Skip to content
Widening the Story - Artifact 4

Colonial Human Betterment: Assimilation as a Form of Elimination in Child and Family Welfare


In the fields of child and family welfare, champions of the pseudo-sciences of eugenics and euthenics connected their theories directly to policies that advanced the continued colonialism and forced assimilation of ᐊᓂᔑᓂᓂᐊᐧᐠ, ᐃᓄᐃᐟ, ᒥᓇ ᐊᐱᑕᐃᐧᑯᓯᓴᓇᐠ (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) peoples. Both eugenics and euthenics aimed toward settler colonial human betterment. But, in practice, they were sometimes at odds. Eugenicists believed that biology held the key to establishing superiority and predicting the success of human beings. Euthenics advocated for human improvement through traits acquired from the environment, education, hygiene, and rehabilitation of human beings.

By forcibly transferring thousands of children away from their communities and into church-run institutions where they could be conditioned in white settler ways, the Indian Residential School system exemplifies this euthenics approach. Other policies of forced removal include what is now referred to as the “60s Scoop,” a term that hides the ongoing violence of the process. This euthenic “betterment” practice not only traumatized children, parents, and communities in Canada and elsewhere, it also contributed to cultural and literal genocide against ᓂᑕᑦ ᐊᓂᔑᓂᓂᐊᐧᐠ (First Nations Peoples).

Children’s Aid Society (established in 1891) continues to target ᓂᑕᑦ ᐊᓂᔑᓂᓂᐊᐧᐠ (First Nations Peoples).1(footnote)

Eugenics, Euthenics and Mothercraft

Mothercraft and Child Development

At Macdonald Institute, professors taught students about child welfare systems and institutions in the courses called Mothercraft and Child Development. Mothercraft describes the skill and knowledge they believed were necessary in looking after children. Courses emphasized environment, including mental, moral, social, and physical hygiene. Methods promoted by professors to “improve” children included education, habit training, formation, punishment, and prevention.

The highlighted Mothercraft exam question asks about the accomplishments of leaders in child welfare.

Dr. Frederick Tisdall joined the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto in 1921. By 1929, he became director of the Nutritional Research Laboratories. He co-invented Pablum baby cereal in 1930 and was a prominent guest speaker at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1938.2(footnote) Tisdall later led nutrition experiments that caused egregious harm to institutionalized First Nations children between 1942 and 1952.3(footnote)

Dr. MacMurchy was a leading eugenicist who guest taught at Macdonald Institute. Her views helped to shape the curriculum in home economics as she delivered guest lectures at Macdonald institute on more than one occasion.4(footnote) She served as Ontario’s “Inspector of the Feeble-minded” from 1906 to 1919. In her 1911 report on feeble-mindedness for the Ontario Government, she wrote a section titled “The Evil to Come.” In that section, MacMurchy equated feeble-mindedness to criminality: “The Child that never should have been born is a witness against us. The mother unable to protect herself claims our protection, and so long as we refuse it, so long will she bring evil upon us and upon our country. The generation yet unborn has a right to ask of us that we transmit to them their Canadian birthright at least as good, in respect to the character of our citizens, as we found it, and therefore we must not permit the Feeble-Minded to be mothers of the next generation.”5(footnote) Dr. MacMurchy was a strong proponent of the sterilization of the feeble-minded. She later worked as Chief of the Division of Maternal and Child Welfare for the federal government from 1920 to 1934.6(footnote)

Judge Hawley Mott worked with the Canadian Committee for Mental Hygiene to arrange a psychiatric court clinic for the psychological study of juvenile deviance. Dr. William Blatz was a child psychologist who also studied juvenile deviance.

  1. Jim Albert and Margot Herbert, “Child Welfare in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006, updated Oct. 14, 2020, (Source).

  2. Dr. Tisdall is listed as a Prominent Guest Speaker in 1939 and his work with Foods and Nutrition in 1940, see “OAC Annual Reports to the President,” University of Guelph McLaughlin Library Archival & Special Collections, RE1 OAC A0090, Box 4, 9.

  3. Noni E MacDonald, Richard Stanwick, and Andrew Lynk, “Canada’s Shameful History of Nutrition Research on Residential School Children: The Need for Strong Medical Ethics in Aboriginal Health Research,” Paediatrics & Child Health 19, no. 2 (February 2014): 64–64, (Source).

  4. Dr. Helen MacMurchey was a repeat guest speaker at Macdonald Institute’s annual Girls’ Conferences held in association with the Women’s Institutes. See “OAC Annual Reports to the President,” University of Guelph McLaughlin Library Archival & Special Collections, RE1 OAC A0090.

  5. Helen MacMurchy, “Report upon the Care of the Feeble-Minded in Ontario” (The Legislative Assembly of Toronto, 1906 1911)14-15, Internet Archive, (Source).

  6. A. McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (McClelland & Stewart, 1990, p. 30-31, 44-45), (Source).