Development of Social Work and Social Welfare in Canada

Development of Social Work and Social Welfare in Canada

Canada shares many historical influences with the United States, and its development has in many ways mirrored major events in its neighbor to the south. As Light man and Riches wrote “to the outside observer, or even the casual visitor, Canada looks remarkably similar to the United States – modern high-rise buildings standing on wide streets, big expensive cars and refrigerators, and lots of wide open countryside.” These similarities, however, are
deceptive, as their respective social welfare systems differ substantially. The dynamic tension between these two states aids us in considering whether and how social welfare policies can in fact be indigenised “in a world of multinational corporations, mobile capital,
and seemingly irreversible globalization”.

For Allen, Canadian welfare can be defined most simply as “payments to the poor, given as a last resort because they are poor” . Canada has a long history of public welfare programs, jointly funded through public and private sources. These include programs in health, personal, and social service delivered through federal and provincial governments. Before its establishment as a nation in 1867, social care in English Canada had two major thrusts. One of these (in the Maritime Provinces) was modeled on the English Poor Laws, and the other (in the Upper Canada, now Ontario) placed responsibility for charity on individuals, families, and private charities. Colonial influences played a part in shaping the social welfare context early in the 19th Century.

  • 1840: Britain abolishes slavery in all its colonies in the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1864: French sociologist P.G.F. Le Play completes the first scientific study on poverty – it’s extent, causes, consequences, and possible solutions. While the initial development of Canada’s social welfare state can be traced to the thirty years following its Confederation as a nation in 1867, “the idea that the primary function of government is to make a good life possible is …as old as Aristotle” .

In Canada, as elsewhere, the Industrial Revolution forced changes in assumptions about self-reliance and independence, as the economy shifted from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial. While Frontier conditions emphasized the value of self-reliance, looking down on those who could not provide for themselves as lazy or weak, relatives, friends, or private organizations would at least keep them from starvation.

The notion that “the Lord helps those who help themselves was considered appropriate from both a religious and economic point of view”, even as it became apparent in the explosion of the urban population that work was not available to everyone who wanted it.

“As early as 1881 the idea that no one in Canada who was willing to work need want for bread was characterized as an illusion of the past, and support began to develop for the view that government ought to make some provisions for the relief of the poor. The proposal encountered criticism that this would remove opportunity for the exercise of moral virtues such as parental devotion, filial piety, and Christian benevolence, and might also have the unfortunate result of discouraging private alms-giving”.

Churches openly rejected the idea that the state could provide better than they, falling back on the Biblical injunction that ‘the poor we have with us always’, and, regarding views  on the causes of poverty, seeming more interested in the sins of individuals than those of society (1950).

Considerations regarding whether social welfare could be addressed exclusively through family and community, as compared to the larger state, first took form in the debate over mandatory, publicly funded schools. Some argued that “it kills the sense of duty in the parent, who is naturally bound to educate, as well as to feed and clothe the children whom he brings into the world, while experience seems to teach that what is gratuitous is less valued, and that attendance is better with a moderate fee”.

Over time, responsive in part to European advances in social welfare, attitudes began to change. “It was fitting, people (came) to believe, that government should intervene to prevent men and women from dying of hunger in the street, whether or not their destitution were their own fault” . The demand for radical reform gathered momentum by 1900, calling for state action to combat problems in old age, unemployment, poverty, and labor relations, and setting the stage for the emergence of professional social work. Here again, the Canadian experience was influenced by developments in the U.S.

  • 1919: The 17 schools of social work in Canada and the US form the first organization promoting uniform standard for education and training (eventually named the Council on Social Work Education in 1952).
  • 1926: The Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) is founded. The period of compensatory liberalism (Eden & Molot, 1993), from 1941-1981, saw the construction of Canada’s domestic social welfare net. During this time, Canada differed from the U.S. in paying more attention to social welfare and issues related to distribution of income. It co-occurred with a global economic expansion following World War II (lasting from 1950-1974), and was largely a period of national growth. At the same time, an indirect consequence of the industrial base for the economy was the displacement of those left
    behind in the workforce. Ultimately, concern for their needs must be confronted.
  • 1935: The Canadian welfare state begins, in the height of the Great Depression, with passage of the first unemployment insurance legislation (becoming, in 1940, The Unemployment Insurance Act).
  • 1943: The Marsh Report formalizes guidelines for the Canadian post-war welfare system.
  • 1944: The National Housing Act is established.
  • 1945: Family Allowances, a system of universal, non-taxable child benefits payable to the mother, is passed.
  • 1952: Old Age Security (OAS) is introduced, providing universal, non-taxable benefits to every senior over age 65 who meets residency requirements.

Among these programs, children’s benefits were paid at modest levels, never intended to be sufficient to raise a child, while payments to seniors were more substantial and, when combined with related benefits, were designed to keep Canadians whose own resources
were inadequate out of serious poverty . The 1950’s saw modest progress, mainly through provision of health care through hospitals. Services of the welfare state peaked in the 1960’s with the provision of three key programs.

  • 1965-66: Three key programs, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), and Medicare set the “high water mark” for social welfare provision.

The CPP was publicly funded, drew on funds contributed by the future beneficiaries, and was based on work history, with benefits based on the average industrial wage. The CAP was Canada’s basic public assistance programme. Eligibility was formally determined on the basis of need alone, meaning that benefits were an absolute right, rather than a conditional entitlement.

Workfare, requiring demonstration of effort in return for benefits, was prohibited . Medicare offered universal coverage of all services deemed medically necessary to all Canadian residents without user fees. Consumers have complete freedom to choose their own doctors, and to change them at will.

The issue of food poverty (people being unable to acquire enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs) returned to Canada in the 1980’s with the rise of food banks (Lightman & Riches, 2000). These were “nonprofit agencies which collect, store, and distribute surplus food either directly to hungry people or to emergency relief programmes”. As of 2000, there were 698 food banks in Canada, providing not only emergency service, but standing as an institutionalized back-up meeting social needs. Hunger has been documented among women living in families, schoolchildren, and the aged.

  • 1985: The Canadian Health Act provides for universal comprehensive health care.