New Guelph exhibit reveals history of eugenics education in Ontario

Eugenics was taught at the founding colleges of the University of Guelph for more than 30 years at the start of the 20th century, according to documents discovered by a researcher at the university's Revision Centre for Art and Social Justice.

Documents show eugenics taught in University of Guelph founding colleges and advocated for in province

Into the Light, an exhibit at the Guelph Civic Museum, features new research on eugenics education in Ontario. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC News)

Eugenics was taught at the founding colleges of the University of Guelph for more than 30 years at the start of the 20th century, according to documents discovered by a researcher at the school.

Eugenics, often associated with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, is the idea that it's possible to improve the human race through selective breeding, based on traits such as race.

The unearthed documents and other archives, which show support for eugenics in Ontario around the time of the Second World War, are on display as part of a new exhibit at the Guelph Civic Museum called "Into the Light: Eugenics and Education in Southern Ontario."

The exhibit is a collaboration of activists, Indigenous artists and researchers. It's meant to reveal a troubled legacy, but also to share stories of survival.

It opens with an Anishinaabe prayer spoken by one of the co-curators, Mohawk elder Mona Stonefish; a gentle point of entry ahead of what's inside.

An 'obscured' history

It wasn't an easy path to find old course material on eugenics.

Evadne Kelly, a postdoctoral researcher at the Revision Centre for Art and Social Justice who found the documents, remembers searching in a number of University of Guelph archives that came up blank.

"It took quite a bit more digging and also speaking with archivists who were willing to create unrestricted access to these archives," Kelly said.

Evadne Kelly, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph, found the documents after an exhaustive search through the archives. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Kelly said she doesn't believe anybody at the university was aware eugenics had been taught. 

"It was really shocking," Kelly said.

"I think that this history has been obscured ... I don't think people really want to acknowledge that such hurtful and hateful ideas were being taught for decades in Canada."

The search began with a hunch on the part of Kelly's academic supervisor that eugenics may have been taught at one of the founding colleges at the university.

Turns out it was taught at two: Macdonald Institute and the Ontario Agricultural College.

Eugenics taught in several courses

The first sign of eugenics weaving its way into course material was a 1914 biology course. Kelly also found it was taught in psychology courses and a course called mothercraft.

"[Mothercraft] was in my mind one of the more dangerous courses," Kelly said.

"Students were being taught how much affection is appropriate. What kinds of behaviours are OK and how to punish for behaviours that are not wanted."

Kelly noticed the course material shifted around the Second World War. The language ramped up and became much more nationalistic with anti-immigration sentiments.

Eugenics was taught in several courses for more than 30 years, including psychology, biology and mothercraft. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

One exam question got students to think about policies to sterilize the unfit.

The last time Kelly found evidence of eugenics in course material was 1948, but she suspects the subject matter extends beyond that point.

There is research on eugenics being taught at universities in western Canada, but the archive appears to be the most substantive amount of research on eugenics education in Ontario, according to Kelly.

Move toward reconciliation

The University of Guelph course material was just the starting point. 

Kelly also found transcripts of radio addresses from Ontario legislators and academics at the University of Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton. They were pushing for eugenics policies to be applied in the province.

In the corner of the exhibit, there's an old radio and a couple of chairs. Through headphones, people can listen to readings of the old radio messages.

One of the addresses from 1938 is written by former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Herbert Bruce, praising the sterilization policies of Nazi Germany.

Old radio addresses from the 1930s promoting eugenics in Ontario can be heard through headphones in the corner of the exhibit. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"It is an uncomfortable and difficult history to share," said Dawn Owen, the curator of the Guelph Civic Museum.

"Eugenics was not only theorized about and practiced within the university, but there were multiple decades where the practice of eugenics not only happened locally within this community, but then also because the students who were learning eugenics were then going into teaching professions ... we can actually trace lines into other institutes across the province and, frankly, across the country."

By putting these radio addresses, course material and other artifacts out there for the public, the collaborators hope the exhibit is a move toward reconciliation.

"The message isn't one of hopelessness. The message is one of truth," Owen said.

"We hope that with truth, with knowledge, that will lead us down the path toward reconciliation."