The Temperance Movement and Forced Sterilizations

Two bartenders behind a bar.

In the 19th and early 20th century, a relatively large proportion of Canadian men drank their wages away. The men’s excuses for doing this, whether they were about harsh working conditions, brutal weather or anything else, did not disguise the fact that their drinking affected their dependents negatively.


As the problems worsened, women like Nellie McClung, as well as like-minded men, spoke up about the negative effects of alcohol. By speaking up, they revealed how wives were mistreated by abusive husbands, how families lacked money for food and how children grew up with impulsive fathers. Pulling at the heartstrings as the revelations did, a great many people began to sympathize with the affected women and children, leading to different forms of prohibitive legislation being enacted throughout Canada in the first decades of the 20th century. Nellie McClung and the temperance movement, which included many churches, had now gotten what they wanted. However, alcohol prohibition was to be short-lived. Arguments for revocation of the prohibition laws soon prevailed, and after a number of years, or at the most a few decades, alcohol was easily available again.

Forced sterilizations

Another of the women’s causes that McClung supported was forced sterilization. She and others argued that women who could not properly care for children should not have children, and that sterilization would therefore serve them well. In other words, expressed more bluntly, McClung and people on her side of the debate contended that forced sterilizations protected simple-minded women from both voluntary and involuntary pregnancies and that they protected children from growing up with mentally disabled parents.

Two Canadian provinces adopted sterilization programs, with a few thousand men and women being forcibly sterilized until the programs were abandoned in the early 1970s. The reason for abandoning forced sterilizations in the 70s was the fact that the practice now was starting to be viewed as an unacceptable violation of people’s physical integrity and an undesired form of eugenics.