In the simplest terms, miscegenation refers to “race-mixing,” or interbreeding between racial or ethnic groups. While social theorists and eugenicists in the late 19th century widely believed that miscegenation would result in the degeneracy of the higher races (or classes), the first anti-miscegenation laws in the United States actually date back to 1664, banning marriage between whites and slaves, and ordering the enslavement of white women who had married black men. A total of 41 states enacted laws against miscegenation during the following 300-plus years, of which 16 were still in effect when the United States Supreme Court deemed them to be unconstitutional in 1967 in its decision in Loving v. Virginia.

Though there is a logical connection between anti-miscegenation laws and eugenics, they differ in that the goal of anti-miscegenation was to prevent degeneration of the higher (e.g., white) races by through social (legal) control, whereas eugenics was scientific in nature and sought to promote higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics). However, in during the 20th century, many eugenicists would become advocates for anti-miscegenation laws. For example, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1967, contained various provisions that referred to eugenic principles.

Although Canada has never enacted any anti-miscegenation laws, it has been suggested that racial intermixing was kept to a minimum by other means, primarily assimilation. For example, some academics suggest that the Indian Act was designed to regulate mixing between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. More specifically, paragraph 12(1)(b) stipulated that Aboriginal women who married non-Aboriginal men (and any resulting children) would be denied legal Indian status, which would almost certainly result in alienation from the culture into which they were born. Aboriginal men who married non-Aboriginal women would retain their status, which would also be extended to their wives and children, but the crossing of racial boundaries was widely considered socially unacceptable at the time. The expected results were that women who married non-Aboriginal men would have non-Aboriginal children, which would cause rapid assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture. Both anti-miscegenation laws and the Indian Act are striking examples of the state’s regulation of the intimate sphere, which served to legitimize gender inequality.

For example, upon marriage, a woman was reassigned to the band of her husband and only men could own property. If an Aboriginal woman married someone other than another Indian man, she and any of her children would cease to be an Indian in the eyes of the Canadian government, would no longer have rights to land, and would be unable to transfer this connection to future generations. Therefore, Aboriginal women would not be considered Indians on their own accord, but only if they were married to such men. The involuntary enfranchisement for Aboriginal women continued until the Indian Act was finally amended by Bill C-31 in 1985.

Canada’s program of assimilation for Aboriginal peoples also included residential schools, an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches with the objective of educating Aboriginal children and indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream Canadian society. The residential school system operated from the 1880s until the end of the 20th century. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages, subject to severe punishment. Numerous former residential school student have reported horrendous accounts of physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse by the residential school staff.

This systematic undermining of Aboriginal culture across Canada disrupted families for generations, severing the ties through which Aboriginal culture is taught and sustained, and contributing to a general loss of language and culture. The devastating effects of the residential schools are far-reaching and continue to have significant impact on Aboriginal communities. Because the government’s and the churches’ intent was to eradicate all aspects of Aboriginal culture in these young people and interrupt its transmission from one generation to the next, the residential school system is commonly referred to as a form of cultural genocide.

On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minster of Canada, Stephen Harper, issued the following apology to Aboriginal Peoples for the residential school system on behalf of the Government of Canada:

Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

In addition to Canada’s historical assimilation policies, many have suggested that Canada has a long history of discriminatory immigration policies, which sought to limit miscegenation through exclusion. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, from 1855 until the 1960s, Canada chose its immigrants on the basis of their racial categorization rather than the individual merits of the applicant, with preference being given to immigrants of Northern European (especially British) origin over the so-called “black and Asiatic races,” and at times over central and southern European races.

-Michael Billinger

  • Canadian Council for Refugees. (2000). Report on systemic racism and discrimination in Canadian refugee and immigration policies. Retrieved from: http://ccrweb.ca/files/arreport.pdf

  • Indigenous Foundations. (2009). The Residential School System. Retrieved from: http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/home/government-policy/the-residential-school-system.html

  • Lombardo, P. (n.d.) Eugenic laws against race mixing. Retrieved from: Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement (Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory), http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay7text.html.

  • Sealing, K. (2000). Blood will tell: scientific racism and the legal prohibition against miscegenation. Retrieved from: Social Science Research Network: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1260015.

  • Thompson, D. (2009). Racial ideas and gendered intimacies: the regulation of interracial relationships in North America. Social & Legal Studies, 18(3), 353-371.