Great Social Evils —The Contagious Diseases Act of Canada


Granted, there were other, horribly sexist and awful laws enacted through our time but the  Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s was awful. These acts forced women to involuntary genital examination if they were suspected of having a venereal disease or had an affair. They were brutal, unfair, and cruel– and immediately people protested them and sought to have the laws repealed–which they finally were in the early 1880s.

It began in 1864 when something underhand happened in the Houses of Parliament in the UK. A bill was passed with no publicity, no debate, no discussion and no dissent. The public knew nothing about it, for all that the newspapers reported was that ‘The Contagious Diseases Bill passed its reading’.

By an extraordinary  ‘coincidence’, a Bill for the prevention of contagious diseases in cattle were also being debated around that time, and under precisely the same name ‘the Contagious Diseases Bill’, and so of course people assumed that any mention of those words in the newspapers referred to diseases of cows.

And so in 1864 a new law was brought in quickly. The secrecy was maintained when it was extended in 1866 and again in 1869. But the new law did not apply to cattle at all; it stripped half the human population of their civil rights. And this was known only by the few who administered and applied it.


This meant that any woman walking along a street in her own town was liable to be watched and followed by a plain-clothed policeman hell bent on identifying prostitutes. In those days without cars, most ordinary women walked everywhere, whether going to work, to church, to meetings, or on errands, shopping, or visiting. Every one of them, in 138 towns and parishes, fell under suspicion. A woman need only bump into a male acquaintance in the street and exchange a “good evening” with him to find herself arrested and forcibly genitally examined.


The “Contagious Disease Act” also passed in Canadian parliament and existed from 1865-1870 but there was silence among the Canadian public with regards to the act. But it was known as a way to control venereal disease and attempt to rehabilitate those who were a prostitute or had an out of wedlock affair— if they were proven guilty they were sent off to asylums and prisons.

The 19th century Canadians had no idea how to treat  prostitution, and wondered if it was a necessary evil, or the result of a male sexual erection. Anyone could swear that a female  was a woman of ill repute before a justice of the peace and she would be forced to be examined. In the UK the law was restricted to ports where the military sailed in, but in Canada it was governed everywhere.

Many middle class and upper class women put themselves in a straitjacket of chastity which forced their husbands to seek fallen women. There were so many false promises of marriages, mock marriages that had no legal status and deliberate attempts to entangle a woman in debt or emotional dependency that reform for the law was demanded. It was said the reason being was that Canadian women were being forced into prostitution by untruthful men. Of course men were never examined as they objected to it. Bet this was a tale no one ever told you. I know I had not heard about it until today.

About lindaseccaspina

Linda Knight Seccaspina was born in Cowansville, Quebec about the same time as the wheel was invented and the first time she realized she could tell a tale was when she got caught passing her smutty stories around in Grade 7 at CHS by Mrs. Blinn. When Derek "Wheels" Wheeler from Degrassi Jr. High died in 2010, Linda wrote her own obituary. Some people said she should think about a career in writing obituaries. Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa from 1976-1996. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off she finally found her calling. Is it sex drugs and rock n' roll you might ask? No, it is history. Seeing that her very first boyfriend in Grade 5 (who she won a Twist contest with in the 60s) is the head of the Brome Misissiquoi Historical Society and also specializes in local history back in Quebec, she finds that quite funny. She writes every single day and is also a columnist for Hometown News and Screamin's Mamas. She is a volunteer for the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum, an admin for the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page, and a local guest speaker. She has been now labelled an historian by the locals which in her mind is wrong. You see she will never be like the iconic local Lanark County historian Howard Morton Brown, nor like famed local writer Mary Cook. She proudly calls herself The National Enquirer Historical writer of Lanark County, and that she can live with. Linda has been called the most stubborn woman in Lanark County, and has requested her ashes to be distributed in any Casino parking lot as close to any Wheel of Fortune machine as you can get. But since she wrote her obituary, most people assume she's already dead. Linda has published six books, "Menopausal Woman From the Corn," "Cowansville High Misremembered," "Naked Yoga, Twinkies and Celebrities," "Cancer Calls Collect," "The Tilted Kilt-Vintage Whispers of Carleton Place," and "Flashbacks of Little Miss Flash Cadilac." All are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Linda's books are for sale on Amazon or at Wisteria · 62 Bridge Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada, and at the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum · 267 Edmund Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada--Appleton Museum-Mississippi Textile Mill and Mill Street Books and Heritage House Museum and The Artists Loft in Smith Falls.

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