Why you should care
There’s lots a-boot America’s neighbor to the north that you — and they — don’t know.
Canada: The Story of Us was supposed to mark 150 years since Confederation with an epic adventure TV series that “celebrates how we transformed differences into understanding and created a unique national identity.” But after the CBC started airing it this year, the public broadcaster found itself in a national firestorm over cliche depictions of Francophones, historic omissions and charges of bias. “We apologize,” the CBC said. “Our intention was never to offend anyone or any group, nor diminish the importance of any of the stories that were not included.”
Canucks often get teased for how much they say “sorry,” so much so that the habit has become something of a national and international joke. Yet there’s plenty for which to genuinely repent. One of the country’s gravest atrocities includes more than a century of policies designed to assimilate aboriginal peoples, largely by tearing around 150,000 children from their families and forcing them into government-funded, typically church-administered residential schools. Many kids faced physical or sexual abuse. Some suffered both, and at least 3,200 of them died. It “can be best described as ‘cultural genocide,’” found a 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which spans nearly 4,000 damning pages.
That’s just one part of a long, haunting time line from a country often lauded for its polite people and enlightened social policies. “We love to pat ourselves on the back for being a progressive, advanced, liberal democracy, and that in some ways prevents us from acknowledging the fact that this didn’t come by automatically,” says Graham Reynolds, professor emeritus in the history department at Cape Breton University. “There are some dark chapters in our history.”
The Suffragettes — and the Skeletons in Their Closets
“Nice women don’t want the vote.” So uttered the premier of Manitoba in 1914 to Nellie McClung, a writer and social activist who responded by hosting a mock Parliament with a Saturday Night Live-ready speech that spun sexist rhetoric on its head by speculating on what would happen if men were granted the right to vote. The stunt, along with her grueling grassroots efforts — such as co-founding the Political Equality League, which fought for women’s suffrage and labor law reform — helped grant women in Manitoba the vote in 1916. The right then extended to all women in Canada just a few years later.
Next door, in the province of Alberta, another rising star writer and activist, Emily Murphy, was making history as the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. She, along with her friend McClung plus three other women, used their increasingly public platforms to try and have women declared legal “persons” in Canada — they weren’t considered so under the law at the time. Their legal battle to open more opportunities in law and politics, particularly eligibility to serve in the Senate, waged on for years. But this “Famous Five” eventually won the Persons Case, and they remain memorialized in monuments at Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, the Manitoba Legislative Building and Ottawa’s Parliament Hill.
The Sexual Sterilization Act targeted “mentally defective persons,” forcing more than 2,800 people to undergo sterilization procedures.
But that’s not the whole story. What often isn’t mentioned or recalled by many Canadians is how these suffragettes also promoted the practice of eugenics, or selective breeding. McClung championed the right of parents to sterilize children who were deemed mentally handicapped. Her endorsement “was never in terms of improving the human race. It was always for making family life easier,” says Charlotte Gray, author of the book Nellie McClung. “She was an old-fashioned feminist.” For her part, Murphy was much more vocal in advocating for sterilization, arguing in one column, “We protect the public against diseased and distempered cattle. We should similarly protect them against the offal of humanity.”
Both suffragettes, along with a host of prominent voices who supported eugenics in the early 1900s — including Tommy Douglas, who’s widely known as the father of Canadian Medicare — influenced public policy. In Alberta, the Sexual Sterilization Act enacted in 1928 targeted “mentally defective persons” and remained in place until 1972, forcing more than 2,800 people to undergo sterilization procedures, including Leilani Muir (whose story you can watch above).
Travel Bans and Internment Camps, eh?
Muir and others deemed mentally unfit weren’t the only targets during some of Canada’s darkest decades. In the early 1900s, trade unions sought ways to exclude the growing number of Asian men who were immigrating to Canada from joining their ranks. Some also boycotted businesses that employed Asians and pushed for legislation to protect jobs for white men, according to Colour-Coded, a book on the legal history of racism in Canada by University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse. Certain arguments used to justify the sterilization of those with mental disabilities or lower IQs also fanned xenophobia. “The popularity of the eugenics movement in Canada together with fears about unrestricted immigration was reflective of the desire to maintain the genetic vitality and racial purity of the nation,” writes Reynolds in his book Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.
Look no further than the writing of one Janey Canuck. Her infamous 1922 book, The Black Candle, pushed one unfounded theory: Chinese and other non-white people had banded together in an international conspiracy dubbed “the Ring” to corrupt the purity of the white race by flooding the streets of Canada and other countries with drugs, according to a National Post article by Mark Bourrie. Her book also recounted stories of educated gentlewomen “consorting with the lowest classes of yellow and black men,” then sometimes deserting their “half-caste” babies. “No one was more influential in drawing a causal nexus between race, crime and drugs and then embedding that connection in the public imagination than ‘Janey Canuck,’” The Walrus notes.
Groups affiliated with the KKK … targeted Black Canadians as well as other minorities.
As it turned out, Janey Canuck was the occasional pen name used by … you guessed it, the leading suffragette Emily Murphy. Her work contributed to the racist origins of Canada’s drug legislation, some say, leading one Maclean’s writer to ask: “Why does Canada insist on honouring a xenophobic fascist?” She was far from alone in spreading xenophobia, which percolated throughout much of Canada in the early 20th century. Back then groups affiliated with the KKK — such as the Ku Klux Klan of Kanada, or KKKK, as some identified themselves — targeted Black Canadians as well as other minorities, including the French in New Brunswick and Asians in British Columbia.
These weren’t fringe movements. Hatred shaped national laws. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act formally banned most Chinese from entering Canada. For 24 years, as the legislation remained in place, fewer than 50 Chinese people were allowed in, the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre notes. Others of Asian descent also became targets. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, parts of British Columbia were designated federally protected land. There, Japanese Canadians were rounded up and detained — and forced to pay for their own internment camp stays. Some were shipped on trains to Alberta or Manitoba, where farmers got their pick of laborers for sugar beet fields (see video).
All told, the internments displaced around 22,000 out of 24,000 people of Japanese descent living in Canada at the time. Some ended up deported to Japan, even if they’d been born or raised in the land of the true north, strong and free. If they didn’t want to go to the land of the rising sun, they had to resettle outside of British Columbia and east of the Rocky Mountains. “Entire communities were erased in B.C.,” says Pamela Sugiman, a professor and dean of the faculty of arts at Ryerson University. “There’s a really long history of blatant and direct prejudice and institutional racism against East Asians.”
And there are likely other stories, too, buried within Canada’s darkest days. “We could, in fact, uncover many, many more incidents of racism if we asked people who had been victimized,” says Backhouse. “There’s a whole history yet untold.”