PART TWO: Canadian Eugenics

On this page:
i. What is ‘Eugenics’?
ii. The Slums and the “Feeble-Minded”
iii. The Menace of the Feeble-Minded
iv. The Eugenics Society of Canada


i. What is ‘Eugenics’?

Sir Francis Galton. Wikipedia.

Sir Francis Galton. Wikipedia.

Eugenics is a term that means “well-born”.  It was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, half-cousin to Charles Darwin. He believed in selective breeding to improve the human race – that the superior classes in society should be encouraged to produce intelligent, talented offspring, and the “unfit” be prevented.  Those humans who were deemed “fit” – educated, intelligent, well-bred – should produce more children, and the “unfit” – those who were of low intelligence, unemployed, alcoholic, insane and feeble-minded, who occupied the slums – should not be limited in the number of offspring.

The “fertility differential”

Since the birth rate was dropping among the middle and upper classes, and that of the lower classes was rising out of proportion in Toronto, the eugenicists feared a “fertility differential” whereby the inferior classes would overpower the upper classes by sheer numbers.

Galton’s book Hereditary Genius in 1869, demonstrated that heredity determined one’s destiny, not environment. 

Many were also influenced by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) whose book On Population was widely read. Malthus was a free market economist who believed that letting the poor procreate without restriction would result in a population explosion and destroy society.

The result of eugenic thinking in the early 1900s was a change in attitude towards the Orillia Asylum and the “feeble-minded”.


ii. The Slums and the “Feeble-Minded”

Oak Avenue, Cabbagetown, Toronto. 
Courtesy Toronto Archives.

“Who are the feeble-minded? They are people with the mental capacities and abilities of children. In the cities they tend to drift towards the slums. Indeed the slums are largely the product of the segregating of the subnormals.” - Dr William Hutton, President of the Eugenic Society of Canada, 1934.

Interior of slum house, Toronto

Courtesy of Toronto Archives.

Rear of  Chestnut Street, The Ward, Toronto.
Courtesy Toronto Archives.



The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century soon produced effects on the cities as hundreds of thousands of workers moved to cities from agrarian livelihoods in the countryside searching for work in the new factories and industries.  This was accompanied by immigration of millions of unemployed uneducated often destitute immigrants from the slums of Britain and Eastern Europe.

Slums and unemployment, overcrowding in wretched hovels, particularly in Toronto and Montreal, arose along with disease and contamination.

There were six major slums in Toronto noted by Dr Charles Hastings, Medical Officer of Health for Toronto, in his Report on slum conditions in 1911, that included the infamous “St John’s Ward” at City Hall, Cabbagetown, Kensington Market area south of College Street, Eastern Ave. from the Don to Parliament Street; Corktown; Bathurst Street from Bathurst to Bellwoods and Queen to Arthur; Spadina Ave. to Bellwood and from Front to Queen.

Dr Hastings called the slums, that had inadequate water supply, tenements with overcrowded rentals, filthy yards and outdoor privies, a “public nuisance” and a “danger to public morals and an offense to public decency.”


iii. The Menace of the Feeble-Minded

“Toronto is roused at last! The terrible menace of the feeble-minded has shocked the community.”  - Dr Clarence Hincks, psychiatrist and Director of Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene, addressing the Academy of Medicine, Toronto, 1916.

Middle and upper class professionals and citizens were horrified by the slums and poverty and associated them with the “feeble-minded”. They distinguished between the “deserving poor”, and the “undeserving” labeling them “paupers” given to “pauperism” due to feeble-mindedness.

The eugenicists defined the “feeble-minded” as unemployed, alcoholic, syphilitic, insane, epileptic, uneducated, and lazy. They especially condemned unmarried girls with illegitimate children as mentally defective.

In particularly, they linked the feeble-minded immigrants from the slums of Britain under the Poor Laws of Britain, people from Eastern Europe, the Balkan basin, Jews and Chinese.

Pamphlet for Dr Bernardo's Homes.

British Home children landing in Saint John’s N.B. early 1920s.
Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.




One group they focused on were the thousands of destitute British “Home” children sent to Canada by the British government as cheap indentured labour. Many organized groups arranged the immigration of these children, such as Dr Barnardo’s Homes.


iv. The Eugenics Society of Canada

The ESC was founded in 1925, and headed by Dr William Hutton.

The ESC met for the first time on Nov. 6, 1930.  Doctors and physicians formed the single largest group within the ESC, which included influential figures such as Dr Clare Hincks, Dr C.B. Farrar, Dr Helen MacMurchy, Dr William Hutton (president), Dr Charles Hastings, Medical Officer of Health for Toronto.  

The concern of the ESC was: “Producing the proper kind of men and women is the fundamental step in solving every social problem. . . The ideal to which eugenics looks is a race of men, all of whom are ‘well-born’ by which is meant that they will have desirable physical, mental and moral attributes.”

Traveling Exhibit of eugenic propaganda organized by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene  (CNCMH) in the 1920s, which crossed Canada from Montreal, Toronto to Vancouver warning Canadians of the dangers of the “feeble-minded”.

The CNCMH organized an exhibition on feeble-mindedness in 1925 that travelled to major cities and towns across Canada, beginning in Montreal. It featured talks and presentations and posters featuring photographs of mentally defective persons.

Eugenic poster put out by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 1920s.
Courtesy of CAMH Archives.

One important poster showed ‘Four Types of Mental Deficiency’: Idiocy, Mongolian Idiocy, Imbecility, and Moron. The caption beneath the poster reads:

"The feeble-minded can be divided into three groups. (1) Idiots with a mental age less than three years; (2) Imbeciles with a mental age between three and seven years; (3) Morons with a mental age of between seven and eleven years. The moron group has been largely neglected in Canada and has contributed greatly to criminality, vice and pauperism.  

- The Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene conducts activities to secure better provision for the control of feeblemindedness."

Reference: CAMH Archives.

Aims of the ESC:

  • Limitation of immigration with medical inspectors at ports of entry. Diseased illiterate immigrants returned to their countries of origin.
  • Changes in the Marriage Act to prevent the union of feeble-minded as well as idiots and imbeciles. A fine of $500 for any priest or religious person marrying normal and feeble-minded couples.
  • Segregation of the feeble-minded in institutions and farm colonies.
  • Sterilization of mental defectives as needed.

The ESC put pressure on the government to change the laws to control the feeble-minded, such as amendments to the House of Refuge Act whereby medical doctors could transfer a feeble-minded girl to the asylum in Orillia.

The ESC wanted the “fit” – well-educated and intelligent – to produce more children to outnumber those of the inferior classes, and prevent the “unfit” from reproducing. Eugenicists therefore advocated segregation and institutionalization of the feeble-minded in asylums such as Orillia, and in farm colonies, and even sterilization as needed.

The Marriage Act

Ontario Statutes of 1896 imposed a $500 penalty on anyone issuing a marriage license to idiotic or insane persons. The eugenicists wanted this extended to include the “feeble-minded”. In 1911, a prison sentence was added of not more than twelve months for issuing a license.


The Canadian Eugenicists >>