Building a white Canada: gender, sexuality, race, and medicine

Source: The Way to Her House, George Metcalf Archival Collection , Canadian War Museum, 19760148-058. This booklet, produced by the YMCA, advised soldiers on issues of sex and morality.

By Allison Lynn Bennett

Sexual control is inherent to empire. Colonial authorities and doctors understood sexuality as key to maintaining white superiority. Reproduction and health were the focus of eugenic measures that played on gender, sexual, and racial stereotypes. As a settler colony, Canada imagined itself as “British”, or “white”, and therefore regulated the sexual lives and behaviour of both white and non-white subjects, especially women. Here, I explain how imperial desire for a white Canada centred on gender, sexuality, and race, was largely directed towards women through morality and health policies in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Prostitution and the spread of venereal disease (VD), primarily syphilis and gonorrhoea, were major social problems gripping the British Empire in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The British military—who embodied the cause of empire—especially suffered from high rates of VD as troops were known to access prostitutes in garrison and port towns. Britain responded with the first Contagious Diseases (CD) Act in 1864 and subsequent amendments to include all of Britain. The CD Acts not only legalised prostitution to benefit servicemen and sailors but instituted a double standard by which women were blamed as the vectors of VD. In Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire, Philippa Levine states that from the 1850s to 1880s, similar CD legislation was enacted throughout the Empire to limit the spread of VD and its negative impact on military efficiency within the colonies; Canada was not exempt.[1]

In 1865, two years before confederation, the Province of Canada issued the The Contagious Diseases Prevention Act of 1885 to limit the spread of VD within naval and military bases in port and garrison towns such as Montreal, Toronto, and Kingston. Like the CD Acts in Britain, this act permitted women to provide sexual services to servicemen and sailors while holding them responsible for the spread of VD. Women suspected of having VD were issued a warrant by a member of the Police or Constabulary and then taken to a certified hospital for voluntary or forced invasive examinations by a Superior Medical Officer appointed by the Admiralty or Secretary of State for War. Any woman found infected with VD was imprisoned in the hospital for treatment for up to three months or until discharged by authorities.[2] This form of state-regulated prostitution to service the “needs” of servicemen and sailors not only reinforced white male superiority but clarified white and non-white women’s subordination to white men. White women were meant to embody morality and virtue and therefore their sexual behaviour needed to be controlled for the health and future of the nation; this in turn legitimised state-regulated prostitution.[3] After years of protest from women’s groups and social reformers, the British government formally criminalised prostitution and homosexuality in 1885 through the Criminal Law Amendment Act and repealed the CD Acts in 1886 (though similar laws remained throughout the Empire). In 1892, the Canadian Government incorporated the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 into its own Criminal Code, making prostitution “Offences Against Morality” for both white and Indigenous women.[4] The control of prostitution in Britain and the Empire appeared to protect the health of armed forces and the general public from the spread of VD but in reality, these efforts demonstrate a more complex history of imperialism that linked gender, sexuality, and race under the guise of medicine and morality.

At the turn of the twentieth century, urbanisation and industrialisation brought increased public and government attention to the health of the population, particularly in relation to VD and vice (alcohol and prostitution). Many Canadians approached the management of these issues through social reform. Social reformers believed in “old social and moral values” often associated with Christianity and depended on “collective action and government intervention.” White women, especially English middle-class women, played an important role in social reform—they were agents of empire and participants in white nation building. Many of these women tried to influence lower-class white women to uphold standards of appropriate moral and virtuous behaviours, in part by avoiding prostitution.[5]

In 1914, anxieties regarding sexual behaviour shifted to the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Servicemen had access to both regulated prostitutes in licenced brothels (maisons tolérées) or amateur prostitutes (filles publique) in France and Flanders and while on leave in Paris or London. Like the CD laws, a double standard existed that blamed women for the spread of VD.[6] Many within the higher echelons of the British Army encouraged abstinence but wartime sexual encounters were inevitable. Under the direction of British military leadership, the CEF adopted its moral-medical-morale approach to servicemen’s access to prostitutes in France. Men, especially married men, were encouraged to stay chaste. Entertainment, sports, and YMCA huts distracted men from vice, lectures were given on the dangers of VD, and servicemen were sometimes subjected to “dangle parades” (VD inspections). For men unable—or unwilling—to avoid sexual temptation, licenced red lamp brothels, or maisons de tolérence, were accessible for ordinary soldiers (blue lamp brothels for officers) to access “clean” prostitutes. Professional prostitutes were regularly medically inspected for VD and any woman found infected was taken for treatment and could not return to the brothel until free of VD.[7]

Source: Will You Be A Free Man Or Chained, 1918, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The entry of the United States into the war in 1917 and a resurgence of VD among troops on the Western Front led churches, social reformers and temperance supporters, women’s groups, as well as the Canadian, Australian, and American governments to pressure the British government to stop servicemen’s access to licenced brothels. Britain was reluctant to upset the French by banning servicemen’s access to brothels but did so in 1918 in order to “reassure their citizens that the war would not result in moral or physical deterioration.”[8] According to official statistics, Canadian troops serving overseas account for 66,083 cases of VD. The prevalence of VD among troops was a source of anxiety for Canadians on the home front as the health and future of the nation became priority. In the inter-war period, the Canadian government led a campaign to educate the public on sex and the dangers of VD, often incorporating eugenic ideas in its teachings.[9]

Concerns about the prevalence of VD among white Canadians were central to larger efforts that implicitly and explicitly favoured white Canadian men against white and non-white Canadian women. From the 1920s, the male-dominated medical profession and eugenicists collaborated with the federal and provincial governments to target women through their sense of womanhood and motherhood. White women were told how to feel about their bodies’ natural development, how best to raise their children, and to embrace their “natural” role—while racialised women, specifically Indigenous women, were subject to forced sterilisation and other birth control measures that continued into the second-half of the twentieth century.[10] Yet many white women, such as physicians, feminists and social reformers, teachers, and social workers were also agents of empire in supporting racialised and sexualised policies targeting white and non-white Canadians.[11]

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries anxieties over gender, sexuality, and race embodied a double standard aimed to control the sexual lives and behaviour of women. Keeping in line with empire, Canada’s efforts for sexual control manifested in policies against VD, prostitution, womanhood, and motherhood against white and non-white women. Formally implementing this double standard contributed to Canada’s racialised nation building scheme.

Allison Lynn Bennett is a PhD Candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. Her doctoral thesis analyses sexual encounters between British and Anzac servicemen in First World War Macedonia and the Middle East.



[1] Your Archives, “The Contagious Diseases Acts,” The National Archives, 5 June 2000, accessed 2 August 2020,; Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003), 1; see Lesley A. Hall, “‘War always brings it on’: War, STDs, the military and civilian population in Britain, 1850-1950,” in Medicine and Modern Warfare, eds. Roger Cooter, Mark Harrison, and Steve Sturdy, Clio medica: The Wellcome Institute series in the history of medicine, Vol. 55 (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1999), 206-207.

[2] Hon. Atty. Gen. Macdonald, “Bill: an act for the prevention of contagious diseases at certain naval and military stations in this province,” 4 September 1865, accessed 2 August 2020,

[3] Alison Bashford, “Medicine, Gender, and Empire,” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine, The Oxford History of the British Empire (Toronto and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 126-127.

[4] “The Contagious Diseases Acts + The 1982 Criminal Code,” Canada’s Oldest Profession: Sex Work and Bawdy House Legislation, University of Toronto Libraries, accessed 2 August 2020,; “The Criminal Code, 1892, 55-56 Victoria, Chap. 29 : together with An Act to amend the Canada temperance amendment act, 1888, being chapter 26 of the same session,” 1892, accessed 2 August 2020,

[5] Jay Cassell, The Secret Plague: Venereal Disease in Canada, 1838-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 101-103, 112-114. Also see Mariana Valvarde, The age of light, soap, and water: moral reform in English Canada, 1885-1925: with a new introduction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).  

[6] Servicemen who contracted VD were required to come forward for treatment and give up their source of infection. Sir Andrew Macphail, The Medical Services, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-1919 (Ottawa: F. A. Acland, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1925), 288-289, accessed 31 July 2020,; Cassell, 122-123; Clare Makepeace, Male Heterosexuality and Prostitution During the Great War, Cultural and Social History 9, vol. 1 (2012): 73.

[7] The process of inspecting prostitutes in regulated brothels was flawed. Before antibiotics, contracting VD was risky as mercurial treatments were long, painful and could have long-term side effects while the diseases, if untreated or recurring, were fatal and could be congenitally transmitted. Harrison, 133, 139-140, 142-143; Anne Hanley, Medicine, Knowledge and Venereal Disease in England, 1886-1916, Medicine and Biomedical Science in Modern History (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 4-6.

[8] According to statistics, 66,083 Canadian troops serving overseas were hospitalised for VD. Harrison, 143-146; Macphail, 292-293.

[9] Macphail, 292-293; Cassell, 144-146.

[10] Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race, 68-69; See See Cynthia R. Comacchio, “Nations are Built of Babies”: Saving Ontario’s Mothers and Children, 1900-1940” (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993); Wendy Mitchinson, Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Erika Dyck, “Eugenics in Canada: Choice, Coercion and Context,” in Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Africa, eds. Diane B. Paul, John Stenhouse, and Hamish G. Spenser (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 41-62.

[11] Erika Dyck, “History of Eugenics Revisited,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 39, no. 1 (2014): 14.

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