Health Law in Lower and Upper Canada, 1791-1841

June 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm 1 comment

Consider this:
Number of health-related legislation enacted between 1791 and 1841 in Lower and Upper Canada (i.e. during the period of formal existence of both provinces):
Lower Canada: 7*
Upper Canada: 4*

(*excluding minor revisions, reenactments and hospitals and health professions legislation)

Between 1791 and 1841, the Province of Lower Canada enacted several health-related statutes dealing with three main subjects—quarantine, adoption of vaccination and appropriation of funds for hospitals receiving and treating returning emigrants suffering from contagious diseases. Interestingly, all statutes were directed at the prevention and control of epidemic, contagious or endemic diseases. The earliest, enacted in 1795, enjoined the quarantine of all vessels and persons arriving in the Province through the Saint Lawrence River from “places infected with the plague (a term which historically speaking, applied to pandemic infections in general, including smallpox) or any pestilential fever or disease.” In the first quarter of the 19th century, three separate pieces of legislation (enacted in 1815, 1817 and 1821) authorized funds for the adoption and provision of free optional vaccination in the province. The 1817 statute also established a Board of Vaccination to implement the statute. This marked the first creation by statute of a health board or department in Canada.

The Lower Canada vaccination program was discontinued around 1823 (appropriations authorized by the 1821 statute ended in the same year, and there is no record of subsequent appropriations for the purpose of vaccination). As Barbara Tunis has shown, reasons for the discontinuance of the program include disputes (surrounding the membership of the Board of Vaccination, between Board members and vaccinators over vaccination directives issued by the Board, and among diverse members of the medical profession over the nature of vaccination), slow public acceptance of vaccination (due to lack of knowledge about and suspicion of vaccines, and familiarity with inoculation) and an often aggressive and enthusiastic implementation that set the stage for conflicts between bureaucrats and those opposed to vaccination. Following the lapsing of the vaccination program, a trio of statutes provided for the establishment and appropriation of funds to hospitals receiving and treating emigrants suffering from contagious diseases. Preventing the importation of emigrant diseases remained the sole focus of health legislation prior to the union with Upper Canada.

Upper Canada’s health-related legislation (excluding hospitals and health professions legislation) include a 1830 statute that provided for the maintenance and support of insane destitute persons and two in 1832 and 1833 that provided monetary support for the relief of sick and destitute emigrants in the town of Prescott. The most significant piece of legislation during this period appears to be the 1833 Boards of Public Health and Infectious Diseases Act which empowered public health officials to perform various actions for the preservation of the public’s health, including the power to enter, examine, order cleansing of or cleanse premises deemed hazardous to public health and to compel the removal of persons from premises infected with “a disease of malignant and fatal character” until disinfection and cleansing measures are completed. The Act also authorized the Governor to regulate the entry and departure of vessels into the province in a manner that best preserves the public health.

I can speculate on a number of reasons why the Upper Canada legislative record is less robust. First, coastal locations in parts of Lower Canada provided access to and from the Canadas and consequently, allowed for the inevitable introduction to the province of foreign infectious diseases. The provincial administration therefore (presumably) had more reasons to be concerned about contagion than their inland-residing Upper Canada counterparts. Concomitantly, there would have also been fewer infectious disease threats or epidemics in Upper Canada, thus attenuating the impetus to enact preventive laws (that disease outbreaks provoked a legal response is evident from the fact that cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1834 resulted in legislation appropriating funds to cover expenses incurred in fighting the disease; for more on the Upper Canada legal response to the cholera epidemics, see this doctoral dissertation). Second, the Upper Canada legislature may have considered it politically inexpedient to enact the same public health measures that provoked controversy in Lower Canada and Britain, such as bans on inoculation and the adoption of vaccination. Lastly, as Robert Bothwell points out, the primary focus of government in the Canadas after 1815 was “to populate and develop the provinces.” It is therefore likely that in the absence of serious or persisting public health threats, the government of Upper Canada simply did not deem the matter a pressing concern.


Entry filed under: Upper and Lower Canada History. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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Reflections on health law and policy in early Canadian history


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