Law and Order: Criminalization

The criminalization of the poor covers a few different topics. If you would like to skip ahead to any of the different headings, you can do so here:

  1. National and Provincial Context
  2. Social Context
  3. Local Context
  4. Crime and the Poorhouse
  5. Vagrancy
  6. Intemperance
  7. Prostitution


National and Provincial Context: 

Canada did not officially have legislation in place to deal with any accused of committing a criminal offence until Canadian Confederation in 1867. It was not for another 30 years that the first Criminal Code was passed in 1892, outlining criminal offences and the procedures set in place to deal with them. As we will see from the section below on the local context, most of the institutions that were built to hold and isolate “criminals” were based off of the discretion of the local municipality and the amount of funds that municipality had.

Early on, prisons were used to house people labelled as having mental distress and physical disabilities because there were not specific institutions yet created to care for these individuals or there was not enough within the few institutions available. This reality comes up a number of times in the Ontario Sessional Papers, which were annual reports on government departments, public accounts, and government institutions, such as the jails, schools, and boards of health. Below is an example of inspector that petitioned for the Barrie Gaol to receive a county poorhouse as the gaol was being used as a place to confine people labelled as having mental distress.


Ontario Sessional Papers 1880; Source:

Ontario Sessional Papers 1880,page 87; Source:


At the Kingston County Gaol, people were being committed in the same respects as those being committed to poorhouses.


Ontario Sessional Papers 1880, p.99; Source:

Ontario Sessional Papers 1880, p.99; Source:


Further, the Stratford Gaol had a similar occurrence where their gaol was being used to lodge “vagrants”, people who were “physically incapacitated for labour”, people with physical disabilities, and pregnant women.


Ontario Sessional Papers 1880, p.113; Source:

Ontario Sessional Papers 1880, p.113; Source:


This shows that the creation of the poorhouses in Canada were a direct result of the lack of institutions for people with mental distress, physical disabilities, and children and seniors.


Social Context:

Criminalization of the poor was born out of the belief that anyone living in poverty was “idle and inherently predisposed to shunningpoverty [which] reassure[d] the middle classes that only those who deserve to or let themselves will fall from economic security”. [1] The fear of poverty amongst the middle class was so ingrained in society that those in the lower class were deemed outsiders and shunned from the rest of the community. This social myth dates back to medieval Europe where “the transient poor were associated explicitly with carriers of evil and disease and thus naturalized as outcasts” and by the 16th century, idling or wander was “designated a crime and poverty was conflated with criminality as well as disease” [2]. The need by the middle and upper classes to stop the movement of the poor had to do with the need for social control and stopping the spread of disease. After the social beliefs from Europe became apart of Canadian society, they too began to look for ways to segregate and quarantine the poor from the rest of the society. Every type of “outsider” (the poor, single women and mothers, immigrants, children, elders, physically disabled and mentally distressed) was seen as a criminal and a threat to the status quo, thus they were grouped together and pushed out of sight from the rest of society.


Local Context:

At the beginning of the 19th century, Upper Canada was divided into districts and local officials, including clerk of the peace, justice of the peace, sheriff, treasurer, court judge, inspectors and schoolmasters, were all appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. The Justice of the Peace’s main responsibilities were to “keep the peace” and preside over the lowest level of the judicial system which dealt with petty crimes and repaying debts.[2] Individuals who had committed a crime would be brought to the court on Saturdays, usually twice a month, and their crime and punishment would be

Waterloo County Gaol 1985; Source: P004079 Waterloo Historical Society

discussed. As there was no County Gaol at the time, it is assumed that there was a holding cell for inmates to stay in between their hearings. For more severe crimes, such as murder, people would be sent to the Gore district (present-day Hamilton, Ontario) to have their sentences carried out. The Justice of the Peace appointed town wardens who dealt with deciding the “fate of unfortunates or families needing assistance from public funds”. [3]  This was the first type of law and order within Waterloo County.

The local County Gaol was built in 1852 and it was located on Queen Street, Berlin, beside what is now the Kitchener Public Library. It was originally built to house debtors, peddlers, and those that commit criminal offences, but it also became the only place in the district to house “lunatics” and anyone suffering from a mental illness. In the County Minutes of 1856, the issue of criminalizing mental illness was already at play.


Journal of the Proceedings & By-Laws, of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo 1856; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives

Journal of the Proceedings & By-Laws, of the Municipal Council of the County of Waterloo 1856; Source: Region of Waterloo Archives


A growing concern in Waterloo County was the high number of taverns spread out throughout the townships. They “threatened social order” and catered primarily to the traveling consumers and not the local community. [4]


Crime and the Poorhouse:

The initial discussions about what to do with the poor people of Waterloo County began in 1867 when it was decided that there would be a Poorhouse built in order to accommodate the poor. For more information on the formation and reasoning behind building the Poorhouse, please visit the House page. The County Gaol and the Poorhouse worked together to commit the more “dangerous members of society”, sending the people considered the most dangerous to the gaol and those who were less dangerous to the Poorhouse. Sometimes people would be sent back and forth between the two institutions when the managers of both the gaol and Poorhouse didn’t know what to do with them. There were 44 mentions of gaol/jail in the Poorhouse registry, 26 of which were people who were sent to the County Gaol for either being labelled a lunatic, insane, a vagrant, or crippled. There were only two people from the Poorhouse sent to gaol for actually breaking the law (according to the Poorhouse by-laws) for having absconded from the House. There were ten children who were sent to the Poorhouse because their parents were in gaol and  most of them (7 out of the 10 children) were then put on trial a few days or months later. One child whose parents were in gaol was also sent to the gaol for being labelled a “dangerous lunatic”. There were five people who were sent to the Poorhouse from gaol, two of whom died in the Poorhouse a couple of months later.




This is a quote taken from the Berlin Daily News March 3, 1878, in response to vagrants who sought shelter in an old Mennonite church in town .This statement reflects common beliefs of the time towards those who were vagrants or homeless in the area.

The rejection of the British poor laws in Upper Canada in 1792 is a benchmark which defines the provinces approach to the treatment of its poor. The rejection of these laws was likely from the belief that these laws were the cause of pauperism and indigence in Britain, and that they were what kept the able-bodied from working (Johnson, Wilson 1986).  It was widely believed that poor relief or assistance should not be universal, but should be targeted to specific deserving groups (Elson 2011). The rejection of poor laws in Canada also reflect the concern with the use of property tax to support poor houses (Mauruto 2005). In 1837, the House of Industry act was passed, which allowed for the erection and maintenance of houses of industry  . This act specified that these houses were for those who were able bodied but still incapable of supporting themselves, and those who were vagrants, or could not produce a living. However, the act, was not widely implemented, and only resulted in the establishment of Houses of Industry in Kingston and Niagara (Pue, Wright, 1988). It is discussed by Wright that the rejection of this act may have been due to the ideals of poverty being a matter of individual, family, or church intervention, not responsibility of the public or the government (1983). It is also argued that the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada prevented this from being implemented, as the act was seen as too costly (Palmer, Heroux 2015). The poor house act was amended in 1846, allowing for townships to collect funds for poor relief through property taxes. It is stated by Wright that this was an important change in poor relief in Upper Canada, as by allowing taxation the province was providing a method of funding poor relief (Wright 1983). By 1866, these taxes were able to be collected from general revenues (Maurruto 2005).

When poor relief or poorhouses were not in place, vagrants were often arrested and committed to jails, which were seen as the only public institution at the time. Legislation was passed in 1810 which allowed jails to house “ All and every idle and disorderly person, or Rogue and Vagabonds, and incorrigible Rogues” (Ragnishene 2012). As vagrancy was viewed in Canada as a penal problem, legislation addressed vagrancy as a crime punishable by imprisonment. This resulted in the jailing of “persons whose only crime was their inability to care for themselves” (Ragnishene 2012). Vagrancy accounted for markedly high committals to correctional institutions.

Social Stigmas and Attitudes

Attitudes towards vagrants viewed them as criminal, idle and lazy. Canada was portrayed as a land of opportunity, and was marketed as such to immigrants, therefore if someone could not find stable employment it was viewed as their fault for not trying or working hard enough.

Due to these beliefs, relief given to those suffering from homelessness and poverty rarely came without accompanying labour requirements. At the Waterloo House of Industry and Refuge, those at the house who were able were expected to work (though this comprised of only a few inmates), often for the upkeep of the house or on the adjacent farm. Workhouses in other municipalities often provided temporary relief for their homeless, providing them food and lodge in order to be fit to search for work the next day. The house of refuge in Toronto is an example of where labour requirements were enforced, so much so that those who could not fufill them could be denied access and entry. In the early 1850’s, those seeking temporary refuge were required to chop wood before leaving the house. It was believed that if those entering the house would not learn proper work habits if they were allowed to live “entirely comfortable” (Palmer, Heroux 2015).The Toronto House of Refuge implemented required stone-breaking for relief in 1896.  Those who refused were criminalized with a three month term in jail (Palmer, Heroux 2015). It was not until 1912 that the term “unemployment” was used to describe those found in destitution or poverty due to lack of work or means to support themselves (Elson 2011). There was a widespread belief that unemployment was not a problem, as work was seen as widely available in good times, and that workers should practice thrift and spending on luxuries in hard times (Elson 2011).

Vagrancy in the Waterloo County

In the County of Waterloo, similar laws towards vagrancy applied. As stated in By-Law 67 “For the Preservation of Public Morals”. The law stated the following regarding alcoholism and vagrancy

“That It shall not be lawful for any person or persons whomsoever to be drunk, or to utter any profane oath or obscene, indecent, blasphemous or grossly insulting language, or to be guilty of any immorality or indecency in any street or streets, highway  or highways, or public place or places within the said corporation of the county of Waterloo.

That each and every common prostitute or night walker wandering in any field, street, road, highway or other public place within the said County of Waterloo, and not giving a satisfactory account of himself or herself, each or ever person residing in or in the habit of frequenting any home or house of ill-fame, and not giving a satisfactory account of himself or herself; each and every person frequenting any gaming house or gaming houses, or winning or losing money or other valuable things in playing at cards, dice or other game of chance, in any tavern or saloon, each and every person or persons pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive or impose upon any of her majesty’s subject; each and every person wandering about and endeavoring, by the exposure of wounds and deformities, to obtain or gather alms, and each and every person wandering about and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent or in any cart, wagon or vehicle, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a satisfactory account of himself or herself, shall on conviction thereof before any justice or justices of the peace having jurisdiction on the matter, forfeit and pay for every such offence a fine of not more than fifty dollars, in the description of the justice or justices” (Source: Region of Waterloo)

Canada’s confederation in 1867 and the establishment of the Municipal act of Ontario brought changes to legislature regarding poorhouses. On January 1 of 1867, the municipal act of Ontario required that the council of each county established a house of industry and refuge for their poor, to be erected within two years.  The act was amended by 1869, leaving this construction as an option of the council. Construction on the Waterloo County House of Industry and Refuge began in 1867, and was underway despite this amendment.

Vagrancy at The Waterloo House of Industry and Refuge

The House of Industry and Refuge Opened on June 15th, 1869. The creation of the poorhouse in the Waterloo County was in response to overcrowding of vagrants in the local jail, and was one of the first systems of social welfare put in place in the region.


Records in the letterbooks of the county of Waterloo show orders for the criminalization of Tramps in the region, and the recommended commitment of tramps to the local gaol

April 23rd. 1897.

 Dear Sir,

                                Complaints are being made that the County is again being over-run with tramps. I am instructed by the Warden to again notify you of the desire of the County Council that ALL TRAMPS should be arrested and brought before a Magistrate in order that they may be committed as vagrants to the County Gaol as suggested in letter of Dec. 9th. last.

                It is expected that every constable in the County will assist in putting down this nuisance.

Yours very truly,


                County Clerk.

Individuals committed to the poorhouse due to homelessness or vagrancy were often listed in the logbook as “Destitute”, and sometimes moved in and out of the poorhouse. Negative, criminalizing attitudes towards vagrancy often resulted in those who were homeless not receiving care or support.  It was often single males who were committed to the house for vagrancy, whom may have been traveling between townships previously, or previously committed to Gaol. This was the story of Joseph Clough, a vagrant who traveled between the Waterloo and Cambridge townships. You can read the story of Joseph Clough here

Whether for vagrancy, intemperance, or destitution, It was common at the House of Industry and Refuge for a wife or family to be brought to the poorhouse when the husband of the family was committed to the house. An example of this is Michael and Catherine Dopp, you can read their story here



The origins of over-consumption of alcohol find its roots in the early 18th century Europe, where water in cities was often polluted and unsafe to drink, and other beverages such as milk, tea, and coffee were scarce and expensive  (Heron 2003, Chouinard). This belief was brought over to Canada, where some settlers doubted the cleanliness of the water (Booze). In her history of the prohibition movement in Canada, Jan Noel describes alcohol as the caffeine of daily life. Many families, children included, would begin the day with a shot of whiskey. The alcohol consumed was mostly in the form of “ardent spirits” like rum and whisky, which, according to the data available, were consumed by the male population in a much larger volume than today (Dostie & Dupre 2012). Therefore, the regular consumption of alcohol was regarded as a necessity to life and  good health. It was also believed that alcohol could provide warmth in cold northern weather (Heron 2003). Drinking was prominent among the upper class and working class. Drinking during or after work, was viewed as revitalizing, and workers were often rewarded a drink for their labour (Chouinard). It was during the early 19th century when attitudes towards alcohol began to change.


There were various acts passed in Canada regarding alcohol in the 19th century, including the Dunkin act or Canada temperance act in 1864. This act allowed any municipality to prohibit the sale of alcohol, and to apprehend those found drunk in public places (Heron 2003) .The act also began the interdiction list, which could prohibit the sale of alcohol to those who were convicted of intemperance for up to three years (Thompson & Genosko 2009). This legislation additionally allowed for people to put specific individuals on the list even if they were not convicted, this included relatives, inmates of asylums, and spouses (Thompson & Genosko 2009). This was often a method used by wives who had taken their husbands to court for abuse, alcoholism or non-support. (Heron 2003). An interdiction list was distributed to saloons and could incur a fine for the establishment if people on this list were served or sold alcohol (Heron 2003). This list was often referred to as the “Indian list”, as under the first federal Indian act of 1876, all aboriginal people were banned from buying alcohol, subjecting them to the same restraints as those who were put on the interdiction list (Heron 2003).

1876, the Crooks act transferred control of liquor licensing and local inspection of taverns in Ontario from municipalities to a board of three officials from each city, county or electoral district. Over the next 40 years, numbers of licensed establishments in all Waterloo county fell from 136 taverns and 21 shops, to  66 taverns, 7 shops and four clubs in 1914. North Dumfries voted for local prohibition in 1907 and galt in 1910 (Bloomfield).  In Waterloo however, a vote was held in 1912 which defeated a proposed local prohibition by-law (City of Waterloo Museum)

In 1916 the Ontario Temperance Act banned the sale of alcohol. Under the act all taverns and Bars were closed. Druggists and licensed vendors were able to sell six ounces of alcohol at a time to fill a doctor’s prescription (Heron, . Total prohibition was rationalized as a wartime measure to conserve essential commodities, reduce absenteeism, and encourage savings (City of Waterloo Museum) . At the time of prohibition distilleries were still able to produce alcohol for legal sale and export. During prohibition, the production of alcohol was legal, but the selling and distribution of it was restricted. The Seagram Distillery of Waterloo was used as a base for operations of bootlegging, exporting alcohol, either to various parts of the province, or to America, Where even the production of alcohol was banned (KW record, Bloomfield). In 1927, prohibition was lifted, and the Ontario Temperance act was replaced by the liquor control act, which was the beginning of the current day liquor control board of Ontario (City of Waterloo Museum)

Social Stigmas and Attitudes


Taken from “Diabolous” an intemperance propaganda book. Source: City of Waterloo Museum

The attribution of criminality, poverty, and disease to alcohol sparked the mass temperance movement in Canada, begun by small temperance societies across the country. The backlash against alcohol was motivated by a number of factors, including the opposition of religious groups and women’s organizations. Another factor was the widespread belief that alcoholism was undermining productivity (Fish 2011). The first temperance groups in Canada appeared in Nova Scotia and Montreal around 1827 (Decarie 2013) . Women in Canada played a strong role in the temperance movements, through the work of local churches, and the creation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions. The first womens temperance organization in Canada, the “Prohibition Womens League” was formed in Owen Sound in 1874 (City of Waterloo Museum). Women’s temperance unions believed that women were victims of alcohol in their homes. The WCTU declared that drinking turned “men into demons”, and promoted violence towards their wives.  Public concern about wife beating became prevalent in the 1870’s, and this was a common theme in temperance propaganda and publications, as seen in the image below.  Membership and leadership in temperance societies was an early beginning of women’s rights and suffragist movements. Learn more about women at the poorhouse here

Beliefs regarding alcoholism and temperance attributed alcoholism to the cause of pauperism, creating laziness and immorality. Temperance movements in Canada preached the importance of labour. These societies also accepted the labour theory of value, suggesting that all social welfare be dependent on labour, and that all men should provide for their own (Ferry 2003). These societies additionally blamed pauperism, idleness, and admittance into work houses on the consumption of alcohol.  This belief also appears amongst workhouses in Britain. An article in the “British Journal of Inebriety” published in 1905, discusses the connection between pauperism and inebriety, within workhouses in London. A survey of medical officers at workhouses replied that a large percent of those seeking relief are doing so from the effects of alcoholism, and that alcohol is a factor of pauperism. Beliefs in the survey also agreed that most of those consuming alcohol were “Less able or less inclined” to work, and stating that often those in the institution are willing to work but have “failed through excessive drinking” (Taylor 1905)


Those committed to the poorhouse for alcoholism were often single males, with past history of working as farmers or laborers. This was the story of Charles Morrow, who entered the poorhouse with delerium tremens, a severe form of alcohol poisoning, you can read his story here.


Families often entered the poorhouse because of the alcoholism of the father of the family, which often left his wife and children destitute. Such was the story of Charles Wieland and the Wieland family, you can read their story here


Coming soon!


End notes:

[1] Rimstead, Roxanne. Remnants of Nation: On Poverty Narratives by Women, Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2001, p.17.






[2] Rimstead, p.102.






[2] Bloomfield, Elizabeth. Waterloo Township through Two Centuries, Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo Historical Society, 1995, p.92.






[3] Bloomfield, p.100.







[4] Bloomfield, p.165-166.







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