A Dysfunctional Diaspora? Causes and consequences of mental illness among (mainly) British immigrants to Canada, c. 1870 – c. 1914

By Marjory Harper

A transient tradesman

In December 1911 Jack[1], a thirty-nine-year-old Scot, was admitted to the British Columbia Provincial Hospital in New Westminster with delusions and auditory hallucinations. After leaving school at the age of eleven, Jack had worked on a farm for a year, prior to serving his apprenticeship as a granite mason in the city of Aberdeen. In 1892, at the age of twenty, he had left for New England where – like many stonemasons from north-east Scotland – he found seasonal work in the granite quarries of Vermont. A year later he was on the move, embarking on a footloose, unsettled lifestyle that over the next fourteen years saw him “wandering round various states, never remaining in any one position for any length of time.” By 1907 he was in Washington State, but in the spring of 1911 moved to Vancouver, where for a few months before his admission to hospital he worked as a stone mason. Diagnosed with “toxic insanity” triggered by alcohol excess, he was discharged on probation nine years later, whereupon he levelled charges against the police who had committed him, on the grounds that “there never was anything the matter with him.” The outcome of his action is not known.[2]

Jack’s story of rootless itinerancy is echoed in the stories of many patients who passed through the doors of the British Columbia Provincial Hospital for the Insane in New Westminster, Vancouver – the institution whose records supply most of the examples for this paper.[3] They provide a glimpse into the chaotic, itinerant lifestyle of some transatlantic travellers.

Disappointed gold seekers

By the mid-1890s a new source of disillusionment and distress was emerging through the case histories of a significant number of gold miners, particularly from the Klondike, who were brought to the hospital with delusions about having been robbed, either of land on which they had filed claims to dig for gold, or of the fruit of their diggings. Some of these men had become suicidal, some had resorted to violence in an attempt to protect their imaginary fortunes, and others had fallen victim to the challenges of solitude in a frontier environment. When Walter, a Welsh immigrant, was admitted in 1898, he was described as a “monomaniac on the subject of gold,”[4] while Patrick was a footloose Irish prospector who had wandered across the US and British Columbia before being admitted in 1910 with delusions and – like Jack – a diagnosis of toxic insanity. The admission register recorded the cause of his illness as “living alone.”[5]

The wider context: triggers for migrant mental breakdown

Disillusionment must have been particularly acute among the itinerant army of gold prospectors who travelled the world with the optimistic expectation of making their fortune, only to encounter primitive living conditions, loneliness and failure. But the experiences of Jack, Walter and Patrick reflect another circumstance that could both trigger mental illness and exacerbate its consequences. For such rolling stones, the loneliness of itinerancy, the challenges of an alien environment, and the pain of dashed hopes were exacerbated by the absence of family or community support networks which might have provided stability and solace in the face of disappointment or hardship.

Fred’s case demonstrates that a wealthy background did not necessarily provide immunity. In 1907 he arrived in the interior of British Columbia to take up fruit farming, a common occupation for so-called “remittance men.”[6] Within two months he was a patient at the BC Hospital, whose admission certificate recorded that he came from a family with money, but had been running wild in the woods since arriving in the West Kootenays. The hospital was investigating whether his savings could be used to deport him when he died, and his sister wrote after his death: “My poor mother is almost heart broken, for he only left us at the end of Sept and was perfectly well then but the hardships and cold must have been too much for him. It is so terrible to think of all he must have suffered and quite alone amongst strangers.”[7]

The absence or breakdown of support networks were probably more devastating for married women who had suffered desertion, domestic violence, post-natal depression or bereavement. In 1910, the year after she was widowed, Edith, accompanied by her three-month-old baby and two other children, left Wales for a mining town in the Kootenay mountains in order “to earn a living, having no one to look to for support.” Within a few months she was sent 300 miles west to the hospital in New Westminster at the behest of her sister-in-law after becoming suicidal, perhaps – reading between the lines – because the latter did not want to assume responsibility for the unfortunate family.[8]

None of these catalysts operated unilaterally. An alien environment, or disappointed expectations, could trigger or aggravate homesickness, an affliction which was rarely mentioned explicitly in admission registers, but which can sometimes be deduced from case notes. For instance, Colin, from Leith, was admitted to the BC Hospital in 1902 and died there sixteen years later. An undated letter from his sister sent during the First World War contained the poignant comment that “It is very heart breaking, his constant desire to get home – where there is no home.”[9]

Medical perspectives often differed from those of patients and their families. While doctors frequently identified heredity as a predisposing factor in a patient’s illness, some relatives hotly disputed that stigmatised diagnosis. After Robert, a former railway clerk and soldier, was sent from Dawson jail in the Yukon to the BC Hospital in 1900, his father in England indignantly questioned the diagnosis of hereditary paranoia, writing to the hospital’s medical superintendent: “What were the circumstances that caused the authorities to charge him with insanity?… I may say for your guidance there has never been any insanity in our family.”[10]

Medical diagnoses clearly involved value judgements, which can also be inferred from the language used to describe patients. Henry, from Glasgow, was admitted to the BC Hospital in 1910, after six restless years spent in the US, Canada, Africa and Scotland. His father had died in an asylum in Ireland, a paternal uncle was also in a similar institution in Ireland as a result of “excessive drinking,” and Henry himself had been convicted of drunkenness and vagrancy. His case notes, in describing his delusional symptoms, recorded that he “has no fixed delusions, except those usually found in a degenerate,” while in answer to the question of whether he was danger to others, the doctor wrote, “Not more so than others of his class.”

British and Irish patients were less likely than their European, Asian or First Nations counterparts to be subject to value judgements based on language, race and ethnicity, though they were not immune from such prejudice. Keith from the Outer Hebrides – probably a monolingual Gaelic speaker – seems to have been the only British patient in the BC Hospital whose condition was evaluated partly on the basis that he spoke a different language. The two doctors who certified him complained respectively that he would “not answer any questions, nor talk in English, merely yells in Gaelic” and “was crying out in an unintelligible language.”[11] While the names of Canadians or Europeans were recorded straight-forwardly in admission records, First Nations people were commonly referred to by brief English pseudonyms, and one Japanese patient was simply described as “Japo.”[12] The names of Chinese patients were inscribed more fully (albeit phonetically), but value judgements were clearly evident in the description of their religion as “heathen,” and derogatory references in case notes to their appearance and refusal to speak “except in Chinese.”[13]

Responses: custodial care and repatriation

In Canada, care of the mentally ill was a provincial responsibility which had to be funded from provincial coffers. Therapeutic principles of care and cure, as well as practical issues of custody, were therefore constrained by financial pressures and a need to reduce chronic overcrowding, if possible by encouraging families to take responsibility for their sick relatives. If the patient was an immigrant who had relatives in their native land, the BC Provincial Hospital generally encouraged repatriation. In 1903, three years after Bert was admitted to the institution, its Medical Director, George Manchester, wrote to his sister, proposing to send him back to London along with about ten other patients. As numbers of the hospitalized insane were increasing and wards were overflowing, the provincial government, he explained, “does not feel disposed to keep for the rest of their lives a lot of young men who really do not belong to it.”[14]

In the event, financial reasons dictated that Bert remained at the New Westminster institution, where he died in 1932. It was the income and attitudes of families that generally determined whether or not repatriation took place. Bert’s sister was unwilling to take responsibility for him and would only agree to his return if he could be transferred directly to a London asylum. “He has never been any expense to us, and as we are situated we do not see how we could keep him,” she insisted.[15] But the suggestion of an institutional transfer was not feasible, Dr Manchester told her, because the British authorities “are opposed to our sending these young men home and think that we should accept the fit with the unfit when immigrants come our way.”[16] At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur, an aristocratic English rancher who had killed his cook but was acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity, was (after six months in the BC Hospital in 1901) sent back to England in the care of a hospital attendant, with the cost of the attendant’s return passage and subsistence being paid by the patient’s wealthy family.[17]

While custody, care and rehabilitation fell within the provincial remit, the development of policy towards mentally ill immigrants to Canada lay with the federal government. By the late nineteenth century its eugenic agenda was clearly evident, particularly in the extensive use of deportation to rid the country of individuals who were, or were likely to become, public charges. From the start insanity was at the very centre of that definition, and in the words of one historian, “Canada’s record in deporting immigrants was by far the worst in the entire British Commonwealth.”[18] It was part of the federal government’s increasingly restrictive immigration policy which also involved exclusion or detention at port of entry. If insanity was detected within three years of arrival, the immigrants could be deported at the expense of the shipping company which had brought them.

Bureaucratic records provide us with a sanitised, dispassionate narrative of policy, theory and practice, but rarely concern themselves with the experiences and emotions of individuals and families. The personal stories extracted from the medical files and told in this post provide a glimpse into the adversity and tragedy which sometimes marked the immigrant experience.

Marjory Harper is Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. Her research focuses on Scottish emigration since 1800. She is currently working on two monographs:  Testimonies of Transition (an oral history of twentieth-century Scottish emigration); and a study of Scottish-Antipodean networks.


[1] In order to ensure anonymity, pseudonyms have been used for hospital patients, and places of origin and settlement have not been identified precisely.

[2] Provincial Archives of British Columbia [hereafter PABC], GR-1754, vol. 1, Provincial Mental Hospital, Essondale, Admissions Book, 12 October 1872 to 31 December 1912; PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 14, no. 3129.

[3] When the hospital opened in 1878 it was called the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. The name was changed in 1897.

[4] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 6, no. 838.

[5] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 26, no. 2644.

[6] For the activities of remittance men in western Canada, see Patrick Dunae, Gentlemen Emigrants: from the British Public Schools to the Canadian Frontier (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981).

[7] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 20, no. 2061, letter dated 2 March 1908.

[8] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 26, no. 2664.

[9] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 11, no. 1326.

[10] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 8, no 1052, letter dated 30 December 1901.

[11] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 20, no. 2003.

[12] PABC, GR-1754, Admissions Register, no. 561.

[13] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 1, nos 79, 151.

[14] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 8, no. 1034, letter dated 3 February 1903.

[15] Ibid., letter dated 12 January 1903.

[16] Ibid., letter dated 3 February 1903.

[17] PABC, GR-2880, Case Files, Box 9, no. 1139.

[18] Irving Abella, foreword to Barbara Roberts, Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada 1900-1935 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988), ix.

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  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #12 | Whewell's Ghost

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