Corps de l’article

The writing of mad and disabled people’s histories in Canada are burgeoning fields which have the potential to reshape this country’s historiography by incorporating the contributions of people whose marginality in historical scholarship has only recently started to be changed. When considering mad and disabled people it is necessary to get a sense of how their respective histories have, or have not, been mentioned in Canadian history survey texts. It should come as no surprise that disabled people in general are not discussed to any significant extent in surveys of Canadian history. It has only been since the early 2000s that the field of disability history started to establish itself internationally and in Canada where the field, though still in its early historiographical development, is flourishing. The edited collection Untold Stories: A Canadian Disability History Reader, edited by Nancy Hansen, Roy Hanes, and Diane Driedger, published as this article goes to press, highlights the growth of the field in Canada.[1] Over the past 40 to 50 years, as social historians have broadened the scope of who is deemed worthy of scholarly study; from women to Indigenous peoples to poor urban and rural populations to sexual minorities and immigrants, the breadth and depth of historiography in Canada has been immeasurably enriched and complicated beyond a primarily white, heterosexual, able-bodied male French and British colonial settler interpretation that was common into the second half of the twentieth century. Amidst this expansion of historical research into Canada’s past, disabled people have been among the most recent group of previously neglected people to be the focus of historical researchers’ investigations. How the wider field of Canadian history has, or has not, included these histories helps to provide some scope about the possibilities for reconsideration of this past in future survey texts, biographies and specialized fields.

Defining Mad People’s History and Disability History

Mad people’s history is the study of the historical experiences of people deemed mad along with the practices and policies that have affected them throughout the ages. Disability history is the study of people who are now regarded as disabled, but it encompasses a much wider group of people ranging from people with physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. It needs to be emphasized that there is a great deal of historical cross-over in multiple experiences of madness and disability. That is, one can be mad and blind, for example, or deaf and paraplegic. Both fields grapple with changing ideas of who was considered mad and disabled and the different descriptors used while acknowledging that some people regarded as mad or disabled have disputed such definitions. Some individuals, for example, denied that they were ever mad even if treated as such.[2] The same can be said for people categorized as disabled. For example, many people who identify as culturally Deaf reject the idea of their being disabled but instead regard themselves as belonging to a linguistic minority.[3] It is argued here that including mad and disabled people in historical surveys, biographies and specialized studies, even when some denied that the label of mad or disabled applied to them, reflects the historical fact of how they were categorized and treated, as defined by medical, legal, religious, and state representatives as well as among community members who interacted with them. It is therefore essential to include all people who were defined by contemporaries as mad or disabled whether or not an individual agreed with these terms. As people described in this way were subjected to various regulatory and/or social codes based on such perceptions, including all people who were so categorized is historiographically appropriate, indeed essential, to understanding their histories.

Both fields also address issues related to discrimination based on physical, mental, and sensory difference while also underlining how these differences have never been static but have always been historically and culturally contingent. The most consistent understanding of how these terms have been applied in this article is based on appreciating the elasticity of defining who decides who is mad or disabled and why. In a historical context, this elasticity will be evident in the pages that follow when, for example, biographers of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, do not describe him as having been disabled by alcohol whereas a vigorous historiographical debate has ensued over the mental condition of the man he helped send to the gallows, Métis leader Louis Riel. How much, or how little, disability and madness play in biographical accounts of figures like Macdonald and Riel may have as much to do with historians’ understanding of these terms and ascribing to them credible or discreditable traits, as it does with how their subjects were viewed while alive. The contingency surrounding these terms also reflects their origins. While the term “madness” dates back to ancient times, the term “disability” is much more recent and did not gain common currency until the twentieth century.[4] Many of the people described as disabled in these pages would not have recognized this term in the same way we do in the early twenty-first century and certainly not in the way madness has been more commonly understood in modern times as akin to stereotyped irrational thought and behaviour. Using the term “disabled,” imbued as it is with contemporary meaning, also borrows from a long history of defining physical, sensory, and intellectual difference as incapacitating. All of this leads to a search for historical understanding of what these terms came to represent for people in their own contexts. Each field is concerned with examining the historical experiences of individuals with disabilities and madness from the perspectives of people who have lived this history, though the ability to do this for the period prior to the twentieth century is constrained by the paucity of first-person primary sources that would help to reveal their history. For some people with disabilities, specifically people with identified mental disabilities, there is also a history of forced confinement in institutions followed by different levels of deinstitutionalization beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century. Deaf and blind people, while resident as youths in educational institutions, also experienced abuse; as a group, however, they were not prone to being involuntarily institutionalized at all ages of their lives as happened more frequently to people with intellectual disabilities and mad people.[5] Historically, people with visible and invisible disabilities have experienced high levels of unemployment due to structural and attitudinal barriers in Canadian society which persist to this day.[6] Discerning attitudes, let alone historical interpretations, about mad and disabled people in textbooks on Canadian history helps to underline where some of these barriers have persisted and are being addressed in our collective memory.

National Survey Histories

Prior to the early 2000s, few Canadian historical surveys make any direct reference to the experiences or even the existence of disabled or mad people. Historians such as Arthur Lower and Donald Creighton who published the first of their multi-reissued surveys of Canada during the 1940s, did not have the advantage of including historiography from a field which did not yet exist in Canada.[7] Indeed, it was not until the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century that these specialized areas began to be seriously investigated as sub-fields of Canadian history by medical and social historians. Later publications, such as The Illustrated History of Canada, edited by Craig Brown, continue to make no direct reference to disabled people,.[8] These surveys instead include disabled people by inference. Usually such works include brief references to what would today be referred to as acquired disabilities through the impact of diseases on those who survived among Indigenous people in the early-colonial period and on urban working-class populations during the Industrial Revolution in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The two-volume history of Canada written by R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones, and Donald Smith can serve as an example.[9] The general absence of disability history can be seen in several other historical surveys of Canada published recently, including Don Gillmor, Achille Michaud, and Pierre Turgeon’s two-volume Canada: A People’s History, which arose out of the television series of the same name, as well as books by Desmond Morton and Roger Riendeau.[10]

As direct discussions of disability, whether acquired or congenital, was not a minor sub-category of survey books in Canadian history up to the twenty-first century, any discussion of this history, no matter how brief, was an improvement of what had gone before. As more work was produced around the turn of the century, some national narratives began to include disabled people in Canada’s history. In their survey textbook, Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel make a few direct references to disabled people when writing about the establishment of insane asylums in mid-nineteenth century Eastern Canada in the context of the wider social reform movement’s top-down effort to supposedly “improve” the behaviour of people confined in such places, rather than any discussion of the lives of mad people confined behind institutional walls.[11] The authors do, however, discuss eugenics as the “darker side of the birth-control movement.”[12] Referring to the “shameful” history of Alberta’s eugenics policies, they note that 2822 people labeled “mentally defective” — scare quotes in original source — were sterilized there between 1929–1972. The authors further describe Leilani Muir’s successful 1996 lawsuit to receive compensation for her involuntary sterilization.[13] This highlighted episode in Canadian history is included in a wider discussion of “Who is Fit to Have a Baby.” It therefore has the potential of raising pertinent questions among those who use this text of attitudes towards disabled people generally, which include advancing support for disabled people who want to have children.

The Conrad and Finkel text has no references to people with physical or sensory disabilities. It only briefly references people with intellectual disabilities under the vague, catch-all term “mentally defective” in the context of eugenics. It therefore does not provide a significant amount of information about Canadian disability history. Nevertheless, in its brief critical analysis of eugenics, it does at least begin to introduce the notion that aspects of disabled people’s history deserve inclusion in broader narratives of our country’s past. In the fourth edition of his book, The Peoples of Canada: A Post Confederation History, J.M. Bumsted adds to this slight historiographical progress. It includes brief references to disability history including how the 1906 Immigration Act barred from entry people with mental, sensory, and certain categories of physical disabilities.[14] There is also a discussion of social supports made in the 1950s for people with “special needs” such as through an amendment to the Indian Act, and the passing of the 1954 Disabled Persons Act.[15] Brief as these references are, they nonetheless suggest that the increasing awareness about disability history in Canada is ever so slowly and slightly making its way into mainstream history texts. With the increasing number of Canadian studies being published, the impact of this field, as can be gleaned from survey texts, will likely be more readily apparent in years to come.

Thematic Narratives

Where more attention is devoted to aspects of Canadian disability history in scholarly surveys is in specialized theme-focused topics dealing with women’s and social policy history. These more specialized thematic surveys are more likely to include greater awareness of the histories of people marginalized due to being different from the physical and mental “norm.” The first such survey to significantly include disabled people is Canadian Women: A History. The original six authors (four authors by the 2011 issue), Alison Prentice, Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchinson, and Naomi Black, provide brief discussions of gendered notions around mental disability in the late nineteenth century, including gynecological operations on mad women at the London, Ontario, asylum to “cure” them. The authors also describe sexist notions of how male physicians interpreted and labeled female health conditions and reproductive abilities. They write, “physicians avoided discussing the causes of women’s emotional disabilities. It was simply accepted that women were weaker and less emotionally stable than men.”[16] There are also references to the potential for workplace physical and mental disablement caused by unsafe and exploitative conditions for girls and women during the Industrial Revolution.[17] The study takes a less critical view, however, towards eugenics. References to one of eugenics’ main promoters in Ontario, Helen MacMurchy, stress the positive role she played in addressing child and maternal mortality rates. MacMurchy’s far less praiseworthy work as a campaigner against people labeled “feeble-minded,” many of whom were working class women who ended up confined in institutions, is not mentioned.[18] This lack of reference is more surprising when considered in spite of the fact that the historiography had developed enough to revise discussions about MacMurchy in the 1996 and 2011 editions of Canadian Women. Discussions of MacMurchy’s campaign against people labeled “feeble-minded,” published soon after the first edition of the 1988 book by Prentice, et. al., can be found in Angus McLaren’s 1990 publication, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada 1885–1945.[19]

Canadian Women provides a somewhat muted critique of women who supported eugenics more broadly, implicitly criticizing their racism arising out of “Anglo-Saxon” supremacy (i.e., Canadians of white northwestern European descent).[20] While Nellie McClung’s racism and pro-eugenics views are noted, there is no direct criticism of the ableist prejudice supporters of eugenics held towards girls, boys, women, and men who were viewed as having real or presumed mental disabilities and who were thus deemed worthy of social exclusion in institutions or who were candidates for sexual sterilization in Alberta and British Columbia.[21] Towards the book’s end, there is a reference to the birth of children with disabilities during the 1980s regarding how “‘older’ pregnant women provoked increased medical supervision, and doctors warned about the risk of abnormalities such as Down’s Syndrome … The biological impact of older fathers was overlooked in the discussions, which in effect put all the blame on women.”[22] As with the earlier discussion of eugenics, there is no critical engagement about historical prejudices towards disabled people. In this case, there is an assumption that one parent — mother or father — deserves “blame” for bringing infants with disabilities into the world.

While the preceding references remain consistent from the 1988–2011 editions, there are several new lines to the latest volume which provide some detail about disabled women’s history that are not in the preceding two issues. The new lines include a reference to the high jobless rate of disabled women as well as a discussion of the activism of disabled artists Bonnie Sherr Klein, Catherine Frazee, and Persimmon Blackbridge.[23] The most extensive discussion of disability in the 1996 and 2011 editions is where the authors describes the work of the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) from 1985 to the time of publication.[24] Of all the survey texts considered here, the 2011 edition of Canadian Women: A History provides the most references to disability history, a topic which is covered more in later issues, though some of the less critical earlier passages on eugenics remain the same throughout all three editions. Yet, there is little doubt that Canadian surveys still generally exclude more than include disabled people’s histories.

Underlying this absence of disabled people’s existence — let alone experiences — in Canadian historical surveys is the assumption that disabled people lack the ability to contribute in a way that is deemed “meaningful” even by the conventional standards of able-bodied citizens.[25] This point is made clear in Barbara Murphy’s 1999 book The Ugly Canadian: The Rise and Fall of a Caring Society, which is a history of social programs during the twentieth century. While most disabled Canadians are not discussed in her book, workers who acquire a disability on the job are the most seriously considered group of disabled people in regard to the advent of workers’ compensation programs.[26] Further in the book, when discussing the history of unemployment insurance, Murphy writes “Even in the best of times there was a whole group of unemployed who had never made contributions because they had never worked — disabled or in poor health, such people were, in fact, unemployable.”[27] The historical inaccuracy of this statement is obvious even if there is no doubt that disabled people have had, and continue to have, greater problems finding work than most other people due to structural barriers in an ableist society. Yet, for over a century, disabled people did remunerative work, particularly in the period after the World Wars when, generally inadequate voluntary efforts were encouraged by governments to hire disabled veterans. In the post-1945 era, the hiring of civilian disabled Canadians was also promoted.[28] Murphy’s claim that “such people were, in fact, unemployable” reveals that such a notion, when unexamined perpetuates the stereotype of disabled people as inherently incapable, a group in need of top-down care. While Murphy’s book was published at a time when little research had been done on disabled people’s history in the workforce, it was nevertheless published during a period of increased domestic and international advocacy for employment equity by disabled people and their organizations inside and outside of Canada.[29] Thus, there should have been some awareness over the inaccuracy of such a generalized statement about disabled people as being “unemployable.”

Alvin Finkel’s book on Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History, provides a more detailed, if still only fleeting, reference to the place of disabled people in the country’s social policy history. In doing so, he discusses the history of the creation of asylums for mad people in early to mid-nineteenth-century Canada.[30] His book also provides the first example out of the surveys considered here of a glimpse of the agency of disabled and mad people when he writes: “Studies of inmates of the asylums suggest that many were quite capable of looking after themselves and were eccentric rather than delusional or suicidal.”[31] His study includes brief references to rehabilitation programs set up for disabled World-War-I veterans as well as the advent of disability pensions, first for some blind citizens in 1937 and then for broader categories of disabled Canadians in 1954. Finkel also notes the beginnings of deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities as recommended in the 1964 Hall Report.[32] Like Murphy, the group of disabled people to which Finkel devotes the most attention are workers who acquired disabilities on the job and campaigns for the development of Workmen’s Compensation programs, in both instances with an emphasis on the efforts of labour organizations to get these policies in place.[33] While disabled and mad people were a significant focus of social policy programs, their history is marginally presented in the histories considered above.

The one significant exception is Scott Neigh’s book Resisting the State: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists, which provides a survey of Canada’s recent past through biographical accounts of individual community organizers. Of the six chapters devoted to radical activists in Canada since World War II, one chapter is about Toronto-based anti-psychiatry activist Don Weitz. Weitz, along with many others who do not identify as anti-psychiatry, began organizing among current and former psychiatric patients beginning in the mid-1970s.[34] It would be inaccurate to call this book a survey in the same sense as those works mentioned above. Rather than looking at the breadth of Canadian history through a particular theme, such as women’s experiences or policy development, Neigh instead chooses to highlight the efforts of particular activists in specific locales at particular times. Neigh’s work nevertheless provides another way of writing Canadian history from a grassroots perspective, by focusing on particular individuals as part of a wider movement. The book is limited in that it focuses on a well-known activist in the psychiatric survivor community rather than a wider group of people, most of whom have either not enjoyed or wanted as high a public profile but whose contributions to understanding recent disability and mad people’s history are just as important.[35] Whatever its limitations, it is this individual, biographical approach that has seen some of the most direct references to madness and disability in Canadian historiography.

Historical Biographies

Of prominent figures in Canadian history since Confederation only a few appear to have had some form of mental, physical, or sensory disability ascribed to them or to people present in their personal life. This includes, among Prime Ministers, John A. Macdonald, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and John Diefenbaker; among premiers, Ontario’s Edward Blake and most prominently of all, Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba and Métis leader. In Macdonald’s case, his excessive alcohol drinking is discussed among biographers ranging from Donald Creighton to Richard Gwyn.[36] There is no discussion, however, of whether his drinking might be considered a disability. Perhaps this absence is due to his not being continuously addicted to alcohol; perhaps more importantly it is due to Macdonald refraining from drinking much during the last decade of his life.[37] Creighton does, however, describe the relationship between Macdonald’s drinking and his mental health as it related to the condition of his first wife, Isabella (née Clark). Her own long-term experiences of disability are worthy of greater understanding from biographers beyond being described as a burdensome “bedridden invalid.”[38] The chronic illnesses Isabella Macdonald experienced ended with her death at the age of 47 in late 1857. Macdonald is described during this period as “depressed” and drinking “to forget.”[39] Given the connection that can be drawn in the twenty-first century between alcoholism and depression, it is possible to view Macdonald as alcoholically disabled at different times in his life. Whether his contemporaries drew such a conclusion is more doubtful, given how consumption of alcohol and its association with mental health was viewed during Macdonald’s lifetime.[40] Nevertheless, when he did drink during his early years in office, the impact could be described as disabling. In the summer of 1873 during the Pacific Scandal which would soon force him into opposition for five years, Macdonald “drank himself into insensibility,” according to Gwyn.[41] At that time he disappeared for two days, which led newspapers to report that Macdonald had attempted suicide by jumping in the water, a claim which he denied and was not proven.[42]

The closest a biographer comes to describing the disabling impact of his drinking is when Gwyn describes Macdonald as “close to sixty now, and his heavy drinking and neglect of himself while a widower had taken their toll.”[43] While historians do not write about John A Macdonald as being disabled due to drinking, his daughter and youngest child, Mary, who was born to his second wife, Agnes, did have a congenital physical disability. Her disability is described as hydrocephalus; she “would never be able to stand, walk, feed herself or dress herself”.[44] In a classical charity model approach, Richard Gwyn describes Mary Macdonald’s life as being a “tragedy” for both her and her parents, whose loving support of their daughter is also detailed.[45]

If there is one aspect of disability that is of primary concern to Macdonald’s biographers it is not that which is related to the prime minister, but the debate over the mental state of his most famous opponent, the founder of Manitoba and Métis leader, Louis Riel. Riel, of course, is the subject of numerous studies in his own right, with the debate over his mental state before, during, and after the 1885 Rebellion being one of the most contentious areas in post-Confederation historiography. Gregory Betts’ historiographical survey of varied interpretations of Riel as mad places this issue in the context of evolving concepts of his place in Canadian history.[46] Riel’s own views are well known. At his trial for treason after the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, which he helped lead, Riel disagreed with his defense lawyers’ argument that he was insane. He testified that he was not mad, a view which the all white, English jury supported, and which lead to his conviction and subsequent hanging on 16 November 1885.[47] As Betts notes, in the earliest histories of the 1885 Rebellion, the debate over whether or not Riel was mad was used by writers to support their arguments, for and against, the cause he supported. In The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief (published the same year as the Rebellion), W.P. Collins used Riel’s presumed insanity to discredit as irrational his political objectives of promoting the rights of Métis people and opposing the westward expansion of the Canadian state. Lionel Groulx, in Le Francais au Canada, written in 1932, downplayed the madness claim, which, when addressed, was blamed on the pressures Riel was under at the hands of English-Canadian oppressors. His supposed irrationality was therefore due to bigoted enemies.[48] Riel as an activist comes to the fore in later studies beginning with The Birth of Western Canada, published in 1936. George Stanley’s sympathetic views towards the Métis leader were picked up by writers from the 1960s onwards, such as Stanley Ryerson, Douglas Owram, and Maggie Siggins.[49] Betts argues that among more recent biographers, “madness has little place in this hagiology of Riel’s political activism. Accordingly, details of his insanity are dismissed outright, contextualized within the cultural confrontation, or else distorted into personable character quirks.”[50]

Underlying this downplaying of Riel’s presumed madness among some of his more sympathetic biographers, it is not hard to detect an embarrassment they share at having to deal with his mental state. If only his madness could be explained away! In contrast, for other researchers, such as Thomas Flanagan and J.M. Bumstead, claims about Riel’s madness were used to explain efforts by one or another power to control and limit Riel’s influence as a self-proclaimed religious prophet.[51] The Catholic Church supported the use of madness to control Riel’s messianic message when he was confined in Québec asylums for two years in the late 1870s and, later, to try to stop his execution. In contrast, the Canadian state, headed by Macdonald, opposed charges of insanity in order to ensure that Riel’s 1885 execution would proceed so as to silence his anti-imperialist voice for good in what Lewis Thomas called “A Judicial Murder”.[52] After surveying the contemporary and posthumous “diagnosing” of Riel by psychiatrists, Betts poignantly notes that “across all the uses and depictions of Louis Riel’s insanity, two beliefs remain constant: that insanity is morally repugnant, and that, had Riel been undeniably proven insane, it would undermine the moral integrity of his life and politics.”[53] When approaching the topic of Riel’s madness, those most sympathetic to Riel — the most prominent anti-colonial voice in post-Confederation history — have sought to distance him away from the insanity charge as much as possible. Even if the label of madness is critiqued as having been used in the historiography to attack Riel’s anti-imperialism, it leaves open the point that researchers of all persuasions do not acknowledge that a person deemed mad can be an articulate critic of whatever outside force they are criticizing and still deserve to be taken seriously.

Riel is clearly on record as denouncing the idea that he was mad, even when he knew such a position could cost him his life, as it did. Yet, there is no doubt that, whatever his state of mind in 1885, he was an inmate of insane asylums in Québec in the late 1870s. He is therefore quite properly part of mad people’s and disability history by his confinement in these institutions. Similar to other high profile activists of this era who had been released from insane asylums and insisted they were not mad, such as Elizabeth Packard — who was confined for three years in the United States in the early 1860s and went on to a notable career as an asylum inmate’s rights activist — Riel knew that to be dismissed as mad was itself a way to destroy the ideas he was promoting, the integrity of which was sacred to protect, even when it meant sacrificing his own life to do so.[54] That sympathetic biographers continue to try to downplay or excuse Riel from being viewed as mad, says as much about the continued discrimination mad people face as it does about getting across the idea that people deemed mad were and could be articulate spokespersons and agents on their own behalf and on behalf of those whom they represented, as was Riel for Métis people.

There were other prominent figures whose real or presumed mental disability was commented upon both privately and publicly. One such figure was Riel’s contemporary, Edward Blake. Blake was the second Premier of Ontario (1871–1872); he was also leader of the federal Liberal Party (1880–1887) during the time of the 1885 Rebellion and Riel’s trial and execution. While never institutionalized, Blake experienced various levels of mental distress, referred to as “temperamental disabilities” by biographer J.D. Livermore. Livermore also noted he had impaired eyesight, which Blake himself referred to as “blindness.”[55] His mental disabilities, for which he was diagnosed by his doctors as “neurasthenia,” included depression along with physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the demands of public life as well as the high expectations from his family and colleagues for a career he felt unable to meet.[56] Generally forgotten now, Blake’s political career reflects how the vagaries of biography can shine more than a century-long interest in the career of one prominent figure — Riel — while neglecting another individual of less historical impact — Blake — though both were believed by contemporaries to have experienced varying levels of mental disturbance while in the public eye at the same time.

Two more prominent figures from the twentieth century had their mental health questioned, in one case posthumously, and in another case while still in office: William Lyon Mackenzie King and John Diefenbaker. King was Prime Minster for a total of 22 years between 1921–1948 (1921–1926; 1926–1930; 1935–1948), during which he appeared to lead a seemingly unremarkable private life. The release of his private diaries, however, revealed that he dabbled in séances to try to communicate with dead politicians, relatives, and pets as well as engaging spiritual mediums of various sorts while in office. This has led to posthumous debates about his perceived mental stability. Michael Bliss counters these debates in his book Right Honourable Men. “So what”, Bliss asks, if King engaged in this sort of behaviour in private while maintaining a firm grip in office over such a remarkably long time?[57] While Bliss is correct to argue that there is no serious evidence that King was mad or mentally impaired, why would it discredit him if he did experience some form of mental disability while in office? The obvious reason is that such a label would be seen as disgraceful as it was to Riel. Indeed, this very point is taken up in Bliss’s account of John Diefenbaker, Conservative Prime Minister from 1957–1963. In his 30-page study of Diefenbaker, there are at least 28 references that ascribe to him some form of mental instability.[58] Yet, in the conclusion, Bliss writes that Diefenbaker “was not mad” but was, rather, “incompetent.”[59] By this time, readers may be left wondering about his conclusion given the tone of the overall chapter. While other Canadian Prime Ministers viewed as failures, such as Arthur Meighen, R.B. Bennett, and Brian Mulroney, are criticized by Bliss for significant deficiencies in office, only Diefenbaker warrants this sustained definition as mad in stigmatizing language. Whatever conclusion one comes to about Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, a general impression of madness as badness remains after reading Bliss’ account.[60]

While the idea that a prominent figure could be mad and still effectively engage in public political activities has generally been considered too outrageous for historians to consider, a more recent study has provided a more thoughtful assessment. In his book Unbuttoned, Christopher Dummitt analyzes the historical context in which Mackenzie King’s private diaries were received following their publication in the mid-1970s, one quarter of a century after his death. Dummitt argues that the “therapeutic culture of self-fulfillment and authenticity” that had arisen during the 1960s and 1970s provided fertile ground for wider discussion about, and interest in, King’s private life, including a focus on his mental state.[61] Whereas details about King’s private life were known among biographers in the 1950s, it was not until the 1970s that such activities were deemed worthy of being written about in order to better understand one of Canada’s most famous politicians. King was described after the publication of his diaries as “Weird Willie,” “crazy,” a repressed Victorian who let loose in private. One commentator, referencing anti-psychiatry writer R.D. Laing, said there were “lessons in lunacy” that helped to reveal the inner person.[62] The intensive interest in King’s private life during this period is contextualized by Dummitt as a reflection of the desire to expose heretofore hidden histories:

Beginning in the 1970s, historians came to complicate the nation’s past by emphasizing the many different kinds of Canadians whose stories were supposed to be told (but often weren’t) - highlighting the role of class, region, gender, sexuality, race and religion in the process. The psychologizing of King was an early example of this trend: insisting on the need to explore rigorously the previously hidden and shameful parts of private life, and doing so out of a certainty that real answers could be found…. [T]he general thrust was to allow Canadians to reflect on an earlier era and a leader like King and see how the values of that time had created a kind of mental illness.[63]

Dummitt’s study makes a point which indicates that some historians are moving away from a completely negative view of madness when writing biography: “Of course, the fact that King also was the most successful Canadian prime minister raised the issue of whether it took mental instability to succeed in politics.”[64] One can only hope that the respectful tone Dummitt uses about King’s mental state becomes more common among historians in years to come no matter whose mental state is being written about.

In contrast to King, whose presumed mental disability made him into an object of ridicule after revelations in the mid-1970s, the same cannot be said about his contemporary, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held office from 1933–1945. His physical disability, while frequently hidden from view during his lifetime (though not as often as is now thought) has been considered a positive attribute among historians and the wider public. This is very much due to the “overcoming disability” notion that FDR himself fostered, so as to not be considered an “invalid” which would have ended his ambitions for high office.[65] Certainly, the mocking that accompanied posthumous diary revelations about the presumed mental state of Mackenzie King has not been reflected in far more measured accounts of President Roosevelt’s disability. FDR’s inability to move about unaided either with a wheelchair, crutches, or being carried after having contracted polio in 1921, twelve years before he became president, are instead carefully discussed in historical accounts. A survey of American history published in 1990, while describing Roosevelt as “handicapped,” respectfully recounts his polio experiences and the impact it had on his life, marriage, and political career.[66] In contrast to the derision initially shown to Mackenzie King’s psychological state when his diaries were published, the positive attributes related to FDR provide a more considerate understanding of his life as an (extremely privileged) disabled person. Discussions about Roosevelt’s disability have not been used to posthumously question his fitness for office, even if his disability was at times hidden, obscured, or reduced to condescending pity, quite in contrast to how King was for a time posthumously dismissed based on a belief that he may have been mad. Perhaps these differing interpretations of each leader’s capacity indicates the evolution of public attitudes toward certain physical and mental disabilities and how it is reflected in historical writing.

When considering characterizations of a historical subject’s mental state, abilities, and contemporary perceptions thereof, researchers need to avoid using a person’s presumed disability of any kind as a way to dismiss them being written about in scholarly assessments of their private or public life.[67] Given the uneven attention disability and madness have received in Canadian biographies, it is necessary to ask: How could such histories be re-thought from the perspective of disability history? Certainly physical, mental, and sensory disabilities need to be studied, even if based on perceptions of madness in a historical figure, rather than actual evidence, as with Mackenzie King’s posthumously released diaries. Rather than viewing disability as a “tragedy” — as in Mary Macdonald’s case — or as a way to show the ineptitude of a political figure — as with Diefenbaker — investigating the context of how disabling conditions in society affected experiences of and perceptions towards historical figures in their own time would provide more depth to understanding the lives of biographical subjects. In this respect, the distinctions and interconnections between disability and mad people’s history provide food for thought about how historiography beyond these fields can avoid employing tragedy or dismissiveness as a way to evaluate a person’s place in the past.

Mad People’s and Disability Historiography: Distinctions and Interconnections

At first glance it appears that there are more interconnections than distinctions between mad people’s and disability history. As was discussed at the beginning of this article, there are a host of similar reference points which connect people who have lived this history. At the same time, it is also necessary to distinguish the great diversity within these histories and how they have been interpreted. The study of both fields as recognized areas of research began in Canada during the 1990s and early 2000s. The close connection between disability and mad people’s history indicates the cross-over between topics as scholars have sought to understand this past that is not so clearly segmented into different disability categories as belonging to an either/or binary. Yet, while cross-disability interconnections are evident, most studies have focused on one distinct disabled group or another. Needless to say, mad people are also included in the broad range of groups in disability history. For the purposes of this article, however, both groups are separated since the field of mad people’s history has developed as a distinct field in the past two decades, whereas the growth of disability history, incorporating a far larger group of disabled people has developed parallel to it. By focusing on published scholarship in both fields, the purpose of this article is to highlight the benefits historiographical distinctions have brought and how interconnections between each field can enrich our overall understanding affecting all disabled and mad people in Canadian history.

There have been more historical studies focused on the histories of mad people than any other group of people with specific disabilities in Canada. This is likely due to interest in historical controversies surrounding concepts of madness and processes of confinement reflecting international debates between revisionist and counter-revisionist historians, as described by Thomas Brown in his article “Dance of the Dialectic”.[68] Historical work on insane asylum inmates’ experiences in Canada ranges from that done by Cheryl Krasnick Warsh on the Homewood Retreat in Guelph, to studies by Wendy Mitchinson, Mary-Ellen Kelm, and Lykke de la Cour on how women’s madness was perceived and experienced as well as my work on both male and female patients’ experiences.[69] All of these studies helped to lay the groundwork for interpretations of mad people’s history based on archival research. These historiographical developments in mad people’s history, largely due to the work of Canadian historians of medicine, occurred just before or parallel to the development of the field of critical disability studies, which itself evolved out of the rise of the disability rights and mad movements. With the establishment of undergraduate and graduate programs in disability studies in Ontario and Manitoba in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was increasing institutional support for the development of these fields.[70] Yet, whether or not programs on disability studies existed, there is little doubt that both fields would have seen further Canadian publications given the increased domestic and international rise in the field of disability history since the early 2000s and the subsequent wider interest in understanding aspects of this history from the perspectives of disabled people and those who interacted with them.[71]

Some of the more recent publications on aspects of mad people’s history include Eugène LeBlanc and Nérée St-Amand’s study of madness in New Brunswick; Erika Dyck’s study on the use of LSD in psychiatric practice from the perspectives of both doctors and patients, and her co-authored book with Alexander Deighton on the history of Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Asylum; Ken Scott’s study of asylum inmate labour in late-nineteenth century British Columbia; and separate articles by myself and Natalie Spagnuolo on the deportation of disabled people from the Toronto Asylum during the 1920s.[72] Spagnuolo’s article in particular points to the interconnections between these different fields by examining the deportation of people labeled “feebleminded” from an institution which, ostensibly, was for people deemed insane. The intersectionality of how the label of “feebleminded” was applied to inmates of an insane asylum, as she notes, “highlight the variety of strategies used to construct ‘social failure.’” Disabled “aliens” were thus viewed as a drain on the state’s resources and prime candidates for deportation whether designated as mad or “feebleminded”.[73] It is in this area of histories of restrictive immigration policies that interconnections between mad and intellectually disabled people are most consistently mentioned, as can also be seen in work by Robert Menzies and Ena Chadha.[74] There are further interconnections with respect to immigrants with physical, mental, and sensory disabilities.. Chadha notes that people identified in immigration legislation of 1886 who were described as “lunatic, idiotic, deaf and dumb, blind or infirm”, were prime candidates for deportation.[75]

Within disability categories, there are further interconnections related to class, gender, and race. While gender and class divisions are consistently strong features of the historiography dating back to the 1980s and 1990s, race has only recently begun to receive significant attention since the early 2000s, as is evident in sources on mad people’s history in British Columbia. This includes an article by Robert Menzies and Ted Palys on the confinement of Aboriginal inmates in provincial asylums as well as Menzies’ publication on the 1935 mass deportation of Chinese asylum inmates; Ken Scott’s article on the provincial asylum in which he describes the “racialized boundaries” for Chinese male patients on wards and in laundry work during the late-nineteenth century; and Kathryn McKay’s study of mental institutions which describes how Chinese male patient labourers were singled out by asylum staff for overtly racist comments about their work, particularly in institutional laundries.[76] Karen Stote’s study on the forced sterilization of Aboriginal women raises issues around scientific racism and constructs around mental disability.[77] All of these sources point to how disability and madness were experienced in its most racist as well as ableist forms for people who were not of white, European descent, one of the least explored topics in the field.

While mad people’s history in Canada was initially the most prolific in terms of publications, disability history has experienced a notable increase in scholarly work during the past decade. The emergence of a critical disability historiography in Canada engaged with the international literature slowly started to emerge regarding people with physical disabilities beginning with Mary Tremblay’s work on veterans and civilians with spinal cord injuries first published in the 1990s.[78] This expanded further with Nancy Forestell’s article on miners disabled by silicosis in northern Ontario; Joanna Pearce’s study of blind people in the Halifax Asylum for the Blind; Sandy Barron’s article on deaf education at the Manitoba School for the Deaf; and Dustin Galer’s work on nineteenth century disabled workers seeking financial support from fraternal insurance companies as well as his publication on sheltered workshops in Canada from 1970–1985, and his forthcoming book on the struggle for employment rights by disabled Canadians during the second half of the twentieth century.[79] There has also been a growing contribution to the history of disabled children in Canada, including Veronica Strong-Boag’s survey of social service agency involvement since the nineteenth century; Tracy Odell’s first person accounts of people who lived in a facility for disabled children from the 1960s to 1980s; articles by Karen Yoshida and Fady Shanouda (with Jason Ellis as a co-author of one of the articles) on the experiences of children with polio in mid-twentieth century Canada; and Jason Ellis’ study of the development of exclusionary special education classes for children in Toronto during the first half of the twentieth century.[80]

The extent of the impact of thalidomide on people who were subsequently born with disabilities in the early 1960s is discussed by Barbara Clow who describes strict government rules demanding documentary proof of exposure to the drug, which had the effect of limiting compensation claims while also leaving unanswered how many people were affected.[81] On the same topic, Christine Chisholm analyzes unsuccessful attempts to change Canada’s abortion law in 1969 based on the impact thalidomide had on infants born with disabilities, efforts which showed both the extent of eugenic thinking at the time and the rejection of the argument by a majority of lawmakers.[82] Terry Fox, whose efforts to raise money for cancer in 1980 by trying to run across Canada ended prematurely when his condition deteriorated leading to his death the following year, has also recently been the focus of critical analyses. From the perspective of literary studies, Sally Chivers and Tanis MacDonald discuss the way in which the marathoner’s physical disability is obscured by stories that emphasize illness over disability or efforts to overcome his physical condition while fostering a national hero Canadians are encouraged to emulate.[83] From a historical perspective, Jenny Ellison describes the image of Fox 35 years after his marathon, from being an “activist,” a “unifying influence” moreso in English Canada than French Canada, a “rock star,” and a subject of adulation.[84] Together, these studies indicate the way in which Terry Fox and the annual run named after him has had an enduring impact on Canadians’ views towards people with disabilities, a topic which historians will undoubtedly continue to explore in the years to come. The history of the Special Olympics since the first national games were held in Canada in 1969 have been written about by Jeremy Freeborn, though historical research in regard to their wider impact on public perceptions and experiences of disabilities have yet to be undertaken.[85] As these works indicate, the field of disability and mad people’s history is expanding significantly, though more often in parallel rather than in conjunction with one another. The possibilities for merging the fields, however, are just as evident.

Merging Histories of Mad People and Disabled People in Canada

Examining the development of state involvement with veterans is an instructive place to consider how the distinctions and interconnections in the two fields have, or have not, merged. Mary Tremblay’s articles on veterans with disabilities discusses the creation of rehabilitation programs for spinal cord injured soldiers during and after World War II.[86] Her work was the first in Canada to study disabled people, in particular veterans, by using a critical disability history lens incorporating the then emerging scholarship of disability studies in her analysis. Since then, Serge Durflinger has written about the history of blind Canadian veterans in the twentieth century, though from a position which is not generally informed by critical disability history analysis.[87] Other work on disabled veterans includes Mark Humphries’ article and forthcoming book on shell-shock among Canadian World War I soldiers. His article describes how, up to the 1930s, soldiers were subjected to gendered definitions of war trauma as they struggled (usually unsuccessfully) to get pensions, while his book will be the most comprehensive study undertaken on Canadian shell-shocked veterans of the 1914-1918 war. Meghan Fitzpatrick’s book on psychological trauma experienced by Commonwealth soldiers during the Korean War includes a discussion of how these same veterans were neglected after they were discharged from the armed forces. An article by A.J. Withers analyzes the long-term impact of disability policies as it relates to notions of productivity developed during and after the 1914–1918 conflict.[88] Nic Clarke has produced the first book-length Canadian study that examines how would-be soldiers who were deemed “unfit” due to physical, mental, or sensory disabilities, were rejected as volunteers during World War I.[89] His work is particularly important for illustrating the elastic ways in which disability has been historically interpreted with some visibly disabled recruits being accepted by medical examiners while others were rejected; others re-enlisted at a later date somewhere else, often leading to their acceptance after earlier rejection(s). Collectively their work helps to reveal interconnections in regard to the treatments and policies affecting disabled soldiers in early- to mid-twentieth-century Canada. At the same time, distinctions are apparent in the historiography in that there is no cross-disability analysis incorporating physical, sensory, and mental disability among disabled Canadian veterans in most of these studies. The only exception can be found, to a certain extent, in Nic Clarke’s book, though a cross-disability analysis is not the main focus. Thus, even where a common occupational group is studied — soldiers — this is done from a primarily disability specific focus rather than one which brings together the broader dimensions of experiences and policies affecting all disabled soldiers.

A similar point can be made in regard to disabled workers in Canadian history. The historical experiences of disabled Canadian workers have been written about by Nancy Forestell, Robert Storey, Dustin Galer, and myself.[90] Of these, Forestell, Storey, and Galer have analyzed aspects of the history of workers with acquired disabilities, while Galer has also, along with myself, written about the work of people with mental disabilities. Of all of these authors, only Galer in his forthcoming book brings together a cross-disability analysis as a prime focus in terms of examining the employment struggles of people with physical, sensory, and mental disabilities in the context of Canadian labour history. His work comes closest more than any of the studies considered here of bridging the gap between disability history and mad people’s history by writing about the experiences of people from various disability groups while also showing the interconnections between them. He does this by describing the extreme difficulty of finding a secure, good paying, accessible job; the precarious nature of employment for disabled and mad people in the second half of the twentieth century; substandard wages and working conditions as well as how rehabilitation programs contributed to a “token economy” in the deinstitutionalization era. All of this reinforced the poverty of people who had few job prospects beyond sheltered workshops.[91] While focusing on one specific group of workers with disabilities is essential to provide an in-depth analysis of particular disabled workers’ experiences, Galer’s work shows the benefits of providing a cross-disability historical analysis that brings all disabled groups together to form an over-arching account of social policy and its impact on a broad sector of the disability community.

The histories of people with intellectual disabilities is another area where the separation between mad people’s history and disability history is apparent despite the interconnection found in each. Critical disability histories on this topic include an article by Nic Clarke on children with intellectual disabilities in late nineteenth and early twentieth century British Columbia, as well his article on the need for more such histories in Canada which focus on the experiences of people categorized as intellectually disabled.[92] Most scholarly work published in Canada from a critical disability history perspective on people with intellectual disabilities focuses on the impact of eugenics. Deborah Carter Park and John Radford were the first to publish on the historical experiences of people with intellectual disabilities subject to eugenic sterilization laws in Alberta.[93] Histories of eugenics and disabled people have been expanded upon significantly in recent years with books on the impact of eugenics by Erica Dyck and Claudia Malacrida, while Karen Stote’s previously mentioned work on the forced sterilization of Aboriginal women in Canada provides a focus within the context of repressive colonial practices.[94] Similarly, Edward Hon-Sing Wong’s 2016 article examines the racist underpinnings of Canada’s historic eugenic policies as it has affected immigration admission criteria.[95] There have also been studies on the experiences of intellectually disabled people at Ontario’s Huronia Regional Centre by Kate Rossiter and Annalise Clarkson as well as on family experiences of people who were institutionalized in the post-World War II period by Melanie Panitch and Madeline Burghardt.[96] Together, these studies reveal the growth of historical work on Canadians with intellectual disabilities, but, similar to mad people’s history in regard to people labelled as mentally “deficient,” it is done in a way that separates the historical experiences of mad people and intellectually disabled people.

Some activist histories also show a degree of distinction more than interconnection between disabled people, such as Irit Shimrat’s book on the mad movement in late-twentieth century Canada and Barbara Everett’s study on psychiatric consumer/survivor activism in Ontario, due to the focus of their work on one particular group of people categorized as disabled.[97] Other studies, however, provide more interconnections. Most notably, Yvonne Peters’ article on disability activism in the early 1980s around inclusion in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and American disability historian Sharron Barnartt’s cross-disability comparative analysis of demonstrations in the United States and Canada from 1970–2005.[98] Peters’ article in particular points out the interconnections between activists with various disabilities. Included here were people defined as mentally disabled whose demands for constitutional protection were almost sacrificed on the altar of political expediency by some other disability activists to enable a quicker acceptance of this campaign. In the end people came together to work towards all inclusive disability rights protection in the Charter. Developing histories which include cross-disability experiences and comparisons will help to foster a wider audience for these studies while also providing greater overall breadth to Canadian disability history.


Taken together these sources point out the wide breadth of research that has been undertaken since the late 1900s on critical interpretations of disability history and mad people’s history in Canada. Revising Canadian history texts so that they devote greater and more careful attention to mad and disabled people’s experiences will depend a great deal on how much work is produced by researchers engaged in these fields. The more original work that is done in mad people’s history and disability history in Canada, the more likely will it be that scholars outside of these fields will begin to incorporate these histories in survey texts, thematic studies and biographies. The revising of this history also relates to the absence of histories of race, disability, and madness that has begun to change as is discussed earlier. It is also important to recognize that some distinctions are not so obvious as might be apparent. While issues of visible and invisible disability have been current in recent decades, when considering this point in the past, we need to question how invisible were some disabilities like madness, which are often thought of this way?[99] Just because someone could “pass” as not mad or disabled in some way did not mean others did not recognize some marker of “otherness.” There has also been more of an emphasis in mad people’s history on institutionalization than in the wider field of disability history. The existing scholarship on mad people places a far greater emphasis on the location of this history in the asylum than does, say, the history of people with physical disabilities, for whom institutionalization is part of some of their histories, such as in regard to rehabilitation facilities, but it is not the overwhelming focus. People with intellectual disabilities are the group of people with disabilities who, along with mad people, were the most likely to experience long-term confinement in an institution and were thus the most likely group to have a closer historical connection with one another, though individuals also had multiple disabilities within these specific categories.

At the same time, disabled people from every category have lived in the community, even during periods of large scale institutionalization, a topic which needs further rethinking within mad people’s history in particular where most studies have focused on the asylum, though this has been changing.[100] Part of this focus on the asylum also has to do with the availability of sources. The chance of finding documented histories of mad and disabled people is far more accessible when researching existing nineteenth- and twentieth-century asylum records than, for example, trying to research disabled people in agrarian communities in Upper or Lower Canada in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries or in researching Indigenous disabled histories in colonial or pre-colonial periods. Yet, it is these less examined areas of research that need to be engaged if disability history in Canada is to provide a fuller account beyond white, European descended disabled and mad people who make up most histories to date. The same goes for researching the period before the second half of the nineteenth century, a period about which we know next to nothing with respect to mad and disabled Canadians of any background. Whether proceeding with a distinct focus on a particular group or making interconnections between various disabled peoples’ social, cultural, and economic locations, the current historiographical trends are an encouraging indication that the field will continue to grow and enrich what was once an unknown area of study. In doing so, the sort of absences noted in survey histories discussed at the start of this article may, one day, become a thing of the past for mad and disabled people’s histories.