Canadian Social Welfare Policy: Federal and Provincial Dimensions


187 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-7735-0579-2




Edited by Jacqueline S. Ismael
Reviewed by Brigitte Kitchen

Brigitte Kitchen was Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, York University.


This book by seven authors is a collection of nine essays, of which six are revised versions of papers delivered at the first Conference on Provincial Social Welfare Policy at the University of Calgary in May 1982. It traces the development of a number of selected income maintenance programs (for instance, unemployment insurance, which falls entirely under federal jurisdiction, or the Canada Assistance Act, which has a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction) from a period of cooperative expansionist federalism in social welfare programs in the 1960s and the early 1970s, to the cutbacks and rationing of social spending programs of the fiscal restraint period since 1975. The common theme that ties the essays together is the authors’ attempt to explain these changes in policy orientation by the specific nature of Canadian social policy-making whereby all other policy factors are subordinate to the problems of federalism. Thus they present the conflict for resources between economic interests and categories of needy people as overlaid by the presumably more important layer of intergovernmental conflict, where different levels of government use social welfare as an instrument to advance their particular financial and political interests.

A major flaw of the book rests with its unargued premise that such intractable social problems as the low preretirement replacement rate of the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, on the deteriorating circumstances of the working poor since minimum wage-levels have not kept up with the rate of inflation, could be solved by consensual intergovernment actions. This premise seems not only highly questionable but also inadequate to explain the changes that have occurred in the various income support programs.

There is a tendency to analyze social needs and the arrangements for meeting them from the standpoint of the modern welfare state. The particular Canadian aspect of this standpoint of prescriptive state interventionism is to present the problems of federalism as a conservative force stalling social policies and to ignore the very real differences in economic and political power which stand in close relation to the institutionalized inequality of Canadian society.

This book is a useful collection of essays for all Canadians interested in social policy from the perspective of the specific role and function of Canadian federalism. As such it offers a valuable contribution to the discussion of the failure of the Canadian welfare state to live up to its promises. But the more fundamental questions about the dynamics of the interrelationship between the state and the economy and its connection to social policy making are left unanswered.



“Canadian Social Welfare Policy: Federal and Provincial Dimensions,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,