Naturally, we seek heroes and villains in public policy, and often assign credit or blame to the political leadership at the time of a change, particularly in retrospect. So, when a panel considers 50 years of social policy, and lines up changes positive and negative with the person in power at the time of the change, we get results that put Lester Pearson at the top, Pierre Trudeau behind him, and Louis St-Laurent, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney in a pack behind the leaders, with John Diefenbaker trailing. We are a healthier, more inclusive society now than we were when we started. It is not surprising, nor is it unfair, that all would have a five or better rating out of ten.
According to John Kingdon, US political scientist du jour, three elements are required to effect change in public policy: the identification of a problem, the determination of a solution, and the political will to implement the solution. Kingdon points out that a ”œcondition” can exist for a long time before someone believes that a public policy solution might exist, at which point it becomes identified as a prolem. Problems are then quantified, monitored, and await solution and political will to be solved.
Solutions to problems are often proposed by those who first identify the problem, whether bureaucrats or civil society organizations, and may fluctuate in number in quality while the problem simmers on the back burner waiting for it to emerge as a matter for government action. Finally, a problem worsens or reaches public attention at the same time as a solu- tion that is deemed reasonable and affordable by politicians combines with political will, and policies get made, instru- ments designed and programs implemented. Not surprisingly, the time from the identification of a problem in the first instance through the steps to action can be protracted, and often extends beyond the term of a single prime minister.
Against this backdrop, with this framework, social poli- cy over the past 50 years can be viewed, and heroes and vil- lains determined.
In 1949, when Louis St-Laurent was on the hustings, he cited the achieve- ments of the Liberal government in its previous term of office: unemployment insurance, old age pensions, pensions for the blind, and the Family Allowance Act were already in place. The federal government in 1949 was cost-sharing social programs with provincial govern- ments (the pensions noted above were provincially delivered, but three-quar- ters of the funding came from the feder- al government), and had taken its first step toward a universal cash transfer to all families with children in Canada. Internationally, Canada had already signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hence, 50 years ago, the seeds of the social welfare state had already been sown. Some persons with disabilities, the elderly and parents were already seen as having problems that the state could help solve, and solutions were being implemented. Social policy, then, has not emerged from a blank slate under the direction of any of the prime ministers since that time. However, at that time, other cares and concerns of Canadians had not yet been identified as areas appropriate for federal action, including a human rights frame- work, health care, and poverty of working-age Canadians. These ”œprob- lems” (and others not addressed here) were to be identified later. At the same time, the instruments were shifting, from social insurance as the primary instrument for public policy implemen- tation, to the creation of a ”œrights” framework and the use of transfers to individuals through the income tax sys- tem as preferred means to respond to the cares and concerns of Canadians.
Moving beyond existing means- tested old age, the first universal pen- sion was introduced under St-Laurent, in 1952, following a constitutional amendment. Old Age Security, still part of income security for seniors, was established. It required no means test, other than 20 years residency in Canada. But this was only the begin- ning. St-Laurent was an early hero.
By 1957, there was consensus among political parties that a contribu- tory public pension plan should be cre- ated. In fact, Diefenbaker campaigned on the creation of such a scheme. Once elected, design work on the pension plan continued, and negotiations began with provincial premiers to allow for the constitutional amend- ment necessary for its implementation. Quebec proved to be a stumbling block, and these contributory pension plans " the Canada Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan " were not introduced until 1965, and took effect a year later under Pearson. It took three prime ministers to get the problem identified, the solutions created, and the political will in place to contribute to the program that is largely credited to Pearson; all were heroes.
The income-tested portion of income security for seniors came a year later, when the Guaranteed Income Supplement was introduced as a tem- porary measure. Income security for those deemed ”œtoo old” to work was established by 1967, and remains largely unchanged, though eligibility requirements and benefits levels are the subject of intermittent tinkering. With the increase to more adequate levels, the depth of seniors’ poverty was reduced sharply, and a decreasing proportion of seniors fell below the poverty line. Again, creating an ade- quate safety net for seniors’ income security required the ongoing collabo- ration and action by many prime min- isters, not simply the man who was PM when it was first introduced.
Income security for people without employment was in place as early as 1941, when the Unemployment Insurance Act was passed. Over the years, the insurance scheme was used to supple- ment the incomes of pregnant women eligible for unemployment insurance and workers in regions dominated by seasonal employment. Trudeau, in par- ticular, was the hero of such efforts.
Starting under Mulroney’s govern- ment, eligibility for the insurance plan was tightened up considerably, and a declining proportion of unem- ployed workers were covered under the plan. But it was under Chrétien’s government that ”œunemployment insurance” became ”œemployment insur- ance,” benefits were reduced, and new workers had more difficulty becoming eligible for the lower benefits. Mulroney and Chrétien both emerge as villains here.
Recently, as it became clear that civil society organizations’ predictions that such changes would disproportionately disad- vantage women, the rules have been amended. Still, the shift under all governments over time has been from seeing unemployment as the product of economic cycles, to it being the result of personal characteristics of unemployed workers. Villain and hero status might pertain to Chrétien for this one.
On the disability side, income secu- rity had begun as a residual program (as it still is) in 1937, as an amendment to an existing Old Age Pensions Act, provid- ing some income support for people who were blind and others with disabil- ities who were not covered by other ”œsafety net” programs, including work- place compensation, veterans’ benefits, and other pension programs. In 1954, under St-Laurent, a Disabled Persons Act introduced a cost-shared allowance for persons totally and permanently dis- abled. By 1956, all provinces had agreed to share the costs of such a program. St- Laurent emerges as hero.
Disability was not originally includ- ed in the proposed Canada Pension Plan, but by the time a House of Commons Committee on Social Security had worked the plan over and negotiations with provincial govern- ments had concluded, disability benefits were part of the plan. As a mandatory contributory plan, the CPP disability benefit removed the restrictive notions of ”œcharity” and/or ”œcompensation” from income support for persons with disabilities. Pearson could be painted as an inadvertent or unintentional hero.
Amendments to the plans have taken place over the years, notably under Monique Bégin’s adept political manoeu- vering, as part of a Trudeau Cabinet, and again under Mulroney’s leadership, when the culmination of years of federal- provincial negotiation coincided with public concern about the sustainability of the fund. Still, disability income secu- rity has largely moved from the contrib- utory social insurance scheme to individual tax benefits to compensate for additional costs borne by people with disabilities. And the categories and amounts of compensation have increased, making both Mulroney and Chrétien modest heroes.
The tax system has become a significant factor in delivering support for parents, starting in 1971 (when Trudeau was PM) when a tax deduction for child care expenses was introduced, and then in 1973, when the Family Allowance was made taxable for the first time. Thus began the history of a move from modest, some might say minimal, support for families under the universal Family Allowance to an almost exclusively targeted sup- port system for families with children in need of income support. Trudeau could be labelled a villain for this development, and for further reduc- tions to Family Allowance.
In 1978, still under Trudeau’s lead- ership, but more narrowly under the direction of then Finance Minister Jean Chrétien, Family Allowance was sharply reduced, and a refundable child tax credit was introduced. It is noteworthy that Canada was among the first countries in the world to use the tax system to redistribute income even to nontaxpayers, partly an out- growth of dreams of guaranteed annu- al incomes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The refundable tax credit was seen as the obvious delivery mecha- nism for such a guaranteed income. Is the hero here Trudeau or Chrétien? Or the officials who had been working on this since before either took office?
By 1986, under Mulroney, many parts of the tax system were ”œde- indexed,” causing them to lose value rapidly in a high-inflation environment; Family Allowance was caught in the de- indexation, further reducing the value of the universal transfer. The goods and services tax introduced under Mulroney included a refundable tax credit, to be delivered quarterly and in advance. Villain for the tax and hero for the cred- it? In 1993, still under Mulroney, the Family Allowance was rolled into a Child Tax Benefit, ending even nominal uni- versal transfers. It is that very instru- ment, however, that has allowed Chrétien’s government to make signifi- cant inroads into income security for families of young children.
It is noteworthy that virtually all considerations of guaranteed incomes took place under Trudeau and Chrétien; it is equally noteworthy that the schemes were not introduced. Heroes? Or villains?
Increasingly, disadvantaged Canadians and others have applied a ”œrights framework” to the search for responses to social problems. While this is attributable in no small measure to the passage of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms passed in 1982 as part of the Constitution Act, and coming into effect in 1985, Canada’s commit- ment to human rights, and in particular those of marginalized Canadians, goes back to before St-Laurent became prime minister, to 1948, when Canada signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the then-new United Nations.
The next significant step in the direction of rights-based social ”œentitle- ments” came in 1958, under Diefenbaker, when a Bill of Rights was introduced, and in 1960, when it took effect. While critics argued that this bill was deficient because it could be amended by usual legislative processes, it staked out the ”œrights” turf domesti- cally. In 1961, Commonwealth prime ministers signed a statement of racial equality, binding on all Commonwealth members, including Canada under Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker emerges as hero again.
In 1966, the United Nations made its human rights commitments more explicit with covenants to accompany the Universal Declaration. With one focused on civil and political rights (democratic rights, as they would now be described), and the other on social, economic and cultural rights, the UN in 1966 moved the human rights bar further. The latter covenant commit- ted governments to progress rather than delivery; nonetheless, it was (and still is) a radical document in many senses. During Trudeau’s last term as PM, Canada signed both covenants at the UN. It is notable that neither the UK nor the US has signed this agree- ment, though they are signatory to the narrower civil and political rights covenant. Hail Trudeau, the human rights hero this time.
The Charter went much further, giv- ing individual Canadians the right to challenge governments for violating their rights, including any discrimination based on gender, visible minority status, Aboriginal status, and disability. By 1994, to give individuals some resources with which to undertake such challenges, the Court Challenges Program was created, making human rights challenges an important tool in the repertoire of civil society organizations seeking to change public policy. Important changes in pub- lic policy have resulted from such chal- lenges, and ”œCharter-proofing” helps make legislation more respectful of at least these groups, before it is even intro- duced. Trudeau and Chrétien emerge as heroes here.
In 1981, the first of several attempts to integrate people with dis- abilities into mainstream society and economic activity took the form of a report by a Special Parliamentary Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped, the first chapter of which outlined needed changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act. In 1992, a federal-provincial initiative to review programs and supports for persons with disabilities concluded that a ”œrights- based” framework was pivotal to inte- grating persons with disabilities, in a report called Pathway to Integration. In 1996, a Parliamentary Task Force on Disability Issues reports on the impor- tance of a ”œcitizenship-based” approach to meeting the needs of persons with disabilities, grounded in human rights legislation and practice. This is echoed in In Unison, a federal/provincial/territorial response to disability issues. Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien are all contributing heroes here.
Illness, and any attendant inabili- ty to afford treatment, was a ”œcondi- tion,” not a ”œproblem” with a solution in Canada, until after the Second World War. In 1947, the government of Saskatchewan established public, universal hospital insurance. Ten years later, the federal government (with Diefenbaker as prime minister) passed legislation to cost-share such plans with provinces, the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act. By 1961, still under Diefenbaker, all provinces and territories had created such programs, with cost-sharing from federal coffers. The first half of what we consider to be ”œmedicare” was in place, making Diefenbaker a considerable hero.
Nonetheless, there was significant conflict over how a broader health insurance plan might work, with divi- sions of opinion within some govern- ments, and between governments. When the Canadian Medical Association requested a Royal Commission on Health Services, Diefenbaker appointed Emmett Hall to head up such an inquiry. In the commission’s final report, in 1963, there was a call for public coverage of medical services, prescription drugs, home care services, prosthetic services, dental and optical services for those in need, and a Health Charter for Canadians. Readers are forgiven if this ”œlaundry list” rings more recent bells. By this time, Pearson was prime minister.
In 1962, the government of Saskatchewan had already ”œpushed the envelope” further, introducing insurance for doc- tors’ services outside hospitals. In 1968, under Pearson, the Royal Commission’s ”œlaundry list” had been narrowed down, and the federal government passed the ”œmedicare” pro- gram. By 1971, all provinces and territories had what we now consider to be health insurance. Now Pearson was the hero, credited with the entire medicare achievement.
In 1974, Trudeau’s health minister turned health care upside down; in a landmark report entitled ”œA New Perspective on the Health of Canadians,” Lalonde intro- duced notions of prevention, with lan- guage that led to the development of ”œdeterminants of health,” and the notion of ”œpopulation health.” This report was the beginning of seeing health in a broader social and environmental con- text, relating income, physical environ- ment, and access to preventive services to positive health outcomes for Canadians. Lalonde, and by association Trudeau, were unsung heroes.
By 1979, the health care system was already deemed to be ”œin trouble.” Emmett Hall was asked to review health services, and to make recom- mendations. While reporting on the highly successful health care system, Hall flagged the risks of user fees and extra billings to a universal health care system. In 1984, the Canada Health Act was passed to remove these risks. The principles underpinning this legisla- tion make Health Minister Bégin, and by association Trudeau, heroes indeed.
The rest of the health care story is largely one of fiscal arrangements.
No review of social policy would be complete without consideration of the fiscal arrangements through which such policies have been imple- mented. Cost-sharing began as a way for the federal government to fund a fixed percentage of costs borne by provincial governments in delivering federally mandated services in areas of provincial jurisdiction. St-Laurent inherited this model, and it grew con- siderably through the addition of health care, social assistance, federal funding for post-secondary education, income support for the elderly, and income and vocational support for per- sons with disabilities. But just as it dominated fiscal arrangements at the beginning of the 50 years under review, it is a relatively minor arrangement at its conclusion.
In 1966, under Pearson, the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was a new federal instrument to match provincial spend- ing on social assistance and social sup- ports, with no ceiling. It required that provincial governments establish in leg- islation an income level necessary to meet ”œbasic needs” and then provide that those in need for any reason. It required an accounting of spending, prohibited conditions for the receipt of income (à la work for welfare), and required the establishment of an appeals process for those denied benefits or serv- ices. For this, Pearson is a hero.
In 1977, under Trudeau, Established Program Financing (EPF) combined tax benefits and cash transfers to provin- cial governments for post-secondary education and health, replacing cost- sharing for health care without ceilings on federal contributions that dated back almost 20 years. By design, it allowed federal governments to establish a ceiling on costs. From 1983, under Trudeau, to 1996, through Mulroney’s government to Chrétien’s, the increases in fund- ing were limited to less than the growth in the economy.
With only one year’s notice to provincial and territo- rial governments, CAP and EPF were replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer in 1996, extending the ”œblock funding” model to social assis- tance. Provincial innovation would not be encouraged with federal dollars, and real increas- es in costs would not be matched with increased revenues. To add insult to injury, from the provin- cial and territorial governments’ per- spectives, the increases in CHST contributions would be pegged lower than the rate of economic growth, for the first three years. As EPF and then CHST acted as constraints on health and post-secondary education spend- ing, and its caps on spending made things worse, Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien can share the villain role.
When funding to the CHST was finally increased in 1999, the increases were targeted to health spending. In 2000, a further increase was designated for early childhood development. In the 2003 budget, a further increase, to be disbursed at the discretion of provin- cial priorities, was committed, along with a commitment to divide the CHST in to health and social transfers. It is not clear where post-secondary educa- tion funding would be included. The 2003 federal budget also funnelled most new health care money into new institutional arrangements, devoid of conditions or history that accompany the CHST and its predecessors.
Many would argue that the entire CHST development and implementa- tion has done little to ameliorate the cares and concerns of Canadians. However, others would argue that increased transfers to low-income fami- lies with children is a positive step, and increased health care spending is long- overdue and another step in the right direction. That would make Chrétien both villain and hero in this area.
Increasingly, then, over the years, meeting the needs of Canadians and tending to their concerns have taken many forms. But a trend-line is clear, regardless of ideology.
Constitutional responsibility for addressing the cares and concerns of Canadians remains a provincial juris- diction, but innovation and greater spending by provincial and territorial governments will not be rewarded; in fact, block funding and a re-emerging federal insistence on influencing how federal funds are spent constrain the creative room for many provincial governments. Several prime ministers have been party to this constraint.
Where there is market failure and a problem is defined, it is defined more often in terms of individual Canadians and their needs, characteristics and potential. The solution to such prob- lems, encouraged by increasingly vigi- lant provincial counterparts, has been increasingly to transfer rights, respon- sibilities and benefits directly from the government of Canada to the individ- ual Canadian affected by the prob- lem(s). The notion of a government guiding an economy and protecting those who do not benefit from its ”œups” and are harmed by its ”œdowns” has disappeared over the last 50 years. Several prime ministers have been party to this development.
Similarly, the positive developments " health insurance, increased participa- tion of persons with disabilities, dimin- ished poverty for the elderly, active employment-related programs " have their heroes, but they are rarely prime ministers themselves, and they are rarely achieved within the confines of a single prime minister’s term of office.