Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

"The Brains of a Nation": The Eugenicist Roots of Canada's Mental Health Field and the Building of a White Non-Disabled Nation

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

"The Brains of a Nation": The Eugenicist Roots of Canada's Mental Health Field and the Building of a White Non-Disabled Nation

Article excerpt


Eugenicist movements in the United States, and most infamously in Nazi Germany, have been understood to be important actors in the establishment of various social policies that are linked to nationalist goals of racial purity and the elimination of people with disabilities. Less publicized however, is the existence of similar eugenicist organizations in Canada. In this paper, I examine the eugenicist roots of the Canadian mental health field and how these roots are connected to a nationalist agenda. In particular, I analyze the literature produced by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (CNCMH), the precursor to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Based on examination of this literature, I contend that the CNCMH's concerns extended far beyond service provision and that the CNCMH understood its role as a nation-building project rooted in reinforcing Canada as white and non-disabled. First, through a literature review, I elucidate some of the key concepts and their confluences used in my analysis, including: nationalism, eugenics, race, and mental pathology. Second, through a discourse analysis of CNCMH literature, specifically the Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene (CJMH) published by the CNCMH from 1918-1921, I reveal how discourses of Canadian nationalism contain foundation myths that reinforce the: Canadian identity as linked to white non-disability, Canada as tabula rasa, and eugenicist fears of the 'over-population' of 'undesirables'. Third, I explore how, on the basis of these foundation myths, the CNCMH considered mental hygiene discourse and practice as a means to further Canada as a white nondisabled nation. The desire for this furthering led to the advocation of eugenicist social policy and the restriction of immigration.


This qualitative case study borrows from Lee, Mishna and Brennenstuhl (2010), who view case studies as "an evidence-based, empirical approach that focuses on an intense investigation of a single system or a phenomenon in its real-life context" (p. 682). In this study, the system being examined is discourses of nationalism, race, and eugenics contained within the CJMH from 1918-1921. Lee, Mishna and Brennenstuhl (2010) further suggest that the purpose of the case study is to "generate or test a theory in its particular social, cultural, and historical context" (p. 682). In other words, the aim of the research would be to use the case to illustrate or contradict broader conceptualizations. Indeed, although the focus of the research is on the CJMH, the research findings may elucidate broader discourses within psychological or societal understandings.

This case study utilizes a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of archival sources. The CJMH was chosen as the archival source given its stated aim "to interest the general public as well as the medical profession" in the ideas of mental hygiene (Clarke, 2005, p. 67). The CJMH, published from 1919 - 1921, had three volumes made up of 11 issues. All 79 articles, and 21 news, abstracts, and book reviews sections contained within these issues were examined. I examined these articles through the coding of phrases related to race, foreignness, Canadian nationhood, eugenics, and immigration. While not every article contained discussions of these concepts, a significant number of articles tackled these ideas. Articles that considered these ideas served as a focal point of my research.

A critical discourse analysis "primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text [...] critical discourse analysts take explicit position, and thus want to understand, expose, and ultimately resist social inequality" (van Dijk, 2003, p. 352). This approach is consistent with my explicit anti-racist and anticolonial position that recognizes colonialism and white supremacy as playing a major role in Canada's formation and continued development. …

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