The Origins of Legislation and the Criminality of Insanity

The initial Ontario statutes concerning mental health date from the early 1830s, but it was the May 1839 act (PDF file, requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to view) that authorized the erection of an Asylum which began the creation of public asylums in Ontario. This would significantly alter the established system in which people considered insane were kept in common jails. This act allocated funding for the construction of the first Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto and a board of directors was established to oversee the institution and its employees, specifically the superintendent.

Within the next five years many changes took place at the directorial level. This resulted in an often conflicting relationship between the board of directors and the asylum superintendent. Politics were a large factor in the appointment of superintendents, and often choices were based more on political connections than medical expertise in the mental health field, as this was still a relatively new field of medicine. Experience was hard to come by but ambition was not. Nonetheless,legislation continued to evolve beyond social politics and the laws were expanded to clarify jurisdiction in mental health care, with a strong emphasis on the dual responsibility of the government and practitioners. This meant that politicians could no longer appoint their favourites because control was passed to the board of directors with regards to hiring, and of course firing.

In the 1850s, insanity became a legislated legal defence. The act to this effect was passed in 1851 and allowed for the creation of the Lunatic Asylum for Criminal Convicts in Kingston later in the decade. Although the legislation was only in its infancy and presented a number of problems, specifically its loose definitions of the "derangement of mind," it did allow for the court to sentence those with signs of mental illness accordingly, regardless of the offence.