Current Research Projects

Challenging Choices

Co-authored project with Maureen Lux
Funded by The Canadian Institute of Health Research

Birth control, abortion, and reproductive rights have a complicated and controversial history that has engaged policy makers, religious authorities, medical professionals, women, men and families in contests over family values. Historically, these debates have pitted feminists against non-feminists, or Catholics against non-Catholics, and socialists and conservatives have even made strange historical bedfellows. Some of these divisions have continued to frame the contemporary debates, but new alliances and divisions have also formed in the changing landscape and contests over family values, same-sex marriages, sex-selection technologies, cross-border adoptions, all of which contribute to a (re)defining of the modern family. This project adds critical historical context to these contemporary debates by producing a sophisticated investigation of reproductive politics in Canada since 1969.

The federal government changed the Canadian Criminal Code in 1969 permitting contraception and abortion. The amendment implied a universal application of liberalizing reforms that decriminalized acts associated with family planning, individual sexual expression, and enshrined the language of ‘choice’ in a new era of reproductive politics. Our study will examine four case studies to show how this law applied unevenly to different social groups. We strategically identified cases where the amendment did not necessarily bring about an era of reproductive liberty, but instead brought more state surveillance: Aboriginal women; healthy men seeking vasectomies; teenage girls; and women and men with intellectual and physical disabilities. These groups are not only significant due to their under-representation within the historiography, but their experiences are important for challenging some of the medical, political and cultural assumptions behind the policies. We plan to compare experiences among these groups, using recently declassified archival texts, popular media, medical literature and historical scholarship to elucidate a more representative interpretation of modern reproductive politics in English Canada.

Who Has Seen the Asylum?

Authors: Alexander Deighton, Alexander Dyck, Erika Dyck, Gary Gerber, Hugh Lafave, John Mills, & Tracey Mitchell forthcoming with University of Manitoba Press
Funded by Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

The asylum was an important institution for many decades. For thousands of people it was an employer, a hospital, an architectural work of art, a meeting place, a jail, and a home. How we remember the asylum depends on our relationship with it. For some people the Weyburn asylum was an impressive building on the Canadian prairie that generated jobs, and displayed an Anglo-Saxon heritage; it visually represented that lineage with architectural links to the Gothic designs of asylums in other parts of Canada, the United States, and Europe: a monument to Anglo-Saxon dominance. For others the memories are darker: an institution with rigid rules, a place where one was always under surveillance, a space occupied by people considered deviant, disordered, defective and disabled; a mausoleum to the detritus of society. Somewhere between the utopic and dystopic images, the people who experienced the asylum directly tend to have more complicated and often even conflicting perspectives. For a few, it was a community centre, a public institution with the resources and energy to host picnics, sports events, attract visitors, and inspire tolerance. An even smaller number of people candidly remember the asylum as a reprieve from the insanity of convention, a place where one could be free with madness and express their true selves without fear of recrimination.

The authorship of this book tries to emulate some of the contests over how we should remember the asylum. Our contributors range in age (from 20s to 80s), career, gender, experience – both in writing and with psychiatric institutions – but we all agree that the subject is worthy of our attention. At times the narrative will be discordant or even contradictory. It is. We do not all share the same interpretation as to what is important about this past, nor in what we should highlight, or question about the way that things were done. We share, however, a commitment to social justice and we recognize how significant social institutions have been for cementing practices and influencing attitudes about mental health. We know that institutions introduce their own routines that are very difficult to change. We share an interest in seeing improvements in mental health outcomes, but we differ on how we should get there. With this book, we make a genuine attempt to honour the different views and to consciously recalibrate the historical power dynamics by listening at times to the voices of people whose opinions were ignored or discarded as part of the cacophony of madness.

Hollywood Hospital

The Highs and Lows of LSD Treatments for Addiction in the 1960s
Author: Erika Dyck
Funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Vancouver’s drug-riddled east side has often been ground zero for political debates in Canada over harm reduction strategies.  The federal government’s decision to stop funding Insight, a safe-injection facility, and the budget cuts to methadone clinics, have continued to politicize the issue of addiction in Canada along lines that either characterize addicts as inherently weak malingerers whose poor life choices disproportionately soak up tax-supported health and welfare programs, or conversely apply a more compassionate appraisal, regarding addicts as sick citizens who deserve health care and social support.  This political dichotomy has a long history, which until now has often relied on the work of policy analysts, addictions researchers, and public health practitioners to shed light on the nature of Canada’s drug regulations and public health policies in addictions care. The availability of Hollywood Hospital’s patient files provides an unprecedented opportunity to investigate this debate by shifting away from generalized analyses, or policy imperatives, and instead to concentrate on the plight of addicts themselves and produce a more comprehensive picture of how addiction has been historically treated and conceptualized.  The patient files from Hollywood Hospital offer a closed set of experiences in a particular historical moment when a nascent harm reduction movement embraced LSD as a single-session treatment for alcoholism that welcomed a connection with spiritual, psychological, and social healing in an era before a formalized understanding of the social determinants of health.  The full set of records, in combination with a renewed interest in psychedelic therapies makes this a timely investigation with significant potential to use historical analyses to inform contemporary practices and policy debates.

The Acid Room at the Hollywood Hospital. The setting was considered very important in LSD therapy at the hospital. The room featured a state-of-the-art hi fi system, a strobe light, and a print of Salvador Dali's Crucifix. Photo from J. Ross MacLean et al, "LSD-25 and Mescaline as Therapeutic Adjuvants: Experience from a seven year study," January 1965