Both farming and animal breeding are applied examples of individuals attempting to control and ultimately “perfect” the natural world. Notions of perfection through control of breeding of animals and control of crops were developed during the British Agricultural Revolution from 1750 to 1850. During the eighteenth century, agricultural breeders in the United Kingdom began to solidify breeding into a pseudo-science. The works of these early agriculturalists directly influenced the works of early eugenicists and hereditarians such as Francis Galton and Charles Darwin. Combined with an agrarian identity in western Canada, this influence was expressed in social policy and legislation, including the enactment of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta.
Agrarian Identity in Western Canada
1895 to 1905 were formative years for the province of Alberta. During this period, the province had a population boom driven by immigration policies that directly targeted foreign farmers. Clifford Sifton, the Canadian Minister to the Interior, believed that the prairies were a potential agricultural utopia. Values such as hard work and a direct connection to the land were prominent in booster literature, and those values imbued themselves into a unique western agrarian identity for new immigrants within the region. As a result, once Alberta formally joined in confederation, the agrarian myth played an integral role in the creation of the ideal citizen and nation on the prairies.
The agricultural identity that developed on the Canadian prairies during this period of development is one which constructed the land as an opportunity to rebuild both people and also the nation as a whole. These agrarianists believed that people living in urban settings lived polished and unfit lives, and that hard work with a connection to the land was “a sign of strength and health”. Farmers gained strength of character through their “fit” lifestyle. Hard work would rejuvenate the health and spirit of both men and women who were growing “soft” through urbanized lifestyles.
Beyond this ideological belief in the value of an agrarian lifestyle, farmers were also critical of the economic growth of the nation. Between 1896 and 1914, the wheat economy was both established and produced unprecedented economic growth for the nation.
Historian WL Morton argued that, due to these values, the Canadian West declared its own identity and created its own sense of political independence. Westerners believed they could bring the nation around to their regional perspective through an organized social reform movement.
Providing a direct connection between the health of the individual, the land, and the nation, the burgeoning agrarian identity encouraged farmers to organize politically. Concerned with public life and the future of the nation, the United Farmers of Alberta formed in 1909 as a merger between the Canadian Society of Equality and the Alberta Farmers’ Association. The goals of the United Farmers of Alberta were to study social questions and the promotion of legislation to promote the moral, intellectual, and financial status of farmers. Drawing from their belief that they were the producers of the wealth of the nation, farmers desired to control social and economic legislation which affected them.
The United Farmers entered both provincial and federal politics in 1919 with hopes of winning a few seats in the provincial legislature in order to more successfully influence provincial legislation. Prior to entering politics, the UFA created a new declaration of principles. They believed that they were a “group of citizens going into political action...[their aim being] to develop through study of social and economic conditions an intelligent responsible citizenship.” Further to this objective, in support of the candidates up for the federal election in 1921, president of the UFA H.W. Wood stated that “we believe, of course that the weaknesses of the past have been the weaknesses of the people themselves,” but further believed that people were unable to become less weak within the political party system.
Much to the surprise of the organization, the UFA won a majority of seats in the 1921 election and formed what would become the longest running agrarian government in the nation. Their rhetoric of creating a strong, healthy nation would greatly influence their political reforms – many of which were centred around public health.
Life, Livestock, and the Pursuit of Eugenics
The issue of ill and undernourished children became an important political cause for the United Farmers, and drew the attention of the United Farm Women, the female branch of the United Farmers of Alberta. Medical school inspections, public health teachers, and child welfare reform were central to their politics. If farmers were the future of the nation, certainly their children deserved even more attention from the state.
In 1916, the medical inspector of Edmonton’s public schools argued that “It is to be hoped that before many years have passed, we will have the satisfaction of seeing our ruling bodies give as much care and attention to the rising generation as they now give to the development of the best strains of livestock” (Gleason, 28). Similarly, during a public address at Child Welfare Week, the vice president of the United Farm Women declared that she found it surprising that the majority of children were not being properly nourished and cared for. Appealing to agrarian sensibilities, she stated that “it should be just as interesting for parents, and a great deal more important, to see that their children are the proper weight in accordance with their age and height, as it is for our farmers to bring their pigs to standard weight for the market.”
Included in the scope of these health reforms were the need for municipal hospitals, rural sanitation, rural access to maternal and child health care, tuberculosis and its prevention, medical inspection of schools by public health nurses, home nursing and first aid, child welfare and mothercraft, and how Alberta cared for delinquent and dependent children and people deemed “mental defectives”. These discussions included both the promotion of health through positive reform, such as building hospitals, and the prevention of degeneration and disease by inspecting schools and controlling “mental defectiveness.” The 1923 UFWA convenor on health declared that “good health is the first requisite in all around good citizenship. You can’t have a hundred per cent efficient mind in a diseased body.”
Indeed, the rhetoric of national progress that was promoted by organized farmers in Alberta and centred on local agrarian identities and animal breeding rhetoric was directly linked to a desire to create a healthy future. Included in these health reforms, the United Farmers and United Farm Women of Alberta drafted, promoted, and garnered public support for formal provincial eugenics legislation, which produced legislative success by introducing the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928.
-Sheila Rae Gibbons
Gibbons, Sheila Rae. (2014). Our power to remodel civilization: The development of eugenic feminism in Alberta, 1909-1921. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. 31(1), 123-142.
Gibbons, Sheila Rae. (2012). The true political mothers of today: Farm women and the organization of eugenic feminism in Alberta (Masters of Arts Thesis). University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.
Gleason, Mona. (2013). Small matters: Canadian children in sickness and health, 1900-1940. Montreal: McGill Queens.
Morton, W.L. (1969). A century of plain and parkland. Alberta Historical Review 17(2), 1-10.
Rennie, Bradford James. (2000). The rise of agrarian democracy: The United Farmers and Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.