In This Article History of Canadian Social Welfare

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

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Social Work History of Canadian Social Welfare
John Graham, Micheal L. Shier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0072


For the purpose of this entry, social welfare history encompasses the evolution of social policies and the social welfare system, as well as the profession of social work and those institutions that are associated with either. Also for the purpose of this entry, social welfare and social policy are collapsed together in one category. This is not because they are equivalent terms but rather because the focus of social policy in part represents the operationalization of social welfare at a societal level. And, it has certainly been a common practice in the Canadian social welfare history literature to highlight the development and removal or amendment of specific social policies as indicators of key shifts in social welfare throughout Canada’s history. Until the 1970s, scholarship on the history of Canadian social welfare was relatively sparse. A considerable increase in historical writings began between the 1970s and the 1980s, with an explosion of historical literature from the 1980s to the early 21st century, in which the number of topics and the variety of approaches increased considerably. Current sophistication in social welfare, social policy, and social work research includes the introduction of discourse analysis to highlight the perspective of the socially excluded. Also included is the critical rethinking of power relations between practitioners and service users and between funders and service providers. Finally, there is the emergence of new lines of inquiry into the emerging role of nonprofit organizations and the voluntary sector in meeting the social welfare needs of the populace. The selected references in this entry primarily discuss the evolution of the Canadian social welfare system and its impact on the socially excluded in general, and on women, aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities, children, and the elderly in particular. The reason for this emphasis is because it represents the primary focus in current social welfare literature related to the Canadian context. However, in addition we include select references from the social welfare and interdisciplinary literature to provide an overview of the evolution of scholarly writings on the topic and to help position our contemporary situation of social welfare within this historical context.

Introductory Works

Coates, et al. 2007; Hick 2010; and Turner 2001 all provide the reader with an introduction to the characteristics of the profession of social work, including the historical development of the profession in relation to Canadian social welfare development. Coates, et al. 2007 introduces the role played by religion and spirituality, while Hick 2010 presents the key concepts and fundamentals of the profession. Turner 2001 is more concerned with the principles and values of social work practice.

  • Coates, John, John Russell Graham, Barbara Swartzentruber, and Brian Ouellette, eds. 2007. Spirituality and social work: Selected Canadian readings. Toronto: Canadian Scholars.

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    Explores the history, practice, and diversity of faith traditions with which spirituality and social work are intertwined. Chapters cover spirituality as a guiding construct in the development of Canadian social work, past and present considerations, the social gospel, and a Toronto charity’s transition from a religious to a professional social work ethos.

  • Hick, Steven. 2010. Social work in Canada: An introduction. 3d ed. Toronto: Thompson Educational.

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    This Canadian text introduces key concepts of social work and offers the fundamentals to understanding the profession. It explores the background of social work and examines the profession’s practice with issues pertaining to political agendas among welfare state and income security, work with vulnerable and at-risk populations, respect for diversity, and international social work practice.

  • Turner, Francis J., ed. 2001. Social work practice: A Canadian perspective. 2d ed. Toronto: Pearson Education.

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    This second edition provides a detailed look into the principles and values of Canadian social work. The influence of societal structures, professional issues, and methods utilized within practice are examined. New and revised chapters from expert Canadian practitioners and scholars provide a way to establish the connection between theories used within social work and their delivery in practice.

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