Was Ontario’s 100 year old Mothers’ Allowance the first incarnation of the CERB?

The first report of Ontario’s Mothers’ Allowance Commission was delivered to the Ontario Government on October 31, 1921[1]. Copies are only available at the Ryerson Library and Ontario’s Legislative library so I scanned it in for the convenience of all. See footnote 1 below. It’s a fascinating report and I encourage all readers to download it and consume it voraciously. The sections on the travails of field workers visiting applicants and recipients are really quite gripping. They narrate walking miles in blinding snowstorms, riding the rails and making visits on horseback.

But telling that tale is not why I am writing this blog today. I am writing because the Mothers’ Allowance – that was only given to Widows at first – may have been – at least in part – the first Canadian incarnation of the CERB.

Let me explain.

5 reasons for Mothers’ Allowance

In my oft-presented history of income security in Ontario over the years since 1986, I always offered the confluence of 5 reasons as to why Mothers’ Allowances were inaugurated in 1920. Three of those reasons related to the untimely death of men in that era:

1. Men killed in the Great War 

2. Men killed by exploding ordnance in the very dangerous munitions factories

3. The scourge of the Spanish Flu

The last two reasons concerned the emergence of the women’s movement as a major force in politics.

4. The Suffragette movement that was strongly in favour of Mothers’ pensions, and

5. Women obtaining the vote in 1918

The role of influenza

Reading primary texts of the time, I came to the conclusion that the hysteria surrounding the flu[2] caused the 3rd reason to be buried. But I also concluded that the Spanish flu was most probably the primary reason that Mothers’ Allowances were inaugurated in 1920. But I can’t prove it[3] as the Ontario Government didn’t make any public connection between Mothers’ Allowance and the Spanish Flu except in one table on page 29 of the First report of the Mothers’ Allowance Commission. 

All this came to a head in a presentation years ago, I opined that the Spanish flu was likely the leading reason why the government implemented the Mothers’ Allowance with such urgency – an allowance that went almost entirely to widows. (Some deserted mothers were also eligible.) 

I was corrected – so to speak – by audience members who said that the women’s movement of the day was the most important influence. 

Veterans’ group claimed that the obvious reason was men killed in the Great War and in munitions factories. 

With the pandemic, I am returning to the table on p.29[4] of the 1921 first report of the Mothers’ Allowance Commission. 

You will note that the first two causes of death are influenza and pneumonia. 

However, it is likely that the pneumonia deaths were caused by the flu[5]. This means that fully one third of widows had husbands who died from the flu.

In Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, governments had already implemented Mothers’ Allowance for reasons unrelated to the Spanish Flu:

“The 1918–1920 influenza pandemic was especially challenging because of the demographic profile of its victims, who were mostly younger adults between the ages of 20 and 40 years. In some locations, more men died than women. The economic and emotional consequences for children and families were severe. If a male breadwinner died, families experienced downward economic mobility from which they often could not recover. This was exacerbated by gender inequality in the labour market; women had few employment options and faced unequal pay. In some cases, female single parents whose husbands died from flu could qualify for mothers’ allowances, but only Manitoba and Saskatchewan had enacted these programs by 1918; Alberta’s was introduced in 1919. Benefits were means tested and miserly and were accompanied by ongoing scrutiny and questioning of women’s behaviour, parenting skills and housekeeping. In Manitoba, benefits were withdrawn when a child turned 14 and, as a result, most had to leave school to enter the workforce. Thus did influenza limit the life chances of a generation of children from poorer backgrounds.[6]

But stodgy Ontario was not a follower of program developments in the three Prairie Provinces at the time; far from it. In the prairies, Mothers’ Allowance became a new convenience ideally suited to dealing with a newly raging Pandemic.

But in the continuing debate as to why Ontario brought in Mothers’ Allowance for widows in 1920, we do know what the reasons are – it is just difficult to calibrate their relative importance.

Social movements and Mothers’ Allowance

The  first North American Mothers’ Allowance was implemented in 1911 in Illinois  was unencumbered of War, munitions fires, influenza, pneumonia, or the vote for women – so it’s likely that the early women’s movement and so called ‘pressure groups’ seeking a ban on consumable alcohol were highly influential.

This may especially be the case as 1911 precedes the 1913 US Constitutional amendment to invoke a tax on income while repealing onerous tariffs. In 1911, the issue of where the money would come from to pay for Mothers’ Allowance was likely more contentious. 

The introduction of a Mothers’ Allowance on the Prairies had much to do with War and munitions factory widows in addition to the emerging women’s movement not to mention a very strong labour movement that also favoured Widow’s pensions.

So although the timing in Ontario was likely highly influenced by the Spanish flu, the social (women’s) movement behind widows’ allowances was likely just as responsible.

One hundred years later in 2021, there have been many calls for a basic income. For many, the CERB became an example or at least a forerunner, however imperfect, of what a basic income might look like.

In 1921, an income guarantee for widows spurred on by a worldwide pandemic is now foretelling what might happen 100 years later in Canada.


Mike Harris dispatched all Ministry libraries to Ryerson University in 1995 and the MCSS library was ‘exhumed’ onto the shelves of its library about 8 years later. Many of the items from the transfer are ‘one of a kind’ reports and histories that could have met with ‘extinction’ had they not made it onto the shelves on Ryerson’s 7th floor.  

The pages from the Mothers’ Allowance report are an example. 

I have issued many complaints to the Library that these rare reports should be excluded from borrowings. The point was made to me that I had been allowed to borrow them and they asked if I was requesting my own exclusion from borrowing privileges. 

I had only one possible reply and that was to quote Groucho Marx saying that I would never join a club that would ever allow me to become a member. 

[1] https://openpolicyontario.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2021/10/Mothers-Allowance-311021.pdf

[2] https://www.colorado.edu/asmagazine/2020/04/09/lessons-19181919-influenza-pandemic

[3] http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/education/pdf/Spanish_Flu_in_Ontario_Lesson_Kit.pdf, p.11-13

[4] Op.Cit. Footnote 1  

[5] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/bacterial-pneumonia-caused-most-deaths-1918-influenza-pandemic

[6] https://www.cmaj.ca/content/192/25/E688