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The History of Canada's Public Pensions
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1867-1914 - Old Age and Poverty 1915-1927 - Our First Old Age Pension 1928-1951 - Demanding More 1952-1967 - Reducing Poverty 1968-1989 - Reaching More Canadians 1990-2000 - Pensions on Solid Ground 2000 on - A Secure Future

1915-1927 Our First Old Age Pension

World Events

NAC, detail of PA-000518, Taking him out on a stretcher (5th Battalion) WWI soldier, Aug 1916.

The First World War caused greater social and political upheaval in Europe than in North America. For the first time in the West, entire societies were mobilized for war. This required governments to become involved in economic and social issues on an unprecedented level, introducing such initiatives as conscription, rationing of food and supplies, and governmental control over many industries. This war-inspired expansion in the powers of governments led many people to believe that fundamental social change was possible, and such change came to be seen as a desired outcome of the war years in almost every European country.

As the war came to an end, Europe experienced huge demographic, economic and political problems. The tragic human losses and the physical destruction sustained in the Great War had immeasurable impacts on societies, and the fall of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires plunged a large part of the continent into revolution, civil war or political chaos.

Table listing countries with contributory and/or non-contributory public pension programs by 1935
Countries with Contributory Pension Programs Countries with Non-Contributory Pension Programs
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Chile
  • Czechoslovakia
  • France
  • Germany
  • Great Britain
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Soviet Union
  • Spain
  • United States
  • Yugoslavia
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • France
  • Great Britain
  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • Irish Free State
  • Newfoundland
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • South Africa
  • United States
  • Uruguay

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many countries adopted public pension programs. The question of whether to make them contributory or non-contributory became an important issue. Contributory programs usually cost less because workers and employers pay into them, but they take longer to implement because people must pay into them for a number of years before they receive benefits. Non-contributory programs can be introduced much more quickly because payments can begin as soon as the legislation authorizing them is enacted, but the government assumes the responsibility of paying the benefits. (A.S. Orloff, The Politics of Pensions (London, 1993), p. 14.)

The creation of new democratic, socialist and communist states in these regions led the issue of public pensions to grow significantly in importance as the role of the state in the area of social security, among others, became an important topic of debate. This period therefore saw the establishment of various types of public pension programs in many countries. In 1919 alone, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay all adopted pension programs, and in 1925 Great Britain enacted a contributory pension system similar to the German system introduced in 1889.

The end of the war also saw the emergence of a spirit of international co-operation and improvement. The Geneva-based League of Nations was created as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty, which established the terms of the peace in 1919. The purpose of the League involved not only international efforts to deter war, but also the promotion of social reforms among the member states.

NAC, detail of PA-122487, British Empire Delegation to the Third International Labour Conference in Geneva, 1921
British Empire Delegation to the Third International Labour Conference, Geneva, 1927.

One of these proposed reforms was the adoption of public pensions, which was included in a Labour Convention written into the Versailles Treaty. The International Labour Organization, also based in Geneva, was created to promote such issues. This was followed in 1927 by the founding of another international body committed to advancement of social security around the world, the International Social Security Association. Canada continues to be an active member of both the International Labour Organization and the International Social Security Association.