The eugenic movement was anxious about race purity, but it was also deeply worried about ‘intelligence’. Modernization brought urban crowding and the problem of ‘wayward youth’, and modern industry demanded a literate and educated workforce [1]. To fill the need for educated workers and also to manage unruly urban youth, compulsory education was implemented in the late 19th century in Canada [2]. A third goal of public schooling, and one that relates to eugenic goals, was the assimilation of immigrant and First Nations children.

An ironic effect of compulsory schooling was that congregating children in classrooms made it clear that not all children could keep up. As a result, poor children, children of colour, and children who came to be seen as intellectually or learning disabled became casualties of so-called universal schooling [1, 3], mainly because teachers were not educationally or psychologically prepared to teach disabled or culturally deprived students [4].

older sheltered workshop photoIn the late 1900’s a number of small, cottage-style experimental residential schools for hard-to-teach children arose, with the goal of specialized schooling and return to the community. These small institutions enjoyed moderate educational success but they were expensive to run, and by the beginning of the 20th century, the move was on to larger ‘training centres’ [1, 5].

The rise of the institution system also coincided with the eugenics movement, and the growth of the medical and psychological professions. Networks of doctors, clinics and hospitals built their careers and their disciplines on the business of identifying and confining large numbers of people who were considered mentally defective and – often wrongly – genetically unfit [6]. The rise of the psychological professions, the growth of public education, and eugenic attitudes towards disability and mental illness became the justifications for a vast network of institutions for ‘mental defectives’ that sprang up across North America and Europe from the late 1800’s onward.

With these developments, institutions moved from a philosophy of education and reintegration to one of warehousing, and children who entered the institutions were often interred for life [7] . Further, the conditions in the institutions were such that children and older residents were often rendered unfit to leave because of the numbing brutality and lack of stimulation inside [8].

Aerial photo of Red Deer & MichenerIn our research, many survivors described entering Michener Centre as children because they were not able to keep up in the classroom. Most of them stayed in the institution well into their adult years. Michener, like most of the asylums and institutions built during the 20th century, was located far outside of the city, and inmates were not able to freely leave the campus or mingle in the community. Inside, inmates were kept in locked, sex-segregated units with virtually no opportunity to interact with other-sex children and young adults. In these ways, we can see that both social and geographical isolation operated as forms of passive eugenics for the large numbers of children in institutions for ‘mental defectives’.


  1. Trent, J.W., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. 1994, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Winzer, M., From Integration to Inclusion: A History of Special Education in the 20th Century. 2009, Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
  3. Sigmon, S.B., Radical analysis of Special Education: Focus on historical development and learning disabilities. 1987, London and New York: Falmer Press.
  4. Apple, M., Education and power. 2nd ed. 1995, New York and London: Routledge. 1-206.
  5. Osgood, R.L., The History of Special Education: A Struggle for Equality in American Public Schools. Growing Up: History of Children and Youth, ed. P.F. Clement. 2008, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  6. Albrecht, G.L., The Disability Business: Rehabilitation in America (SAGE Library of Social Research). 1993, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
  7. Malacrida, C., A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years. Forthcoming, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  8. Hubert, J., The Social, Individual and Moral Consequences of Physical Exclusion in Long-Stay Institutions, in Madness, Disability and Social Exclusion: The Archeology and Anthropology of ‘Difference’, J. Hubert, Editor. 2000, Routledge: New York and London. p. 196-207.