This past week, I have been reflecting on my 50th year of working in social services in Ontario. I started as a summer student washing walls in an old age home in the first week of July 1968. This was the Department of Social and Family Services and the Minister was John Yaremko (who I later interviewed at the age of 90 in 2005).
The place was Lachlan Lodge on Elm Street in Toronto (now the YWCA) and it turned out to have been re-purposed many times from one of Toronto’s earliest poorhouses to a House of Industry, then a House of Refuge for the aged, to its ‘modern’ incarnation as a Home for the Aged in the late 1940’s. When I was there, there were still bars on the windows, a reminder from a much earlier era.
When all the walls were washed (Ajax industrial cleanser – for the record), I was asked if I wanted to clean the basement of the home and I eagerly jumped at the prospect. After all I was making $1.40 an hour when some of my friends had not yet achieved the status symbol of working for at least $1.00 an hour. The student wage in 1968 was still 85 cents an hour and I was pulling in almost double that.
Removing mounds of dust from the tops of old crates and boxes, I started to read what I had been asked to throw out. They were records from the 1850’s and 1860’s of ‘workhouse test’ reports where jailed debtors spent their days breaking rocks with hammers ostensibly to work their way out of debt.
I was hooked.
I spent lunch hours and breaks voraciously reading this incredibly interesting set of records that traced the history of ‘indoor relief’ from the mid nineteenth century up to the early days of Lachlan’s tenure as a House of Refuge. Records of residents with dementia locked in caged rooms in the same basement I was working in – records of residents losing privileges for talking with other residents while eating lunch (yes talking at meals was disallowed).
I couldn’t get enough of it. But I did not realize that the history of social services would become a lifelong passion. Now I am in the process of discarding boxes full of paper from the 1970’s to 2003 as the clutter becomes unbearable. (Don’t worry – I won‘t throw out the important stuff!)
But sifting through the history of social assistance since the Department of Public Welfare was first formed in 1931, it slowly came over me that almost all of Ontario’s social assistance legislation was brought in by the Tories. Yes – all of it since Mitch Hepburn and Minister David Croll brought in the Unemployment Relief Act of 1935. The only exception that preceded it was the enactment of Mothers’ Allowance legislation by the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) in 1920-21.
In 1930, following an inquiry into public welfare ably staffed (in part) by future Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton, the new Department was formed just in time to take on the travails of the Great Depression. G. Howard Ferguson was the Conservative Premier when the legislation was being brought in and George Henry was the Conservative Premier when the Legislation was proclaimed in 1931.
Henry also undertook the first review of public welfare in the modern era when he asked Wallace Campbell (Ford Motors’ chief executive) to look into public (direct) relief in July 1932.
When Mitch Hepburn took power in 1934, Minister David Croll (age 34) moved quickly to enact the first Unemployment relief legislation in Ontario and in July 1935, paid the first ever direct cash relief to the poor in several bankrupt municipalities that had no staff to hand out clothes and foodstuffs .
The Unemployment Relief Act lasted until 1958 when it was replaced by the General Welfare Assistance Act under Conservative Premier Leslie Frost. The Blind and Disabled Persons allowance Acts of 1951 and a host of smaller statutes (also under Frost) were consolidated into the Family Benefits Act of 1967 under Conservative Premier John Robarts just one year after my first summer job with the Ontario Government.
Bill Davis brought in the GAINS programs for the aged and persons with disabilities in 1973 but did not change social assistance legislation to implement this program. Basically, it was a graft onto the Family Benefits legislation.
No changes to legislation were made by either Liberal and NDP Premiers David Peterson and Bob Rae between 1985 and 1995.
Then PC Premier Mike Harris replaced the General Welfare Assistance Act and the Family Benefits Act with the 1998 vintage Ontario Works and ODSP legislation.
Four Liberal governments (3 of them majorities) from 2003 to 2018 did not change either the Ontario Works or ODSP legislation preferring to enact regulation changes to usher in new policies and periodic rate increases.
So here’s the first thing that I would say to new PC Minister Lisa MacLeod and her Parliamentary Assistant Amy Fee;
“Nothing to get suspicious or worried about….. The social assistance legislation that you have inherited is YOUR legislation. It was enacted by PC Premier Harris and his predecessors going back up to 66 years ago in 1951, 1958, and 1967 – all by PC Premiers Frost and Robarts. The last social assistance legislation enacted by any other than a Tory government was 83 years ago by the Liberals in 1935. And the very first Public Welfare Department legislation was also yours in 1931. ”
Maybe the irony is that it will be once again the Conservatives to be the party to usher in the new legislation we so desperately need to deal with poverty in the post millennial era. After all, most of the legislation – both then and now – was theirs.
Js/July 4, 2018