The “Unfit” in Canada: A History of Disability Rights and Justice
By: Miche Xu and Shanthiya Baheerathan
The timeline attempts to delineate key events around institutionalization, deinstitutionalization, community/independent living, disability rights and disability justice, as they took place in Canada and the United States since the 1800s. Both countries’ timelines are included in this history because borders are colonially constructed and borders' usage continue eugenicist and ableist colonial practices. Furthermore, changes to United States’ legislation in the 1970s significantly influenced the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Disability Justice movement originated in San Francisco with Sins Invalid.
This history also ties together legislation related to Black, Indigenous and people of colour in Canada in order to emphasize the connections between legislation that sought to institutionalize and sterilize all populations that the state catogorized as “unfit.” Disability Justice and this timeline attempts to move beyond single-issue struggles to outline how classism, racism, immigration, settler colonialism, saneism and ableism intersect to continue to marginalize disabled people, racialized immigrants and/or Indigenous people.
Before Legal Rights
On May 11, the British Government passes “An Act to Authorize the Erection of an Asylum within its Province for the Reception of Insane and Lunatic persons,” the first piece of legislation dealing with people with mental disabilities. Before this, “lunatics” were either restricted to their homes or incarcerated.
Image Description:A screenshot of the first page of “An Act to Authorize the Erection of an Asylum within its Province for the Reception of Insane and Lunatic persons.”
On January 26, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum is opened in Toronto, Ontario. It was the first mental institution in Canada.
Image Description: A black and white photo of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto Ontario. It is a large building with a dome and pillars. There are trees in front of the building in the left corner of the frame.
The Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded is opened on 1876. It is later renamed as the Huronia Regional Centre, and at the time of its closure in 2009, it was the oldest institution for people with developmental disabilities in Ontario. After it closed, it was subject to a class action lawsuit by past residents, who experienced severe abuse and neglect at the hands of their caretakers. This included burying the dead in unmarked graves up until 1958. Currently, there are 1440 unmarked graves and 571 numbered graves at the site.
Image Description:A black and white photo of the Asylum for Idiots and Feeble Minded, it is a large structure, with a clock tower.
The Indian Act, which amalgamated several previous laws about Indigenous peoples, is passed. Its intended purpose is to forcibly assimilate Indigenous People’s into Canadian Society.
Image Description: A screenshot of the first page of the consolidated Indian Act from 1985.
The Indian Act is amended to require school attendance. The first residential schools are opened the same year, and the school system would continue to operate until the end of the 20th century. The mortality rate among Indigenous youth forced into going is astronomical, being around 1 in 2 at its highest, and abuse is rampant.
Image Description: A black and white image of a Residential School. It is a large school building with a flag top.
The Immigration Act of 1910, which strengthens the government’s ability to regulate and restrict immigration, passes on May 4th. It prohibits the entry of many groups considered undesirable, including those in the following passages:
“(a) idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons, and persons who have been insane within five years previous; (b) persons afflicted with any loathsome disease, or with a disease which is contagious or infectious, or which may become dangerous to public health... (c) immigrants who are dumb, blind, or otherwise physically defective, unless in the opinion of a Board of Inquiry or officer acting as such they have sufficient money, or have such profession, occupation, trade, employment, or other legitimate mode of earning a living that they are not liable to become a public charge or unless they belong to a family accompanying them...”
Image Description:A screenshot of the Immigration Act
The Canadian National Committee on Mental Hygiene, today known as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), is established on April 27. Its founder, Clarence Hincks, is an avid advocate for eugenics, among his works being an article titled “Sterilize the Unfit” in Maclean’s magazine.
Image Description: A black and white image of a poster released by the CMHA, formerly known as the Canadian National Committee on Mental Hygiene.It reads “Four Types of Mental Deficiency,” with an image of a child above each of the following categories: Idiocy, Mongolian Imbecility, Imbecility, Moron (high grade Feeble Minded). The description below the images read: “The feeble minded can be divided into three groups (1) idiots with a mental age of less than three years; (2) imbeciles with a mental age between three and seven years; (3) morons with a mental age between seven and eleven years. The moron group has been largely neglected in Canada and has contributed greatly to criminality, vice and pauperism. The Canadian National Committee on Mental Hygiene conducts activities to secure better provision for the control of feeblemindedness.”
War Amps is established in Canada on September 23. One of the first organizations for people with disabilities, it was a fraternal society for war veterans who had lost limbs in battle. The organization fought for veterans pensions, which was one of the first government welfare benefit granted on the basis of disability.
Image Description: A black and white image of a meeting with four white men sitting side by side. Image taken from the war amps’s timeline.
The Sexual Sterilization Act passes in Alberta, and disproportionately affects immigrants and Indigenous people. In the four decades of its operation, there are 2 832 sterilizations, 170 of which are known to have been carried out on Indigenous people, despite their being only 2% of the general population. British Columbia and some US states also carry out similar legislation.
Image Description: A screen shot of the Sterilization Act from 1928.
Members of the League of the Physically Handicapped hold a sit-in at the New York City Emergency Relief Bureau after being refused access to public work relief programs. The sit-in lasts for nine days before police arrest the demonstrators.
The NYC Works Progress Administration concedes and hires close to 1 500 workers with disabilities.
Image Description: Screen shot of a newspaper article titled “Continue Siege at Relief Bureau”
Local associations come together to form the Canadian Association for Retarded Children to advocate for education and services for children with intellectual disabilities. Over the years, they come to understand their purpose as creating welcoming communities rather than “fixing” people with intellectual disabilities. In 1985, they change their name to the Canadian Association for Community Living to better represent their new values.
Description: An image of a letter written to the editor of The Star.
At the University of California Berkeley, students with disabilities form an informal network called the Rolling Quads in order to advocate for themselves on campus. Members go on to found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the early disability rights movement. One student in particular, Ed Roberts, takes on the role of leader in much of theirwork, and later comes to be known as the father of the independent living movement.
Connected to what happens in 1996.
Image Description: A black and white image of protestors gathered at the UN plaza in San Francisco
The Black Panther Party is founded out of Oakland, California to protect Black communities from police violence. It expands across the country, working with other co-occurring movements and struggles, including the disability rights movement.
Image Description: Image of a member of the Black Panther Party, Brad (on the left), and his brother Greg (on the right) outside smiling for the camera.
At least 580 Indigenous women are coercively sterilized in racially segregated hospitals known as “Indian hospitals.”
Image Description: A hospital where 61 First Nation’s women were sterilized.
Ontario Blind Persons’ Rights Act passes into law on April 14th, protecting blind people’s right to have a guide dog without being barred from public spaces or housing.
Image Description: A screenshot of the “An Act to provide for Certain Rights for Blind Persons” from 1976.
Provincial groups join forces to create the nationally recognized Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH). They help to develop the disability rights movement in Canada by challenging the federal government on inclusion. The COPOH is now called the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), and acts as a spokesperson for people with disabilities to the government.
Image Description: Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) logo with half a maple leaf and a red background.
A historic sit-in at offices of the Department of Health Education and Welfare across the United States leads to the addition of Section 504 to the Rehabilitation Act, extending civil rights to people with disabilities.
Section 504 defines disability as “any person who (A) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, (B) has a record of such an impairment, or (C) is regarded as having such an impairment.”
It states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705(20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”
Image Description: A black and white image of a group of people sitting around the room watching the person in the middle
The Canadian Human Rights Act passes. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression, sex, sexual orientation, race, national and ethnic origin, religion, marital status, family, disability, or pardoned offence. Disability is defined as “any previous or existing mental or physical disability and includes disfigurement and previous or existing dependence on alcohol or a drug.”
Image Description: An image with the text, “Canadian Human Rights Act, Since 1977,” with a person smiling, and a paper with writing in the back.
The federal Employment Equity Act comes into force after the findings of the 1984 Royal Commission Report on Equality in Employment. It addresses barriers that women, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, and visible minorities may face in the workplace. The Act is later amended in 1995.
Image Description:Scrabble pieces spelling out EQUITY.
The United Nations designates December 3 as the annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Image Description:A logo, A poster with the words “International Day of Person’s with Disabilites, 3 December”
The last residential school closes.
The Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) receives royal assent on December 14th. The act requires the provincial government to adopt practices that get rid of barriers to participation for people with disabilities. Many disability activists criticize it for lacking enforcement measures and being overall insufficient.
Coming into effect on June 13, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) follows the tracks of the American Disabilities Act to include public and private institutions. AODA is a key piece of legislation which seeks to respect the “development, implementation and enforcement of standards relating to accessibility with respect to goods, services, facilities, employment accommodation, building and
all other things specified in the Act for persons with disabilities.” Its aim is to ensure that people with disabilities are able “to obtain, use and benefit from goods and services.”
Image Description: Text of “AODA Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act,” below the text, Ontario logo with the trillium flower.
A group of disabled activists of colour (Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and Stacy Milbern), conceptualize the framework of disability justice, moving beyond the rights and legislation-centric approach of the disability rights movement.
In their own words:
“While a concrete and radical move forward toward justice, the disability rights movement simultaneously invisibilized the lives of peoples who lived at intersecting junctures of oppression – disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others.
And, like many movements, it is contextualized within its era of emergence and left us with “cliff-hangers”: it is single issue identity based; its leadership has historically centered white experiences; its framework leaves out other forms of oppression and the ways in which privilege is leveraged at differing times and for various purposes; it centers people with mobility impairments, marginalizing other forms of impairment; and centers people who can achieve rights and access through a legal or rights-based framework. The political strategy of the disability rights movement relied on litigation and the establishment of a disability bureaucratic sector at the expense of developing a broad-based popular movement.”
Image Description:An image created by Sins Invalid in 2015, which outlines the “10 Principles of Disability Justice,” with the following text, in bullet form:
* INTERSECTIONALITY “We do not live single issue lives” –Audre Lorde. Ableism, coupled with white supremacy, supported by capitalism, underscored by heteropatriarchy, has rendered the vast majority of the world “invalid.”
* LEADERSHIP OF THOSE MOST IMPACTED “We are led by those who most know these systems.” –Aurora Levins Morales
* ANTI-CAPITALIST POLITIC In an economy that sees land and humans as components of profit, we are anti-capitalist by the nature of having non-conforming body/minds.
* COMMITMENT TO CROSS-MOVEMENT ORGANIZING Shifting how social justice movements understand disability and contextualize ableism, disability justice lends itself to politics of alliance.
* RECOGNIZING WHOLENESS People have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity. Each person is full of history and life experience.
* SUSTAINABILITY We pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long term. Our embodied experiences guide us toward ongoing justice and liberation.
* COMMITMENT TO CROSS-DISABILITY SOLIDARITY We honor the insights and participation of all of our community members, knowing that isolation undermines collective liberation.
* INTERDEPENDENCE We meet each others’ needs as we build toward liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over lives.
* COLLECTIVE ACCESS As brown, black and queer-bodied disabled people we bring flexibility and creative nuance that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity, to be in community with each other.
* COLLECTIVE LIBERATION No body or mind can be left behind – only mobbing together can we accomplish the revolution we require.”
You can find this image on their website (
Sins Invalid, a performance project from the San Francisco Bay Area, is founded. Their work raises up people with disabilities and strives towards liberation while mindful of how ableism is intertwined with other systems of domination.
Image Description:A blue background with the silhouette of a person in a wheelchair hanging upside down, with his arms spread out towards the audience. The wheelchair is held by its wheel by three connected ropes. The text on the poster reads “Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty” and “Offers up entertainment, excitement, and resistance … erotic and difficult, thought-provoking and funny. -Cary Silberberg, The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability”
The Huronia Regional Centre closes.
CBC releases their “Deadly Force” report, documenting and analyzing all known police executions in Canada from 2000 to 2017. Their data shows that Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately subject to deadly violence, and that over 70 of people killed had struggled with their mental health and/ or substance use.
Image Description: A graph showing the race and ethnicity, and percentage of victims (red) vs the percentage that they are in the overall population(reddish-brown).
Immigration policy is changed on April 16th to make immigrating to Canada with minor health conditions easier. Minister Ahmed Hussen states, “The current provisions on medical inadmissibility are over 40 years old and are clearly not in line with Canadian values or our government's vision of inclusion.” But as James Hicks of the CCD writes, “While today's announcement should make it easier for some persons with disabilities to come to Canada, it falls far short of legislative reform that we had expected.” Moreover Hussen’s arguments are filled with rhetoric that disabled people need to contribute to the economy in order to be considered valuable members of society. For example, he says that “newcomers have the ability to help grow our economy and enrich our social fabric.”
Image Description: Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen is standing behind a podium and makes an announcement on medical inadmissibility.
Dozens of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan who have been subject to forced sterilization as recently as 2017 pursue a class action suit against the Saskatoon Health Region. Their lawyer, Alisa Lombard, says that she knows of multiple cases in Manitoba as well, and that legal action could expand beyond Saskatchewan.
Image Description: A poster of a study, its title reads: “Are you an Aboriginal Woman who has given birth in a Saskatoon Hospital and felt pressure to have your TUBES TIED after delivery? Share your story with us.” (Findings can be found here:
The Disability Justice Network of Ontario is launched out of Hamilton, Ontario.
Image Description: The Disability Justice Network of Ontario logo with a blue background.
A February provincial report in Newfoundland and Labrador finds that between 77% and 87% of people in jail struggle with mental health and/or substance use. The same month, a study from McMaster University finds that half of incarcerated people in Canada have experienced abuse. Previous reports consistently turn up similar figures, if not higher; the Ontario Human Rights Commission has reported that all prisoners at one Kenora facility experience mental health issues and/or addiction.
Image Description: A hallway of jail cells
AODA has proposed measures to make the province of Ontario fully accessible by 2025. Customer Service, Employment, Information and Communications, Transportation, and Design of Public Spaces are the five standards which are to be enforced.