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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

Political Events

NAC detail of C004256 - Old Woman with Children-Toronto, On c.1900. (photo)William James.

Pension programs for seniors and disabled persons were created later in Canada than in many Western European countries. A number of factors contributed to the relatively slow pace of change.

To begin with, industrialization also occurred later in Canada than in Europe. The movement of people away from the country and into urban areas characterized by manufacturing only began to occur on a large scale in the very late 19th century. It therefore took longer for the social problems created by the decline of a traditional agricultural way of life - in particular, problems involving the elderly and disabled poor - to emerge in Canadian society.

The nature of Canada's Constitution further contributed to the lengthy process of developing national pension programs. The Constitution Act, as initially enshrined in the British North America Act of 1867, outlined what powers belonged to the federal and provincial governments in Sections 91 and 92 respectively. At this time, the authority to implement social welfare policies was given to the provinces. This is why poor relief and charity were administered provincially and locally (with provincial supervision) in the 19th century. As the problem of the aged poor became a national political issue in the early 20th century, both the federal and provincial governments had to take into account the powers vested in them by the 1867 Constitution Act.

In addition to the constitutional issue of the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, the federal government faced its own challenges when creating the first national program to aid seniors, the Government Annuities Act of 1908. Because Canada was only beginning to have to deal with the severe social impact of industrialization and urbanization, it did not have a civil service that was either large enough or well enough prepared for these challenges.

The process of setting up and administering any national pension program would be a major undertaking for the federal government. This was made worse by the fact that many parliamentarians continued to view relief for seniors as a private matter. What little staff and resources that existed were not made available for this reason.

Canada's Native peoples were not included in either provincial welfare programs or the federal program created by the 1908 Government Annuities Act. This is because the federal government was assigned the responsibility of governing First Nations in section 91(24) of the British North America Act. Native peoples were governed by the Indian Act of 1876, which established a different system of welfare for those given Indian "status" as part of the more general move to assimilate aspects of their cultures into mainstream Canadian culture. It would not be until the 1950s that Canada's Native peoples took part in the national pension system.