The abilities of settlers: Leah Wiener, Enabling Settler Citizens: Disability, Age, Public Health, and Settler Colonialism in Northern Ontario, 1876-1951, Simon Fraser University, 2023


Abstract: My dissertation analyzes the relationship between public health and settler colonialism, employing age and ability as key categories of analysis. I argue that settler colonialism and public health were constitutive of one another. Public health policy weaves together notions about land, race, labour, age, and ability, to structure and stratify societies. Public health relied on white supremacist tropes to justify the state’s attempts to subjugate and dispossess the Anishinaabeg in Northern Ontario. The idea of a “public” was critical and contested in the intersection of policy and the emerging social science of public health. Settler standards of public imagined a “public” that was white, male, middle-class, and adult, with a body that could be made healthy through individual effort. Settler ideas about Indigenous Peoples shaped the “public” as a racialized and age-stratified concept in Canadian public health and health policy. In this dissertation, I seek to highlight how material and symbolic age, and material and symbolic children, figured in settler-colonial processes of state formation in the context of public health policies. I examine how bureaucrats and institutions in the public and voluntary sectors constructed and portrayed Indigenous and settler health, measuring each against a middle-class standard of “public” health. To do this, I set forth four interconnected arguments. First, settler colonialism and settler public health policy were mutually constitutive. Second, disability existed alongside and entangled with age as a key framing for settler public health policies. Third, these public health policies drew from a bifurcated notion of the “public,” resulting in policies focused on protection and surveillance based on racialized lines. Finally, these framings of disability, age, and the “public” had clear material impacts in Northern Ontario’s settler colonial context, enabling settlement while dispossessing Indigenous Peoples.

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