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When Canada Forgot About Human Rights

By 4 10

Canada has an international reputation for being a peaceful country, one that is helpful to those less fortunate, a beacon of light in regards to tolerance, civil liberties and freedoms.

The history books of my youth were filled with shining examples of how righteous Canada is. The road to freedom for American slaves ended here in Canada. We were active in the Second World War fighting against racism, genocide and concentration camps. We are in third world countries battling hunger, disease and poverty. We protect the rights of women and children.

The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A MacDonald is as revered as Americas founding fathers, he graces our ten-dollar bills, has many monuments raised in his honour and we celebrate his birthday without fail. Without him there would be no Canada, he is the man who made us, united us.

He was also a virulent and extreme racist, even for his era, who was the force behind many of Canada's worst human rights atrocities.

Canada's history and the man who is so intimately tied to that history has been sanitized, in some cases erased and the truth is much different, much darker and much more disturbing.


Eugenics, the science of genetic improvement in humans, was the popular idea in its day and most Canadian provinces entertained the idea, though only two - Alberta in 1928 and British Columbia in 1933 - passed laws allowing for sterilization of non desirables. Of the two provinces, it was Alberta that implemented and used eugenics in a most horrific way.

The original laws, the Sterilization Act of 1928, required consent to perform the sterilization and its focus was those who under the Mental Health Act were institutionalized. This Act created a eugenics board, this boards primary goal was to see that any being released, agreed to sterilization as a condition of their release.

Eugenics Attitude

In 1937 Alberta went one step further and added an amendment to the Act that allowed for sterilization without consent of those institutionalized for mental health. In 1942 they went even further with their eugenics laws and extended the law beyond that of institutions and the mental health act identifying possible candidates in communities, school and through public health visits.

This 'widening of the net' resulted in the gaze of eugenics turning towards other people, who were not mentally ill. Immigrants were first, then the orphaned and disabled were targeted, finally the indigenous women were also included in the eugenics program.

Ninety-nine percent of the nearly five thousand cases presented to the eugenics board were recommended for sterilization. More surprisingly is the fact that these eugenics laws and programs were considered to be progressive and were supported by a range of people – farmers, socialists, feminists and many Anglo-Saxons. At least till 1972 when the laws were finally repealed and the eugenics board was disbanded.

In 1995, one of the victims, sued the Alberta government and was awarded a million dollars. More lawsuits followed and ultimately the government settled for a lump sum of eighty million for all victims.

The Genocide Of The Aboriginal Peoples

Canada's first Prime Minister had complex views when it came to Canada's Indigenous Peoples. On one hand, he is responsible for enacting legislation to allow Aboriginal people of Canada to vote. Yet, he also oversaw a policy from his government that withheld much-needed food from Native Americans.

When the treaties were signed Native Indians found themselves without a food source on their 'new lands' or reserves. The government had a responsibility of providing food aid in times of food scarcity.

Rather than honour the treaty agreements (Treaty No. 6), John A MacDonald's Tory government used starvation as a method to control indigenous populations, force policies that allowed the railway to be built without resistance and as a way to force those dissidents who did not want to sign the treaties and confine themselves to a small patch of land to come back to the table.

Dirty politics, but when is politics clean?

The real crime was that even when the Native Americans did comply and confine themselves to a land with little or no food supply, the government still held back the food and let it rot in ration houses while the Indigenous populations died of starvation.

This went on for years causing many of the Aboriginals to fall into decades long malnutrition that gave rise to many diseases and illnesses. In fact it is one of the reasons that Natives, even today are viewed as separate from Canadians, marginalized to the fringes of society.

It was ethnic cleansing, genocide. Regardless of whether racism was a 'popular view' of the times.

It should come as no real surprise that in the 1940's and 1950's, that the government was repeating history, but with the children of Native people.

Residential Schools and Scientific Experimentation

As far back as oh forever, white men of Canada's history have felt they were superior to Native Indians and perhaps worse, felt that Indians had to become English-speaking Christian farmers to be of worth. And this attitude gave birth to the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869.

With the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, residential schools started appearing and sadly have existed right up into the twentieth century.

I would love to say that in the beginning residential schools had a positive purpose, they were designed to educate aboriginal children in Western Culture and to teach them English as well as Christianity – all in an effort to see them integrated into Canadian society. But that would make me a liar.

"When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men." Canada's First PM John. A. MacDonald.[1]

Thomas Moore - Before and After

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse ran rampant. Punishments for small infractions included beatings. The children were forced to read English textbooks and not permitted to speak in their native tongues. They were rarely allowed home to visit their families. They were denied food and many died or became ill. When the children were finally allowed to leave, their own communities shunned them or viewed them as outsiders, strangers so removed from their way of life that they were foreigners and not family.

Recently it was exposed that some of these school purposely held back food and nutrition from the kids for the purposes of nutritional experiments starting in 1942 and running for ten years. To date, not every school participated but those that did denied Vitamin C to some children and not others. In other cases they halved the recommended amount of milk for two years to get a baseline reading that can be used to compare to the study of tripling the ration of milk. In yet other cases flour was used that promoted or caused anemia.

As one resident of the schools put it:

We were hungry all the time. Most of the time anyway. We ate it because we were hungry. We didn’t have a choice in the matter. Either that or starve to death.”–Leonard Pootlass on his B.C. residential school experience[3]

The last residential school to close was in 1996. The government (Harper) issued an apology to the Native Peoples in 2007 and enacted a compensation package for them, 1.9 billion dollars. He then continued to block the information from the Commission investigating.

But considering the paperwork of these schools, millions upon millions of papers, is just starting to come out, and already the release of it is being hindered by the Tory government today, it leaves one to wonder what atrocity will it show next?

The Chinese Head Tax

British Columbia, before joining the Confederation of Canada, demanded a 'link' be built connecting them to the East for economic purposes mainly. John A. MacDonald saw this as essential to a unified Canadian nation.

In 1881 this task of building a transportation link was started. With the help of nearly 17,000 Chinese, most of whom were brought directly from China, the British Columbia section of the railway was completed in 1885. Despite their contributions they were still prejudiced against and seen no better than cheap labour, animals and expendable.

And it really did not get better for them any time soon.

Certificate of Chinese Head Tax
The Canadian Federal government created the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, right when the cheap labour of the Chinese workers was no longer needed. A $50 head tax was placed on Chinese immigrants wishing to enter Canada, a few years later it was doubled and by 1903 the tax was $500 per Chinese immigrant, an average of two years income in China. They were the only ones who had a head tax.

For the last few years of World War 2 the number of Chinese immigrants, cheap labour workers, had risen to 4000 a year. When the war ended, the Chinese incurred anger and blame when those Canadians who were at war came home to no jobs, resentment and even fear grew when it became known that Chinese were owning land and farming. The recession of the 1920's did not help the Chinese cause.

On July 1, 1923 Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which stopped all immigration from China cold in its tracks. And it stayed that way till 1947, though it wasn't until 1967 when all elements of it were removed.

The federal government of Canada collected about twenty-three million dollars in head tax payments. In 2006 Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized.

The Espionage Commission

During peacetime in 1945 a Soviet male defected with evidence of a Soviet spy-ring in Canada. Canada's federal government quietly responded by suspending the Habeas Corpus and invoking wartime powers giving them the legal right to detain, interrogate and prosecute Canadian citizens while denying them their rights.

February 1946 saw over twenty suspected spies arrested and held ... without charges, no legal counsel, no access to visitors, held in small prison cells and spending weeks in solitary (which today is seen as torture). When they were interrogated individually they were not only pressured to confess but told that it was legally required of them as this was not a court of law, those who resisted, went back into the jail cells.

Only those who submitted to the Commissions demands and questions were released early. They came to regret that. The commissions only real task was to gather incriminating evidence on the suspects, to be used later against them. One of the suspects when brought to court to testify, could only rock in place and repeat three words over and over in a dead pan voice, “I did it ... I did it”.

Though the government acted 'legally' or within the scope of the law they were heavily criticized for the extreme tactics. A number of organizations that fought for civil liberties of the people were formed afterwards and still exist today.

Concentration Camps World War I and II

War makes people, and countries, do crazy things. Fear and paranoia seem to run rampant during these trying times. Canadians were not exempted from this.

During both World Wars we imprisoned in camps (that rightfully could be called concentration camps) a variety of people who were seen as enemy aliens. During World War 1 it was anyone of Eastern European origin, mainly Ukrainians but also Poles, Russian, Jews, Turks, Italians, Romanians and Austrians to name a few. Anyone who fell under suspicion had their belongings confiscated and they were tossed into these camps. All in all about eight thousand people suffered.

Concentration Camps of Canada

Those in the camps were used as forced labour for most any type of work, including the building of the very camps they were being held in. Most of the work was physically hard and they were given little rest and food. Conditions were generally unbearable and many died.

Despite this, many of them namely Ukrainians, stayed loyal to Canada during the war years and even enlisted to fight (under false names of course). When the first World War ended, many of the prisoners were held in the camps due to the countries political mood.

To this day the Canadian government has done very little to acknowledge, let alone apologize, for their actions during the War.

In the second World War, it was the Japanese who were held against their will. The true sad part of this was that these protective areas, as they were politely called, were unnecessary as the Battle of Midway had already played out and the Japanese threat was removed.

The Japanese Concentration Camps

About twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadian men (yes they were citizens of Canada at the time) were torn from their families, lost everything including boats and forced into a life of starvation and hard labour. No crime committed other than being Japanese. Separated from the women and children their camps were unsanitary, crowded and had no electricity or running water.

When the war ended their trials were not over. They were told to leave British Columbia and relocate elsewhere, or just leave the country all together. Regardless their choice, they were not welcome back to British Columbia until 1949.

The Canadian government did acknowledge its wrong towards the Japanese people in 1998 and issued an apology, gave each person of the camp $20,000 and made donations to a community fund and to the Race Relations Foundation.

How is Canada Doing Now

As both World War reactions have shown Canada does not always learn from its historical mis-steps. While Canada has improved - which is not overly hard when you practice less genocide and racism - and has much to be proud of, there are still many issues that are long-standing.

As the Amnesty Report of 2012 stated: 

“By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection, indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis.” Amnesety Report 2012




Mar 26, 2015 6:27am
Lots of information here. I applaud you on your thorough research.
Mar 26, 2015 8:36am
Thank you ... It actually started out as a essay on Canada's First Prime Minister and as I went through his 'achievements' I started to notice more and more of his 'crimes' (for lack of a better word).
Mar 28, 2015 9:00pm
Oh, I agree with your summation. Canada has some horrible human rights atrocities. It's tragic HOW long (1972) it took for laws to be repealed and the eugenics board disbanded.

Equally bad are the late apologies and weak compensation "deals."

There were horrible medical and psychological "treatments" performed in Canada too.
Horrendous really.

But the truth should be known and I applaud you for bringing some of this to light. I too feel that indigenous people are still suffering from a lack of fundamental human rights - even just access to safe water!

Thumbs, pinning, G+, etc.
Mar 29, 2015 1:54pm
Late apologies and weak compensation are more like slaps in their faces really, but rarely is it ever described as such.

I knew we (Canada) had some dark history with native mainly, but nothing like what I found and learned about.

Mar 28, 2015 11:30pm
Its high time nations learned from their dark pasts
Mar 29, 2015 1:55pm
I agree. Sanitizing history only enables it to be repeated quicker. Truths are not always sunny unfortunately.
Mar 28, 2015 11:30pm
Its high time nations learned from their dark pasts
Mar 29, 2015 7:59am
This is great, and for most of the global community, obscure information about what truly is considered one of the world's least offensive countries. Excellent work, and I'm glad you took the time to provide through passages ibstwsf of just swipes under each header. Truly worthy of the front page and one of the best researched pieces I've seen on this site in a long time. Thumb, +1'd, tweeted, and whatever else I can think of to share this out there.
Mar 29, 2015 2:00pm
I think being considered a friendly or non offensive country is what made it so easy to sanitize and warp its history. I am learning that Canada, while she is a great country and I love her, is a country that is highly romanticized by most.

Mar 29, 2015 2:19pm
Now if you guys can just get rid of those snooty Frenchies . . .
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  1. Dan Farber "John A MacDonald was a near genocidal extremist even for his time." National Post. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  2. "When Canada Used Hunger to Clear the West." The Globe and Mail. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  3. "Rogerannis." Food Deprivation and Starvation Politics. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  4. "ChineseCanada Policies." Cultural Centre. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  5. "Canada Eugenics." Eugenics Archive. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  6. "Igor Gouzenko." History of Rights. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  7. "Canadian Internment Camps." Petawaw Heritage. 3/03/2015 <Web >
  8. "First World War Internment Camps." CTV News. 3/03/2015 <Web >

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