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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

1867-1914 Old Age and Poverty

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NAC, detail of PA25961, Rt. Hon Sir Richard John Cartwright, (Senator), (photo) William James.

Social reformers calling for old age pensions brought the issue into the national political arena. In the first decade of the 20th century, the question of what type of relief (if any) seniors were entitled to was debated repeatedly in the two years leading up to the passage of the 1908 Government Annuities Act. In early 1907, two outspoken members of the Senate voiced their views on the benefits of an annuities program as opposed to a pension system.

Sir Richard Cartwright (1835-1912), from Kingston, Ontario, was a Liberal Senator and the Minister of Trade and Commerce in Wilfrid Laurier's government in 1907. He was closely involved in the development of the Government Annuities bill. Despite his argument in favour of pensions for "deserving" seniors who had worked hard throughout their lives, Cartwright was unwilling to support a national pension system because he believed this would discourage people from saving money for their old age:

"My own impression is that, in a great many cases … a [pension] scheme would be found to encourage extravagance, and the result would be that the thrifty, industrious working man would find himself compelled ultimately to bear the burden of his less industrious and possibly dissolute companion." (Debates of the Senate of the Dominion of Canada, 1906-1907. Third Session, Tenth Parliament, Ottawa, 1907, p. 331.)

Cartwright argued that working people would put money aside if they were encouraged to do so:

"…there is very little risk of any hardworking, industrious, able bodied man not being able to make an adequate provision for his old age, if only an opportunity were given to him." ( Ibid., p. 331.)

Donald Ferguson (1839-1909), from Marshfield, Prince Edward Island, was a prominent Conservative Senator in 1907. He supported much of the proposed Government Annuities bill because he felt such a program would encourage foresight and saving, although he argued it would appeal most to the middle class. Ferguson's arguments reflect the growing awareness of the plight of the elderly poor in this period. At the same time, he emphasized the government's responsibility to help only those seniors worthy of support:

"Poorhouse conditions have been greatly improved since Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, but no applied humanitarianism can remove in the minds of many of the most deserving the strong sense of shame in being obliged to accept that form of relief." (Ibid., p. 712.)

An annuity scheme would restore the dignity of such people and encourage them to be careful with their money:

"There is nothing like holding out hope to the wage-earner and giving him an absolute certainty that he will have some relief in old age. It encourages thrift rather than otherwise." (Ibid., p. 713.)