Monday, December 21, 2015

Eugenics and Ignoring Ugly History in Montreal


I found a newsletter online that mentioned my name: the November, 2015 issue of a report the Montreal Council of Women sends around.

I was a little, how might I say, bemused.

The author alludes to my May, 2015 blog posts on Carrie Derick, the 1909-1912 President of the Montreal Local Council, saying I don't flatter the McGill geneticist. She goes on to say that she would have to go back in time to properly argue the issue and she doesn't have the time.

Seems to me, my posts about Derick are mentioned in the newsletter just to be dismissed.Why bother?

There's nothing to argue, anyway.  Carrie Derick was deeply into eugenics. The historical record makes it clear:The many public talks she gave on the subject were covered in the press of the day. After all, she was a professional geneticist and she knew all about pea-pods.

In December, 1917 she avoided the Montreal conscription controversies by going to Hamilton, Ontario to give a talk on heredity on behalf of the Montreal Suffrage Assocation, as a 'fundraiser.' At least, that was the rationale since eugenics had nothing to do with woman suffrage. Or did it?

The 1910 era Montreal Council minutes and, more especially, the National Council of Women minutes, go into ugly detail about the eugenics-tainted reforms these women hoped to achieve in the area of health and immigration. The bit below is from the Montreal Council Minutes suggests that morality and health got all mixed up in the minds of these social reformers.

A survey of 'defective immigrants' from the Herve Institute is telling. It is written that:
3 were epileptic,
2 were insane
38 were of low grade mentality
1 called "very queer"
1 termed 'simple'
1 had St Vitus Dance
7 were neurotic
4 paralyzed
1 a gambler
2 were beggars
1 had a drug habit
30 were illegitimate
27 were grossly immoral
3 criminal
9 had cancer.


While researching my future ebook Service and Disservice, about the involvement of the Montreal Suffragists in the Conscription Crisis, I found some very disturbing paragraphs in the Women's Century, the organ of the National Council, from the WWI period.

Shocking, really.

But, that's neither here  nor there. Eugenics was a trendy issue in 1910,  period, what with the unsettling demographic changes happening in North America.

The Protestant Evangelicals ran the show and they were racist. Hello! (Or, as Pierre Berton writes in Marching As to War, 'they wanted everyone to be just like them.')

Many upstanding public figures, most more illustrious that Derick, were adherents of the eugenics cause. She wasn't the only one spewing nonsense all over town about  the absurd  Jukes/Edwards study.

My general point is related to Montreal history: Derick was a very influential woman and her support of eugenics gave the movement moral authority in the city, in the entire country.

(Not in the province. French Canadians were very wary of the 'hygienist' movement, sometimes known as the purity movement.)

McGill, I have read, was 'eugenics central' in Canada. For this reason, there was less opposition to the theory in Canada than in the US and in Europe.

When Carrie Derick was fighting for the post of Chair of Botany at McGill in 1912 (explored in Furies Cross the Mersey) the Montreal Council passed a long resolution pointing out that Miss Derick was a popular speaker all across the country.

It would be extremely naive to think that Miss Derick was for birth control because she wanted women, married and unmarried, to explore their sexuality.

Flora Macdonald Denison of Toronto was more in that vein and she was a serious outlier - and an agnostic, to boot.

Derick wanted young women to have a chance to earn their own living, she was an equal rights suffragist for the most part, but she also wanted these ambitious young girls corraled in special women's hotels where they could lead 'respectable lives' ie. no men allowed.

(That's what Marion Nicholson, my husband's boffo grandmother, just hated about the Women's Y. TOO MANY RULES!)

Derick also wanted the feeble-minded controled and cared for, put on farms and kept out of the gene pool. She was Education Chair of the National Council. She was a strong and determined lady. Her policies became national education policy until at least WWII when eugenics fell out of favor for obvious reasons.

Still, in the 1960's, in my elementary school on Clanranald Street they hid the Down's Syndrome kids so effectively, we hardly saw them and when we did it was a huge shock, like a strange dream. It was all so hush, hush.

I find it quite amazing, that even during the WWI, when the Society Women of Canada were busy working for the patriotic cause, that the issue of control and containment of the feeble-minded was still very much an active concern with the women of the National Council.

Many of these women gave up the suffrage cause during the war, thinking that it just wasn't important enough in the time of great crisis, as they put it.

But eugenics stayed on the National Council agenda.

This is from the 1916 Women's Century Magazine. "It is an old saying, that prevention is better than the cure and in the case of feeblemindedness, the fact is brought home forcibly. Until proper preventative mesures are taken, we will always have the difficult problem before us. It is all well to provide institutions, but why let the birth of idiots and criminals go on?"

I feel that people who deny that Derick was into eugenics and had beliefs that are not acceptable today, in the modern Western world,  are doing a real disservice to the memory of Miss Derick and the many other worthy women pioneers in Canadian and World history.

After all, that's what most historians, English and French, have done up until now: they've written Derick off as not worthy of historical mention because of her support of this controversial issue.

Derick claimed at the 1912 National Council of Women AGM that at least 50 percent of prostitutes were 'feeble-minded." Flora Macdonald Denison disagreed, saying the issue was economic.

Derick was quoted in the press as saying "Laws are for bad people: good people don't need laws."

During WWI she was all for Conscription, but preferred to call it 'mandatory overseas service.' After the war she gave lectures claiming all wars are about economics.

In retrospect,  Miss Derick said a lot of smart things and a lot of silly things, some things that she meant and some things that she didn't mean. In this respect, she was just  like her fellow male movers-and-shakers, very cagey.

As it happens, most historicans have written off Flora Macdonald Denison, the Toronto suffragist, just because of her spiritualist leanings.  (Flora wasn't cagey. She just spoke her mind.)

But there have been many illustrious men with similar quirky beliefs - and bios of these men pour out of the universities.

 (Derick, I might add, was a strong supporter of the Jews in the Protestant system, when many people, including many elite and influential clergymen, were not. She admired this community's work-ethic and respect for the education process.)

Here's something from the Montreal Council Minutes, 1913.


Re: Feeblemindedness. LCW.. Dr. Colm Russel

1)      To obtain a more efficient inspection of immigrants
2)      Taking of census in Protestant Schools
3)      Compulsory education
4)      Apply psych juvenile courts


To educate the public in regard to the huge cost to the Dominion of mental defectives, insanity and its relation to crime and vice.

A