeted those from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom turned to crime, alcohol, and prostitution—the key social ills that social reform sought to mitigate. This meant many French-Canadians would be at risk of being subjected to eugenic policy as there existed endemic poverty within the community. Derick pointed to parents who married young and gave birth to many offspring as an example of the families who were likely to produce mentally defective children. This reflected a typical French-Canadian family during this era.

St. Catherine, Montreal, 1895. (Source: McCord Museum)

Moreover, the Catholic church, which was a powerful institution in Quebec during the first half of the 20th century, was wary of the study of eugenics. While it could get on board with its goals to cure social ills, sterilization was against the religion—as noted in the encyclical of 1930 Casti Connubii—a document which declared the Pope’s official stance against eugenics, and sterilization in particular. Stopping the process of reproduction unless it was an issue of life or death—even in an individual who had mental health issues—was a crime against nature and God for Catholics.

Eugenics would face further criticism from many French-Canadian scholars and theologians, such as Hervé Blais, who highlighted the inconsistencies between Catholicism and eugenic theory. First, eugenics focuses on the improvement of life within the mortal world, with no mention of the afterlife, rendering spirituality as irrelevant. Secondly, eugenics contradicts the central tenet that all God’s (male) children are considered to be equal.

“The [Church] put a real block on [eugenics] from the French-Canadians’ point of view,” Normandin said. “And then there isn’t that much of a paper trail in terms of figuring out what happens when the Depression starts to get going [....] I think the government has other things to worry about at that point. And then the war changes the whole context.”

In particular, the use of eugenics among Nazis during the Second World War horrified the public about the extent to which eugenics could be taken in the name of racial hygiene. In the Third Reich, inhumane experiments and euthanasia were conducted on individuals considered to be inferior or sub-human. While many believed that this tainted the practice of eugenics, as well as a gradual discreditation by the scientific community, state-sanctioned eugenic practices legally continued in Alberta into the 1970s. The same types of legislation were never realized in Quebec.

“The rhetoric was there, but it never actually came to fruition,” Normandin said.

However, while official policy enforcing eugenics never came to light, the church’s official stance on eugenics did not necessarily dictate individual choices. For example, Allison Bashford and Philippa Levine—the authors of The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics—note that children considered “unfit” might have been put in orphanages operated by churches, and doctors have made private arrangements with families who had children with mental or physical disabilities to stop them from reproducing. Thus, many eugenic practices also occurred outside of the law.

At the same time, certain modern policies within Quebec recall the desire for certain groups to reproduce in larger numbers.

“In the modern era, [the government gave] some of the subsidies [...] to native Quebecers for having children,” Normandin said. “In an odd way, [that] was an attempt to encourage a certain amount of positive eugenics through social programs, and funding, and social support since the [Parti Quebecois] came into power.”

The history of eugenics within a broader North American context is still being uncovered. For example, Tommy Douglas’ legacy as the pioneer of universal Canadian health care, was complicated because of his history in eugenics. Douglas wrote his 1933 master’s thesis titled “The Problems of the Sub-normal Family,” in which he advocated for the sterilization of those considered to be mentally defective or incurably diseased—people which he viewed imposed a burden on the government’s health budget—as well as the segregation of those considered to be sub-normal, or in other words, of low moral character and mentally inadequate.

While Douglas later rejected such measures—and eugenics theory more broadly—this stain on Canadian history represents the popularity of eugenics among medical professionals during this first half of the 20th century. In Alberta, over 2800 sterilization procedures were performed on patients considered to be “unfit”—often without consent—with the passing of the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act. In particular, Aboriginal and First Nations women were disportionately affected due to racist assumptions about their mental capacity. The act was ultimately repealed in 1928, and to date over 700 survivors have gotten settlements with the government. Norman notes, however, that there is still much to investigate.

“There’s still a lot of places where the story hasn’t been told fully,” he said.

While current technological advancements further the capacity for scientists to genetically engineer and alter human DNA, one must look to the past—especially the history of eugenics—as well as the future, to ensure that marginalized groups do not suffer in the name of science, progress, and positive social reform.