A few years ago, while still an assistant professor of political science at McGill University, I was invited to debate a senior colleague in the Department of Economics on the future of the welfare state in Canada. This very likeable and articulate fellow (indeed, a regular con- tributor to this magazine) cheerfully set out to demolish every argument I attempted to construct about the develop ment of the welfare state and the importance of that social vision in post-war Canada. Frustrated, I finally snapped at him, ”œSir, it seems to me that you are describing 19th cen- tury values!” His response was charming: ”œAnd what, exact- ly, is the matter with 19th century values?”
The point I took home from this exchange was that, in effect, the values we associate with the social vision of the Canadian welfare state are relatively recent and may not be universally embraced. In fact, the idea of a social security state has been a relatively short-lived one in Canada, coinciding with the short 20th century period between the end of the Second World War and the end of the so-called Golden Age of the welfare state some- time in the late 1970s. Today, the vision is even more blurred; in fact, even the term ”œwelfare state” has fall- en into disuse, replaced by more neu- tral nomenclature such as ”œsocial development” or more precise con- cepts like ”œsocial economy.”
The other pertinent observation about the exchange is that it happened at McGill, which was in effect the birthplace, at least in conceptual terms, of the Canadian welfare state. It may seem hard to believe that the advocacy of strong centralized social policies would emanate from a Quebec university that was not ”” at least then ”” associated with bold social vision, but this was to be the legacy of Principal F. Cyril James, who was appointed chairman of the Committee on Post-War Reconstruction in 1941, and his research director and McGill social sci- entist, Leonard Marsh, who prepared the seminal Report on Social Security for Canada in 1943.
Hailed by historian Michael Bliss as ”œthe most important single document in the history of the development of the welfare state in Canada,” the Marsh Report proposed to literally ”œsweep away” 19th century notions of social wel- fare, according to Dennis Guest. Drafted in less than one month in January 1943, this extraordinary document mapped out a dense and detailed plan for com- prehensive social programs, constructed around the ideal of a social minimum and the eradication of poverty. The real- ization of this ideal, according to Marsh, meant the recognition that individual risks were part of modern industrial soci- ety, and that they could be met by col- lective benefits throughout the lifecycle. Full employment at a living wage would be the engine for this vision, supple- mented by occupational readjustment programs. ”œEmployment risks” were to be met through income-maintenance programs, such as unemployment insur- ance and assistance, accident and dis- ability benefits, plus paid maternity leave (a proposal definitely ahead of its time). ”œUniversal risks” were addressed through national health insurance, chil- dren’s allowances, and pensions for old age, permanent disability, and widows and orphans.
Significantly, practically all of these programs were to be contributory and under ”œDominion” (federal) administration, with the exception of provincial workmen’s compensation and medical care (co-operative contri- butions but provincial services). Also significant was Marsh’s holistic view of social security that considered health as a central part of the welfare state, rather than a separate item and expense.
Marsh’s social vision was rooted in the same powerful influences that would shape the dis- course of the welfare state in Canada. Marsh was a stu- dent of William Beveridge, the acclaimed author of Great Britain’s roadmap from warfare to welfare state; like his mentor, Marsh believed that governments should be responsible for constructing a postwar social order in which the responsibility of physical security would give way to an essential role in the provision of social security. Marsh was also a keen observer of the ravages of the Great Depression in Canada and the United States. In contrast to the ineffectual response of governments in Canada, Marsh was duly impressed with the way the Roosevelt administration had committed itself to changing the very definition of economic and social needs and marshaled the strength of the state to respond to them. Not insignificantly, Marsh had also been an active member of the CCF’s brain trust, the League for Social Reconstruction, and had contributed (along with fellow McGill intellectual Frank Scott) to the LSR’s 1937 blueprint, Social Planning for Canada, which envisaged centralized ”” i.e., federal ”” administration and financing as key instruments to realize the goals of social planning.
Despite its ”œintellectual and symbolic” weight, historians Bothwell, Drummond and English remind us that the content and provenance of Marsh’s report were enough to generate a great deal of hostility, not to mention embarrass- ment, on the part of Mackenzie King and his Liberal cabinet. Beveridge’s report may have become the blue- print for post-war social security in Britain, but his Canadian protegé found his report was hastily buried away, although it did receive consid- erable media comment and business protest, and was associated with a surge of support for the left in pub- lic opinion polls of the day.
Still, Marsh’s foundations became, at least in part, the pillars of the social architecture of the welfare state in Canada. Although the key premises of the report ”” namely the concept of full employment and centralized administration ”” were not completely realized, its tone and tenets infused most of the programs that flourished in the post-war generation of the welfare state in Canada, including unemploy- ment insurance, family allowances, hospital and medical insurance, the Canada Assistance Plan, and the guar- anteed income supplement.
The Marsh report also became an emblem of what the famed British sociologist T.H. Marshall has referred to as the social rights of citizenship, to be fashioned and protected alongside established political and civil rights. Even though the foundations of Marsh’s social architecture have been eroded in many places, or were never poured in others, or were transformed by provincial artisans, the ideal of a social citizenship remains embedded somewhere deep in the Canadian imagination. This ideal persists despite the differences of opinion expressed by my colleague, or the differences of ideology expressed by political leaders in Canada. It has per- sisted, as well, despite the transforma- tion of the welfare state, and the landscape in which social programs have operated, since the 1970s.
These changes are far-reaching. Across the industrialized world, a situ- ation of what Paul Pierson refers to as ”œpermanent austerity” has shifted pol- icy-makers’ focus from social policy expansion to program retrenchment. The costs of certain programs, health care in particular, are changing per- ceptions about the sustainable limits of state responsibility. The impact of globalization is also relevant; in particular the effect of limited parameters for domestic policy and the dominant role of technological change and deregulated markets. The global econ- omy is also associated with the new social risks that face Canadians in a panorama of diverse territorial, popu- lation, and economic challenges. Some may have echoes in Marsh’s own observations: for example, the labour-market risks associated with non-standard work or with a living wage resonated then as now; others, such as those associated with the knowledge-based economy, have less apparent parallels. The exclusion risks of permanent poverty for certain groups were evident in the past as well, but today there are the addition- al challenges of specific geographical situations (i.e., the urban concentra- tion of low-income households) and the challenges of social and economic integration in a country where Canadians are of increasingly diverse immigrant backgrounds. And while Marsh was exceptionally sensitive to the needs of families, and in particular women, it is family risks that repre- sent the biggest change from his worldview of 60 years ago.
Lone-parent families, recomposed family structures, and Aboriginal families are of increasing concern, as are the challenges of demographic changes, fertility patterns, the needs of an aging population and their care givers, and discussions of early child- hood development and work-life bal- ance.
And, of course there are the issues of ”œgovernance” which are framed quite differently today than in the days of Dominion-provincial relations. Marsh’s social vision emphasized a ”œcompre- hensive system” of social security that necessitated a heavily centralized administrative structure, one that in the context of Canada’s war effort and in comparison to the US’s recent experi- ence, would have appeared a promising precedent to follow. He was not unaware of jurisdictional realities; in fact, he makes reference to the need for constitutional amendment in the report. But his claims were based on a real concern for fiscal coordination and regional economic disparities (in a pre- equalization situation) and the need for acceptable standards across Canada (in a pre-Canada Health Act era). Nevertheless, his recommendations were odious to conservatives in Quebec and Alberta alike, not to mention Mackenzie King himself who recoiled at the enormous fiscal responsibilities that would be placed on the state.
Since the 1940s, social programs have occupied the limelight in suc- cessive rounds of constitutional nego- tiations, and indeed in the evolution of federalism in Canada. Part of the nomenclature around the pendulum swings of federal-provincial relations, such as the ”œco-operative” era of the 1960s, is derived from the way in which a welfare state evolved out of such negotiations and agreements, not to mention provincial innovations. Although the jurisdictional conflicts around social policy are as evident as in the past ”” and more rancorous given the higher stakes and more pressing fiscal burdens ”” they now involve a broader emphasis on roles and responsibilities, and a wider discussion of multilevel governance. Today’s political environ- ment brings other players and concerns into the gov- ernance mix: cities are now key elements in any discus- sion of social development in Canada, as are citizens in their communities as architects of the social economy.
All of these challenges point to a new social world for Canada in the 21st century, but not necessarily one that resembles 19th century values. The Marsh Report laid out a vision of social security and a definition of social citizenship that effectively confronted the lacunae of the past. Marsh emphasized the nature of risks in modern society and described how they could be met: sixty years later, the beginning of the 21st century presents an opportunity for Canada to examine new social risks and the effectiveness of the social architecture in place to face them.