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date: 22 September 2023

Social Policy in Canadafree

Social Policy in Canadafree

  • Micheal L. ShierMicheal L. ShierUniversity of Pennsylvania
  •  and John R. GrahamJohn R. GrahamFlorida Atlantic University


The focus and aim of social policy in Canada have in part been determined by the unique sociohistorical and cultural context of the country. This entry provides a brief overview of the leading factors that have contributed to the development of social policy in Canada. Emphasis is placed on the economic, social, and cultural context of the development of the country, along with the system of governance and the ideological framework among the general populace. Following this contextualization, four dominant periods of social policy are described. These include the residual period, the emerging institutional period, the institutional period, and the postinstitutional period. In each era the forces leading to specific social policy outcomes are described. These include aspects of the changing economic system and emerging cultural and social needs among the population. Key social policies in each era are introduced and described. Fundamental to each period of social policy development are the efforts of the voluntary sector. In conclusion, future trends in social policy and social welfare in Canada are discussed.


  • International and Global Issues
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings


Social policy is an aspect of the public policy framework within a given country’s context. Public policy covers a range of social, legal, political, economic, and cultural policies that affect the way people experience their social environment and also provides a framework of governance for a particular nation-state. Social policy is defined here as those public policies that address the social (including the sociopolitical, sociocultural, and socioeconomic) conditions of a country’s citizenry. In Canada, the primary focus of legislation aimed at addressing the social condition of Canadians has tended to focus on issues of minority status, income inequality, labor market attachment, housing, child care and support, immigration, and health care. Throughout Canadian history, the social policy framework has been composed of efforts to address the sociopolitical rights of marginalized segments of the population (such as laborers, Aboriginal people and other visible minority populations, women, disabled people, and sexual minorities), along with addressing the negative conditions in which people live through the creation of national and provincial programs of social support (such as community programs of support directed toward new immigrants or disabled people) and economic support (such as unemployment insurance or family allowance payments).

The following provides a historical overview of the development of Canadian social policy through four eras of social welfare development. These include the residual period, the emerging institutional period, the institutional period, and the present postinstitutional period. In each era, key social policies are described. Prior to this discussion, the first section outlines the Canadian context. A brief description is provided of the key cultural, social, and economic factors for which social policies have emerged in Canada, the system of governance in Canada, and a discussion of the ideological framework that social policy stems from in Canada. The social policy framework in Canada is largely a condition of this unique context.

Cultural, Social, and Economic Context

There are several unique cultural and social factors within Canadian society that contribute to the focus of social policy. For instance, from a sociohistorical standpoint, the geopolitical territory of the Canadian nation-state was initially only inhabited by Aboriginal (or First Nations) people, but was subject to European colonization, with both British and French settlers migrating to Canada. This sociohistorical context essentially created two long-lasting cultural divisions within Canada that have required substantial public policy intervention to deal with social issues of equality and social exclusion, that between Aboriginal people and migrants and between French-and English-language speakers.

Early public policies directed toward Aboriginal populations favored assimilation and loss of First Nations cultural identity. In 1876 the federal government passed the Indian Act, which labeled Aboriginal people wards of the federal government, giving them a distinct legal status. However, to gain citizenship rights in Canada, Aboriginal people had to apply for enfranchisement, and a requirement to attain citizenship status was that they had to undergo complete assimilation with the European Canadian culture (Graham, Swift, & Delaney, 2012). This assimilation was attained through the institutionalization of residential schools. During the late 1800s residential schools became commonplace, and in many parts of the country these were the only schools made available to Aboriginal people (Finkel, 2006). Attendance at these schools resulted in the separation of Aboriginal children from their families and was a concerted effort by the federal government and local religious organizations to force assimilation with the European Canadian culture of the country.

In the earlier days of confederation the European Canadian culture was also divided based on differing European cultural backgrounds and languages. Prior to British colonization, parts of Canada were settled by French migrants along the St. Lawrence River (referred to as the Canada colony and later named the Province of Quebec), extending northward to the Hudson Bay and on the south shore of Newfoundland and throughout the four Atlantic provinces (referred to as Acadia). This territory was a part of what was known as New France, the North American settlement of the French Empire. The parts of New France that would later make up the eastern part of the nation-state of Canada were ceded to the British Empire in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Although authority of the New France colonies changed hands, this mixed European settlement created two distinct European cultural identities—primarily fixated around language—that would have long-lasting implications on the social and cultural context of the country. As a result, this would have a significant impact on the focus and direction of social policy.

Similarly, Canada’s colonial history has resulted in the need to address several other emergent issues related to diversity and equality. To adapt to the increasingly globalized and industrialized international political economy, Canada’s population had to grow. As a colonial country, international migrants were necessary. Although initial waves of migrants tended to include French, British, and American settlers, prior to World War I and following World War II large numbers of settlers were migrating to Canada from continental Europe, including Ukrainian, Dutch, Scandinavian, German, and Russian migrants. Beginning in the 1970s, the majority of new migrants to Canada were (and continue) to be from developing nations, such as China and India. These migration patterns have created a distinctly multicultural society within Canada with a highly diverse population based on religious affiliation, language, and ethnoracial identity. A result has been the need to develop a national social policy on Canada’s unique multicultural context along with social policies preventing discrimination.

Beyond ethnoracial minority status, Aboriginal status, and language rights, the women’s rights and labor movements have been two other dominant factors shaping the direction of social policy and social welfare in Canada. These two movements were instrumental in the development of a vibrant civil society culture within Canada and the establishment of a tradition of general civic protest in situations of apparent inequality. The labor rights movement began in the mid to late 1800s. The first large act of labor unrest was the Nine-Hour Movement in 1872, in which workers in Ontario and Quebec held rallies and protests in defiance of the existing legislation that banned the formation of labor unions. Later that year, the Trade Unions Act was passed, which established labor unions as legal entities. Following the passing of this seminal labor legislation, labor protests and rallies continued to establish union recognition in many employment sectors over the next several decades. This subsequently led to the death of many striking workers. In 1944 the federal government enacted the Privy Council Act 1003. This order further solidified into law the role of labor unions in negotiating the rights of workers and ordered businesses to recognize the chosen labor union of the workers (Graham et al., 2012).

The women’s movement in Canada also began in the late 1800s. This early movement aimed to attain gender equality through the establishment of equal citizenship rights between men and women. It would take several decades for women to gain the voting rights of citizenship. Like the labor rights movement, the women’s movement in Canada was instrumental in establishing the relationship between civil society actors and the varying levels of government. Prior to 1920, women were not permitted to vote in Canada. In 1900, the Dominion Elections Act was passed, which legally prohibited women, Aboriginal people, and ethnic minorities from voting in federal elections. In 1920, the act was amended, which granted voting rights to women in federal elections. Around the same time, women were granted the right to vote in 7 of the 9 provinces at that time (the 10th Canadian province, Newfoundland, did not join the confederation until 1949). However, it was not until 1929 when a legal challenge led by five Canadian women resulted in women being legally considered “persons” in Canada’s constitution. These earlier social movements in Canadian history established a civil society culture among the populace and created an institutional environment in which engaged citizens challenged social inequality and exclusion by seeking to gain federal and provincial social policy reform. Following these movements, several others emerged. These include nationally focused movements to address the social and economic inequality experienced by disabled people, the elderly, and sexual minorities.

Finally, the economic conditions of the country have also been instrumental in defining the trajectory of Canadian social policy and social welfare development. Canada, like other industrialized, developed nations, follows a capitalistic economic system. And, like other industrialized, developed nations, throughout Canada’s economic history the country has been impacted greatly by economic recessions and depressions that have historically hit the developed parts of the world. Recessions and depressions are commonplace; however, they can have immediate and longer term implications for economically vulnerable citizens. Because Canada follows a market-based system of exchange, to provide some element of protection against the unfettered free market, the Canadian government (as elsewhere throughout the developed world) had to enact efforts of redistribution to address these vulnerabilities. Of late, the capitalistic system of economic exchange would have significant implications for the future trajectory of social policy in Canada. With the emergence of supply-side economics in the 1980s throughout many industrialized, developed nations, efforts of income redistribution have waned, with an increasing reliance on the efforts of community-based organizations and other civil society actors such as volunteers and donors.


Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy. The governing system in the country is made up of a federal governing body in which the leader of the government is also a member of the legislature. The parliament is composed of two chambers. The first is the legislature (or the House of Commons) and the second is the Senate. Once legislation has been passed by the elected officials in the legislature, the senate then reviews the legislation before it is passed into law. However, because the senate is not an elected body it does not have any functional authority in developing new programs and policies. It is widely recognized in popular Canadian culture that the senate provides “sober second thought.” As a result of this system of governance, at the federal level of government the focus of social policy is dominated by a system of “party politics” in which elected parties—if they are fortunate to receive a majority government in the House of Commons—set the social and economic agenda of the country.

Beyond the federal government, Canada is also composed of 10 provinces and 3 territories, each with its own governing bodies. Of importance to note is that the provincial governments have constitutional jurisdiction in the provision of health and social services (including education) to its residents. From its inception in 1867, the British North America Act clearly delineated roles regarding matters of health, social services, and education to the provincial levels of government. As a result, as Boychuk (1998) argues, Canada looks “more like a patchwork of ten distinct provincial variants than a national system” (p. 41) of social welfare. There are different approaches to social welfare in Canada depending on the unique social, cultural, and economic traditions within a particular province.

However, following World War II the federal government was able to create some level of consistency across the country through regulations attached to federal government funding to the provincial levels of government. For instance, in 1966 the federal government created the Canada Assistance Plan. The plan acted as a cost-sharing program between the federal and provincial levels of government for health-related and social services–related programming. With the Canada Assistance Plan came increased restrictions placed on provincial governments on how the funding could be spent. However, in efforts to decentralize the federal government’s role in defining social welfare programs, the Canada Assistance Plan was replaced with the Canada Health and Social Transfer in 1996 and later divided into two separate transfers in 2004: the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer. With these changes to the transfer programs, which fund provincial health, education, and social services programs, the federal government reduced the amount of funding provided to the provinces as well as their ability to regulate the use of these funds (Graham et al., 2012).

Beyond the federal and provincial levels of government are the municipal governments. Local municipal governments are established to govern cities, counties, and other municipal jurisdictions. Although municipal governments have made attempts historically to gain more authority, provincial governments in Canada have maintained their authorities in the provision of health, social service, and education programs. However, municipal governments are instrumental in the delivery of services in many jurisdictions in Canada. For instance, depending on the jurisdiction in Canada, the municipal governments can be responsible for the provision of child welfare services, housing and homelessness-related services, and rehabilitation services, among others (Graham et al., 2012). As a result of recent funding cutbacks to the health and social services transfer payments from the federal government to the provinces, municipal governments have been faced with large cutbacks to the social and health service programs they cost share with their provincial governments, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to address emerging needs within their local communities. And because there are provincial restrictions on the collection and use of tax revenue by municipalities, city governments are prevented from generating the resources needed to address the shortcomings in these transfer payments from higher levels of government for local social service programs.

A Liberalist Ideology

In democratic nations, central features of public policies are the values, beliefs, and ideological perspectives of a group of citizens. In many cases, these individuals make up the majority in the general populace. With regard to these particular values and beliefs, Canadian social policy has been generally characterized as being a remnant of a liberalist worldview and public policy framework (Esping-Andersen, 1990). What this means is that Canadian society (or its governance), much like the United States and United Kingdom, inherently values a free-market capitalist economy. At the same time, Canada has had a different political tradition than the United States, particularly with regard to a positive role for the state in the provision of peace, order, and good government, and in an ideology that has been more accepting of social interventions such as the welfare state (Lipset, 1989, in Graham et al., 2012). Canada has also had a Red Tory tradition within Canadian conservative political parties as well as a social democratic tradition—the latter including the 1932 creation of the Cooperative Common Wealth Federation (in 1961 it became the New Democratic Party) and the election of the continent’s first major social democratic government in Saskatchewan in 1944 (Graham et al., 2012).

A classic differentiation between liberal and other welfare state systems is the extent to which individuals within a country are able to attain a standard of living that is completely independent of market forces (Esping-Andersen, 1990). The central question then becomes to what extent, through the efforts of governments to implement social policy, are individuals perceived as commodities by the labor and economic markets? And does the aid and assistance provided to individuals in a specific country context create a sufficient standard of living for individuals who do not participate in the market? Because Canada follows from a liberalist ideological tradition—which is evidenced by its system of governance and its methods of economic exchange—its responses, through the development of social policy, to address the social conditions of its citizens have been restricted to remedial measures of redistribution through the provision of income-security programs and direct support programs that aim to enable individuals to participate fully in Canada’s labor market.

Four Periods of Welfare State Transitions

The previous description of the Canadian context is an important foundation for understanding historical and present social policy in Canada. This unique social and cultural context provides a lens for understanding why certain areas of social policy developed at key historical times in Canada’s development. Furthermore, the economic and ideological context provides a rationale for why certain social policy approaches have been favored over others. Finally, the Canadian system of government places limitations on how different levels of government can act in efforts to address the experiences of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. However, it is not only the government that has been instrumental in defining the direction of social welfare and social policy in the country. Community-based (or civil society) actors have been instrumental in formulating the social welfare and social policy agenda. The following provides a historical overview of four periods of welfare state development in Canada. Instrumental through these periods is the role of grassroots advocacy–based efforts to address issues of social inequality and exclusion in Canadian society.

Residual Period

The residual period of Canadian social policy and welfare begins prior to European contact to the period from New France until shortly after confederation in 1867. Prior to European colonization of what is known today as Canada, Aboriginal people engaged in practices of reciprocity to meet the needs of the aging, the sick, and the vulnerable. Tribal, clan-based, and family-kinship relationships were the dominant forms of social organization and were relied upon to meet the social welfare needs of individuals. As Finkel (2006) points out in the pre-European contact years, civilization in North America managed to maintain principles of egalitarianism through trade relations between tribes and clans as well as indiscriminant practices of medical attention for the sick and injured, and the elderly and vulnerable were taken care of to the best of the Aboriginal groups’ ability. However, following French settlement, practices of social organization from French society and other European cultural groups were introduced to the new colonial territories that would have a lasting impact on methods of social welfare intervention.

During the residual era of social welfare in Canada, emphasis was placed on the role of immediate family members in taking care of the needs of individuals whose labor market attachment was interrupted. This included the needs of the unemployed, the elderly, and the sick. Only after these resources were exhausted would individuals (or their families) turn to extended family members, local community members, or religious organizations for assistance (Graham et al., 2012). The Elizabethan Poor Law traditions of England were particularly influential in the development of Canadian social welfare policy beginning with the cessation of New France to the British in the mid-1700s. Prior to the English poor laws in England, three dominant institutional forms of social welfare provision emerged. These included the merchant guilds, private foundations, and the Roman Catholic Church. The merchant guilds were composed of merchant and artisan classes and created mutual aid societies to meet the needs of its members. Private foundations were developed by wealthy benefactors and were predominantly focused on building hospitals and almshouses. Finally, the Church provided assistance to individuals in local communities through various monastic orders (Graham et al., 2012). However, in 1601, when the Elizabethan Poor Laws were passed, authority was given to the local parish governments throughout England to address the plight of the poor and to provide punishment to those individuals who refused to participate in general labor. This earlier transition from local community responses to address issues of poverty and vulnerability to a nationally focused system of social welfare with local control is the foundation for social welfare in Canada (Graham et al., 2012).

One other aspect of the Elizabethan Poor Laws that had a significant impact on the development of social welfare in Canada during the residual period and beyond was the delineation between the deserving and undeserving poor. Individuals requiring social support were labeled as impotent, able-bodied, or unregenerate idlers. The first were assigned to the almshouses, the second to the workhouses, and the latter to prisons (Graham et al., 2012). During more contemporary times, income-security programs in Canada have relied on distinguishing among individuals’ capabilities to work. These distinctions have defined the eligibility criteria for provincially based social assistance programs, employment insurance, and disability benefits. In England, these eligibility criteria became more clearly defined and resulted in the Poor Law Reform of 1834. With this reform, more stringent eligibility criteria were introduced to reduce the rising number of individuals receiving relief. Along with the eligibility reform there was a distinction made between individuals who received “indoor” or “outdoor” relief. Indoor relief referred to those able-bodied men who were considered employable. Individuals receiving indoor relief were required to work in workhouses to receive support. However, individuals receiving outdoor relief were the elderly, the sick, or the orphaned, all of whom were generally perceived as unable to work (Graham et al., 2012). Remnants of this divisive system of social welfare are apparent throughout the history of Canadian social policy and social welfare. For instance, income-security programs have been tied to eligibility criteria, and the types of income support received are based on an individual’s ability to participate fully in the labor market.

The system of social welfare outlined by the Elizabethan Poor Laws was applied haphazardly throughout Canada prior to confederation in 1867. Because of the large geographic terrain, the low population density in many areas of the country, and the unique cultural traditions of the increasingly diverse population base, it was difficult to institute a nationally orientated program of social welfare. Instead, during this residual period of social welfare there were distinctive practices in each of the provinces/territories of that time. For instance, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick utilized the Elizabethan Poor Law framework with local overseers of the poor. However, Quebec relied heavily on the Roman Catholic Church to oversee the needs of the poor in local communities. And in Ontario, local community-based efforts by concerned citizens and municipal governments were the dominant actors engaged in addressing the social conditions of vulnerable citizens (Boychuk, 1998; Graham, 1995; Graham et al., 2012; Splane, 1965). Even with these distinctions, what is apparent from this residual period of social welfare provision in Canada are the direct influences from the emerging European system of social welfare. The tenants of the Elizabethan Poor Laws would have a long-lasting impact on the development of social welfare in Canada, with particular emphasis placed on labor market attachment and a distinct division of what would be understood as the deserving and undeserving poor in Canadian popular culture.

Emerging Institutional Period

The emerging institutional period of social policy and social welfare in Canada began postconfederation (around 1867) to World War II (around 1943). In 1867 the colonies of British North America converged to form Canada. In the years leading up to confederation, Canada began to develop into an industrialized nation, transforming from a small, resource-based economy. With increased industrialization came increased urbanization and population growth. As a result, increased pressures were placed on the government to adapt its provisions of social welfare. Of particular importance during this era was the institutionalization of a vibrant voluntary sector. Charity-based organizations began to proliferate. These included city missions, orphanages, refuges for the elderly, and philanthropic foundations. For instance, the Young Men’s Christian Association was established in Montreal in 1851 and provided support in response to the negative social conditions that were a direct result of industrialization. The Young Women’s Christian Association was established in 1873 in New Brunswick. The Haven, a local Toronto-based charity, was established in 1878 and provided services to individuals experiencing mental illness. The first Boys Club was established in New Brunswick in 1900 and aimed to provide recreational activities to young boys. The present John Howard Society of Canada began in 1867 as a small group of reformers who sought to provide spiritual guidance to incarcerated people. In 1874, the group became known as the Prisoners Aid Association of Toronto. The Salvation Army began to undertake its work in 1882 in Canada by providing meals to hungry people. Other organizations during this time included the Toronto Children’s Aid Society in 1891, the Red Cross in 1896, the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897, the Toronto Family Service Agency in 1914, the Canadian Mental Health Association in 1918, the Canadian Institute for the Blind in 1918, the Canadian Council of Social Development in 1920, and the Canadian Association of Social Workers in 1926.

There were many more organizations than are listed here. During this era, social welfare became more institutionalized within Canada. Individuals and organizations were actively pursuing the betterment of the social conditions in which people lived. Of importance were issues related to poverty, working conditions, and religious and moral order. The development of these organizations was simultaneously happening with larger social movements among concerned citizens. Previously mentioned was the labor movement, which sought to address the negative working conditions and insufficient rates of pay for Canadian workers. At the same time, other groups were concerned with living conditions in Canada’s cities along with the persistent challenges of poverty. For instance, the settlement house movement—which was unique to North America—began in the late 1800s and continued through to the early 1920s. The focus of the settlement movement was on community development and providing programs to recent immigrants. Similarly, the Social Reform Movement began in the mid-1800s and sought to address issues of urban poverty. The work of many locally based social service organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, local relief missions, and the Salvation Army was part of this larger movement in Canadian society.

Characteristics of this emerging institutional period had long-lasting implications for the future development of social welfare and social policy in Canada. This tradition of local community-based activism and organizations was instrumental in the independent-living movement (or the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric facilities) in the 1970s. Also in the 1970s, institutional frameworks of social welfare provision were developed for women experiencing domestic violence and individuals needing addictions treatment and intervention (also known as the Recovery House Movement), all of which were initially the result of active citizen engagement to address emerging (or long-lasting) challenges in the social strata of Canadian society. Similar movements were seen also in the 1980s by HIV/AIDS activist organizations seeking adequate government support for individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.

During the emerging institutional period of social welfare, through the efforts of community-based organizations and citizen engagement, the plight of those living in negative social conditions was brought to the forefront (see, for example, Emery & Emery, 1999; Graham, 1992, 1996). However, until the 1930s the local municipalities were primarily responsible for providing for the social welfare needs of the residents. The staggeringly high level of unemployment that resulted from the Great Depression made it impossible for local community governments to provide sufficient relief to residents, and as a result, the provincial governments had to take on more responsibility.

Furthermore, another significant advancement during this era was the emergence of the profession of social work. As a result, a professional ethos began to be applied to the social conditions of industrialization. In 1914, the first School of Social Work was established at the University of Toronto, followed by programs at McGill University in 1918 and the University of British Columbia in 1928.

Key social policies that emerged during this era were workers’ compensation benefits, which were passed in Ontario in 1914 and subsequently adopted by the other provinces. Workers’ compensation provided benefits to workers who were temporarily unable to work because of injury. Also, following World War I, veterans who were returning from war were provided with retirement annuity insurance assistance in 1920; later, in 1927, they were granted settlement assistance, and then in 1930 allowances were granted to the widows and orphans of veterans who did not have sufficient financial means to take care of themselves. In 1916 the province of Manitoba created a Mothers’ Allowance program to support single mothers who were widowed, divorced, or deserted. This program was similarly followed in other provinces shortly thereafter. Following this, in 1927 the federal government created a cost-sharing program with the provinces through the Old Age Pensions Act. The program was also selective. And in 1940 Unemployment Insurance was introduced after a several-year delay, caused by the reluctance of the federal government to amend the Canadian constitution giving them jurisdiction in this area of social welfare (Graham et al., 2012).

Institutional Period (Traditional Welfare State Era)

The institutional period of Canadian social policy and social welfare begins during World War II through the mid-1970s. A general time frame is 1943 through 1975. This particular era has also been described as the traditional welfare state era. Characteristic of this particular era is the presence of a centralizing tendency within Canadian social policy and programming in efforts to address the social welfare needs of the country’s citizenry on a wider scale. This period reinforced societal constructions of race, sexual orientation, and gender and has been critiqued for its patriarchal emphasis on income-security programs attached to an ethos of the breadwinner male (Ursel, 1992).

In 1943, the Report on Social Security for Canada (also known as the Marsh Report because it was written by the economist Leonard Marsh) was released. The report, much like the Beveridge Report in Britain, acted as a blueprint for the establishment of a universal system of social welfare in Canada. Contrary to previous eras of social welfare development, characteristic of the Marsh Report was its positive perspective on the role of modern industrialized societies in addressing the social welfare needs of its citizenry (Graham et al., 2012). During this era, a sense of entitlement to welfare state benefits prevailed over the stigmatizing notions of means-tested programs that were commonplace previously (Graham, 2008).

Following the introduction of Unemployment Insurance in 1940, in 1944 the Family Allowance program was established. This universal program provided income supplements to all mothers in the country who had children under the age of 16 years. In 1951, the previously established pension program under the Old Age Pensions Act (1927) became a universal program known as Old Age Security. As of 1951, all seniors over the age of 70 would receive a pension no matter what their level of income (Graham et al., 2012). In 1945 the province of Saskatchewan (under the leadership of the premier Tommy Douglas) introduced a social assistance medical care plan for old-age or blind pensioners, recipients of the Mothers’ Allowance, and wards of the state. This selective program was amended in 1947 with the creation of a universal, provincially administered hospital insurance program and was later replaced by universal, province-wide medical insurance in 1959. Health care was also being considered at the federal government level. In 1956 the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Act was passed, a cost-sharing initiative between the federal government and the provinces in the provision of basic in-patient hospital services. Then, following the lead of the province of Saskatchewan, the federal government created a national system of health care in 1966 with the passing of the Medical Care Act. Every province had adopted the new health-care framework by 1972.

Also in 1966 the federal government introduced the Canada Pension Plan, a national program (with the exception of Quebec, which has an equivalent program, the Quebec Pension Plan) providing retirement and disability benefits to workers along with survivor’s benefits. The benefit is tied to workplace earnings and is portable if individuals leave their province and take up work or residence elsewhere. Also in 1966 the Guaranteed Income Supplement was created as a supplementary program to the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security for those individuals below a certain income threshold. In 1976 the Spouse’s Allowance benefit was created by the federal government. This was established to provide income to the spouse of an Old Age Pensioner or to a widow or widower who is under the qualifying age to receive Old Age Security benefits. This means-tested program is based on an individual’s income level.

Along with these federal programs of income security, the Canadian provinces instituted social assistance programs (more commonly known as “welfare” or “public assistance”). These programs cover individuals who do not qualify for other income-security programs. They generally include families with dependent children, disabled individuals with long-term need, and individuals or families with short-term need. In recent years, the qualifying characteristics have become increasingly restrictive for recipients of these benefits. For instance, fixed and liquid assets are being assessed, along with employability and income level.

Beyond these income-security programs, during this era there were concerted efforts by community-based organizations and other community groups to address the service delivery needs of Canadians. Governments funded the development of affordable housing units, the creation of immigrant resettlement programs, community-based organizations working with developmentally delayed adults, and services aimed at child protection. Although the general focus of government social policies during this era was income redistribution through the enactment of income-security programs, community-based organizations continued to proliferate and the nonprofit sector emerged as a dominant institutional form in Canadian society (Jackson & Sanger, 2003).

Postinstitutional or Market State Period

The present era of Canadian social policy and social welfare in the early 21st century is the postinstitutional or market state period (Graham et al., 2012). This period has spanned the past several decades, beginning in 1975. This period has been characterized as a decentralizing social policy era, where social welfare–related challenges are less addressed through centralized social policy initiatives and more addressed within local communities by the nonprofit and voluntary sector.

Total social spending in Canada, beginning in the mid-1970s, when adjusted for inflation, has remained relatively stagnant to the early 21st century. However, as a proportion of Canada’s total gross domestic product, social spending has decreased by several percentage points since the beginning of the 1990s (Graham et al., 2012). One factor contributing to this decreased level of social spending was changes to the amount of the transfer payments from the federal government to the provinces. By 1992 the amount of federal transfers through the Canada Assistance Plan was down by over 25% in three of Canada’s largest provinces. Then, in 1996, the Canada Assistance Plan was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer. In the first two years following the creation of the Canada Health and Social Transfer, federal government contributions to provincial health, education, and social-service programs decreased by another 15% (Graham, 2008).

Canada has also seen economic changes in recent years that have resulted in the amount of social assistance provided to people. In the early 1980s political leaders in Canada began favoring the theoretical notions of supply-side economics. This approach to capitalism hypothesizes that if benefits are given to the economic leaders of a country (such as corporations and other businesses and the wealthiest members of society) then there will be a trickledown effect throughout the economy, essentially by creating more investment and therefore more employment opportunities. One consequence for the traditional welfare state, as a result of this way of economic thinking, has been the emergence of a fundamental shift in public perception toward individual entitlements to income-security programs. Driving this change in public perception has been a move away from universal programs to selective income-tested programs by the federal and provincial governments. As an example, in 1989 the federal government established new regulations for the entitlement of Old Age Security. It is no longer a universal program. Instead, a clawback on benefits was introduced to Canadians whose income was above the established threshold. Similarly, in 1990 the federal government of Canada increased the number of weeks a person had to work before he or she qualified for the benefits of the Unemployment Insurance program. Also, the number of weeks an individual could collect had been decreased and the number of weeks an individual had to be unemployed prior to receiving any benefits was increased (Finkel, 2006). Finally, in 1996 the Unemployment Insurance program was ceased and replaced with the Employment Insurance program. The new program is now based on the number of days worked, rather than the number of weeks. Although this is somewhat more fair than the previous program, it still remains highly restrictive. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 42% of actively employed Canadians do not qualify for the employment insurance benefits they pay into (Graham et al., 2012). The number of hours an individual must work before he or she qualifies for the benefits is dependent on the rate of unemployment in the area in which the person resides in Canada and whether he or she was absent from the labor market previously for more than two years. New labor market entrants must demonstrate the highest number of previously worked hours among all qualifying groups, no matter where they live in Canada. This is a significant challenge for younger Canadians, who are already experiencing significantly higher rates of unemployment compared with Canadians in other age categories.

Similar cuts and adjustments were seen across all major income-security programs in Canada (at both the federal and the provincial levels of government) throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, two new federal programs were created in the late 1990s and one was created in 2006. The first is the Resettlement Assistance Program created in 1998. The program provides financial assistance to refugees seeking resettlement in Canada. Second, and also in 1998, the federal government created the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which acted to replace the Family Allowance program (which ended in 1992) and programs of refundable and nonrefundable tax credits for families with dependent children. The social assistance provided is tax free and is directed to all families with children under the age of 18 years. The amount of benefits differs according to family income. Also, in 2006 the federal government created the Universal Child Care Benefit, a monthly cash payment benefit to families with children under the age of 6 years. Families receive $100 per child each month to aid in the payment of child care so parents can maintain employment.

Even with these significant decreases in federal and provincial income-security payments, social rights have continued to be important to Canadians. During the institutional period, Canada’s population continued to grow, and with increasing rates of immigration, the ethnoracial demography of the country continued to diversify. The federal government introduced an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms—which guarantees the rights and freedoms of all Canadian citizens—was enacted in 1982, and then in 1987 the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed. Language rights issues also emerged as a significant social and political issue during this era. In 1988 the government of Canada passed the Official Languages Act, a revised act from the 1969 version that aimed to specifically aid in the development of minority language communities throughout Canada, not just in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec. Other important social rights have emerged during this era, including the allowance of same-sex marriages. In 2005 the federal government introduced and passed the Equal Marriage Law (Bill C-38), which extended equal marriage rights for same-sex couples across Canada.

With government cutbacks to income-security programs, there has emerged an increasing reliance (by both governments and citizens) on the nonprofit and voluntary sector to meet the social welfare needs of Canadians. Canada has approximately 165,000 nonprofit organizations, or 1 organization for every 210 people (Imagine Canada, 2013). The voluntary sector in Canada provides employment to 11.1% of the actively employed population and represents 7.1% of the country’s gross domestic product (Imagine Canada, 2013). Recent data from 2010 show that Canadians donated over $10 billion in that year and that over 80% of Canadians donated money (a number relatively unchanged over the past decade) (Imagine Canada, 2013). Similarly unchanged over the past decade is the number of hours Canadians volunteer. The most recent data from the 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating indicate that approximately 47% of Canadians had engaged in volunteer activities during that year. The number of volunteer hours equated to nearly 2.1 billion hours. In relation to full-time work, this number of hours represents the equivalent of the time to participate in 1.1 million full-time jobs (Imagine Canada, 2013).

In Canada, nonprofit organizations and other aspects of the voluntary sector have become instrumental actors in the provision of contemporary social welfare (Banting, 2000; Brock & Banting, 2003). For instance, Kobayashi (2000) investigated minority ethnocultural associations and found that these organizations played a fundamental role in affecting public policy. Other studies have looked at the specific characteristics of different sectors of service delivery and found that the dynamic relationship between organizations and government funders can have an overall impact on types of local service delivery responses to emerging challenges and service user need (Brown, Troutt, & Boame, 2000). Handy and Cnaan (2000) have investigated the role of religious nonprofit organizations with local and community involvement. One finding from their study that is especially important was that local congregations were instrumental in defining social welfare programs—disconnected from social welfare policies and government mandates. They found that external organizations (such as government, businesses, interest groups, and other nonprofit organizations) had little influence in defining new programs—instead, internal participants determined what new social programs would be followed. They found that of the 190 programs studied, 18% were started as a result of a change at the community level (that is, demographic or socioeconomic change). These congregations also did not perceive that they were addressing social issues as a result of government cutbacks or market deficiencies; instead they were responding to social needs emerging in their direct localities. What these and other studies show is that community-based organizations in Canada have been taking on an increasing role in responding to the localized (Karabanow, 2003) and national (Lacroix & Shragge, 2004; Mulvale, 2001) needs of marginalized populations. These organizations have become responsible for providing responses to emerging social problems (Bellefeuille & Hemingway, 2005) and local development needs (Shragge & Toye, 2006).

Future Direction

Within the present era of social policy and welfare in Canada, greater emphasis is being placed on local actors. Emerging is a fundamental shift in Canadian social policy and welfare toward a civil society–based model (Phillips, 2003). Nonprofit organizations and voluntary sector actors are becoming instrumental in alleviating long-lasting negative social conditions such as poverty, homelessness, un- and underemployment, domestic violence, addictions, and mental illness, among others. This situation is somewhat reminiscent of the preinstitutional era. However, there are some differences. The government is now a fundamental actor in providing the funding for these programs and initiatives within local communities.

With the current changes and the increasing reliance on the third sector to provide for local communities, it is possible that Canada is moving into a new welfare state era. Based on these conditions, the emerging period of social welfare can be similarly conceptualized with what Evers (2009) identifies as an empowerment- and participation-based model. Characteristics of this model include a diversity of locally based services where service users are encouraged to be active participants within society. Within this model, third-sector organizations take on a role in advocacy-based efforts, assess need, and promote citizenship (Evers, 2009). However, the success of such a model depends on the quality of relationships between government bodies and local community-based organizations. The nature of the relationship between governments and nonprofit organizations has fluctuated throughout history, oscillating between conflict and cooperation (Brown & Troutt, 2003). Leo and August (2005) found that there are issues of power and control between government institutions and local community efforts to address emerging local needs. They reviewed a collaborative framework enacted under the National Homelessness Initiative in Canada. The government-level rhetoric of this initiative supported the development of third-sector service delivery organizations in addressing the localized needs around the issue of homelessness. In their study, which looked specifically at the collaboration between local organizations in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and this federal government initiative, they found that the federal government arm of the partnership was still undertaking the role of deciding which programs would be pursued (Leo & August, 2005). The nature of these relationships between the government and third-sector organizations is an important consideration for assessing the state and trajectory of future social policy and welfare in Canada.


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Further Reading

  • Graham, J. R. (2005). Canadian approaches to income security. In J. C. Turner & F. J. Turner (Eds.), Canadian social welfare (5th ed., pp. 276–293). Toronto, ON: Prentice Hall.
  • Graham, J. R. (2005). Social security (Canada). In J. Herrick & P. Stuart (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social welfare history in North America (pp. 351–352). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Graham, J. R. (2005). Social welfare (Canada) before the Marsh Report. In J. Herrick & P. Stuart (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social welfare history in North America (pp. 358–361). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Lightman, E. (2003). Social policy in Canada. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
  • Rice, J. J., & Prince, M. (2013). Changing politics of Canadian social policy (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
  • Westhues, A., & Wharf, B. (Eds.). (2012). Canadian social policy: Issues and perspectives (5th ed.). Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press.