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History: 1914-1929 ORIGINS, 19141929 DEPRESSION DEVELOPMENTS, 19301939

Creating a Federal Health Department

When the President of the Privy Council, the Honourable Newton Wesley Rowell, rose in the House of Commons in March 1919 to open the debate on Bill 37, An Act Respecting the Department of Health, he argued that “the powers of the minister . . . extend to and include all matters and questions relating to the promotion of the health and social welfare of the people of Canada over which the Parliament of Canada has jurisdiction.” (Canada, House of Commons Debates, Hansard [March 26, 1919, p. 843]) As a constitutional lawyer, Rowell understood the division of powers between federal and provincial authorities, but as a social progressive he recognized the justice of the demands by the National Council of Women of Canada, the Trades and Labour Congress and Canadian farmers for a federal health department whose main goal would be “the conservation of the health of the people.” (Canada, House of Commons Debates, Hansard [April 4, 1919, p. 1174])

Photo: Newton Wesley Rowell, the first federal minister of health, PA-005109

Appointed in 1919, Newton Wesley Rowell was the first federal minister of health. Photograph dated 19141919.
Library and Archives Canada, Department of National Defence, PA-005109

As he and other speakers noted, Canada had high maternal and infant mortality rates, poor housing, poverty, and high rates of industrial accidents and trauma in addition to war casualties. The role of the federal government was to collect information about these problems and to encourage the provinces to provide programs to alleviate them. Although the British National  Insurance Act of 1911 was occasionally mentioned during the debate on the bill, only one Member of Parliament, Peter McGibbon, argued in favour of “giving every poor man, woman and child in this country free medical service from the cradle to the grave.” (Canada, House of Commons Debates, Hansard [April 10, 1919, p. 1375])

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    Date Created: March 31, 2010 | Last Updated: April 21, 2010