Canadian Heritage


A Traditional Canadian Value

Janet Lautenschlager
Voluntary Action Program


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  1. The Volunteer Spirit in Canada:
    A deeply rooted tradition
  2. The Evolution of Our Voluntary Sector:
    A distinctively Canadian phenomenon
  3. Human Services and our Religious Heritage
  4. In Frontier Days:
    From good neighbours to the earliest voluntary organizations
  5. From the Eighteenth Century to Confederation:
    Responding to growing social needs
  6. Early Ethnocultural Organizations:
    Helping one another
  7. The Late Nineteenth Century:
    Providing crucial services and spearheading social reform
  8. Into the Twentieth Century:
    Crusading for the welfare of children and improving human services
  9. The Twenties:
    A growth in social services and health organizations
  10. The Great Depression:
    Responding to urgent need
  11. The World Wars:
    The essential role of volunteers in supporting the War Effort
  12. The Post-War Years:
    A changing role for government and the birth of new voluntary organizations
  13. From the Sixties to the Eighties:
    Mobilizing for social change and forming new kinds of voluntary organizations
  14. Cultural Diversity:
    Working for full participation in Canadian Life
  15. Around the Globe:
    Helping developing countries
  16. When Catastrophe Strikes:
    The crucial role of volunteers in disaster and emergency relief
  17. Volunteering for Change:
    Advocating for the rights of disabled persons
  18. Voluntary Action:
    Working together to improve the quality of Canadian life



IN 1996, VOLUNTEERING IS A WAY OF LIFE FOR MANY CANADIANS. The spirit of volunteerism is rooted in the traditions and values of the pioneers who built this country, and it is inspired by the concept of mutual help and co-operation that lies at the heart of our Native societies.

Although enormous amounts of volunteer time have been devoted to humanitarian causes over the years, history has yet to chronicle these endeavours. This booklet is a first sketch of volunteering in Canada from a historical perspective, drawing together specific examples to illustrate the role of volunteers from earliest times to the present. The volunteer activities highlighted here represent only a small sample of the massive achievements of Canadian volunteers.

The terms "volunteer" and "volunteerism" may never have been used by some of the people whose activities are described. Today, we apply these terms to the community involvement of countless Canadians who have acted of their own choice to meet a need without concern for monetary benefit -- people who have translated their sense of civic responsibility into action.

We hope this short history of volunteerism in Canada will help increase public understanding of the size and diversity of voluntary action as a historic force in Canadian society. When added together, the day-to-day efforts of Canadian volunteers over the years have met countless human and social needs and show what can be accomplished through the active involvement of ordinary citizens.

In recognizing the contributions of volunteers from a historical point of view, we hope that modern-day volunteering will become more visible and will achieve its full potential in years to come.


The Volunteer Spirit in Canada

A deeply rooted tradition

AS CANADIANS, WE HAVE A LONG TRADITION OF VOLUNTARY ACTION in pursuit of our social goals. Over the years, volunteering has mobilized enormous energy for the common good. While the direct effects of volunteer work are felt at the individual or community level, the cumulative action of many millions of ordinary citizens from every region of the country has had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of Canadian society -- and has, in fact, fostered its growth and development.

Volunteers are ordinary citizens who have chosen to become involved in providing a needed service, solving a problem or advancing a worthy cause. Recognizing a particular need in society, they make the effort to translate ideals into reality without thought of payment.

The traditions upon which Canada was founded and built have influenced the development of our spirit of volunteerism. Beginning with the Native communities and continuing with the European settlers and immigrants from other parts of the world, there has always been a strong emphasis on hard work and self-reliance and on taking responsibility for our own life and actions.

Thinly scattered across a vast land and tested by an often inhospitable climate, Canadians have also been nurtured on an understanding of the benefits of mutual assistance. From the Desjardins credit unions that began in Quebec in 1900 through the diverse farming cooperatives that were established in Western Canada at the beginning of the 20th century to the Antigonish Movement that gave birth to a variety of cooperatives in Atlantic Canada in the 1930s, Canadians have relied on each other for our survival and progress.

There has always been an equally strong tradition in Canada that fostered a sense of responsibility to our neighbours and a concern for all our fellow citizens in need. And, with growing awareness of the impact of chronic poverty, prolonged illness and disabilities, and of the crises that can result from natural disasters and economic events beyond our control, Canadians have become increasingly sympathetic to the idea that none of us is self-sufficient all of the time.

In our modern society, volunteers supply the human energy that drives many thousands of voluntary organizations and community groups across Canada. Today, some 5.6 million people express their concerns and interests through volunteer work for countless organizations in a wide range of fields. In addition, approximately 13 million Canadians do volunteer work on their own, outside of organized groups.


The Evolution of Our Voluntary Sector

A distinctly Canadian phenomenon

MOST VOLUNTEER ORGANIZATIONS HAVE BEEN INSPIRED BY COMPASSION or a sense of injustice. The past 125 years have seen the birth of countless voluntary organizations in health care, social services, and many other areas, all of which involve volunteers as founders and supporters -- both as board members and as front-line volunteers.

While some forms of organized volunteer activity were adapted from European and, later, American and other models, others were « in Canada» responses to our own particular needs. Yet, as an expression of our own social values, the evolution of volunteerism and the voluntary sector in Canada is unique.

Many of the earliest initiatives in health care and social services in Canada were taken by organizations led by public-spirited citizens. In most of our early communities, it was the voluntary effort of ordinary citizens, often working through their religious or cultural institutions, that led to the establishment of orphanages, hospitals, and homes for the aged, as well as to the creation of health and welfare agencies that worked with families to provide much needed assistance.

As the value of these programs was proven and the financial burden of supporting them became too great for private philanthropy alone, government (at first the municipalities, then the provinces and, later, the federal government) responded to public demand and eventually assumed responsibility for key aspects of the health and welfare system.

Voluntary organizations mirror the times in which they exist, and their role in human services today has expanded and diversified accordingly. Although government at all levels now supports a variety of programs to ensure what is known as the þsocial welfare safety netþ, private volunteer organizations remain a vital and highly visible component of the vast network of programs and services on which communities rely.

While volunteers have always played an integral role in social welfare, health care and disaster relief, voluntary activity is not restricted to the field of human services. Through advocacy groups, volunteers have shaped our vision of a more just social order.

They have also been the backbone of our political system. In the modern era, they are actively involved in such areas as sports and recreation, arts and culture, education and training, and environmental protection.


Human Services and
Our Religious Heritage

OUR CANADIAN TRADITION OF HELPING NEIGHBOURS AND FELLOW CITIZENS is based, at least in part, on the concept of loving our neighbours and of the moral virtue of charity. In short, a person blessed by good fortune is regarded as having the responsibility to help those less fortunate. These values are shared by our Native communities, the first Christian settlers and the members of virtually every religion that has come to Canada in later years.

For example, Blacks fleeing to Canada in the mid-19th century turned to established Black congregations for assistance in settling in Canada. In addition to spiritual strength, the early Black churches offered food, clothing, shelter -- and security. Fugitive slaves were also assisted by religious groups and coalitions from both Canada and the United States.

Most of the first organized social services in Canada were initiated by the churches. This tradition remained especially strong in Quebec, where the Roman Catholic Church continued to provide a wide range of basic health and social welfare services into the 1960s.

Although many of the programs and services that were originally sponsored by religious organizations are now being supported by public funds, many others continue to flourish. Collectively, these programs play an important role in today's social service structure.

A well known example is the Salvation Army, which runs programs for people in conflict with the law, homeless men and women, unmarried mothers, and alcoholics. These programs have often been the only services of their kind available in parts of the county. Also, almost every Roman Catholic diocese in Canada still has a director of charities with a network of services functioning under this office.

Similarly, Jewish groups, Protestant denominations and many other religious organizations maintain programs offering specific social services. Today, in many Canadian communities, there are still hospitals, children's residences, homes for the aged, and other institutions and services run by religious organizations.

Virtually all organized religious groups have considered it their responsibility to foster and support services for those in need. Guided by the concept of the basic dignity and worth of all individuals, religious organizations have been leaders and pioneers in the area of social welfare and health services in Canada.

Undoubtedly, these religious organizations have also influenced the attitudes of both individuals and society towards social welfare and health care, and have kindled social reform efforts over the years.


In Frontier Days

From good neighbours to the earliest voluntary organizations

IN THE EARLY DAYS OF EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT IN CANADA, Native people showed the pioneers how to survive in their harsh new land. They taught them how to forage for food in the forests, to construct shelters, to build and paddle canoes, to travel on snowshoes, and to cure illnesses such as scurvy. They also introduced them to new plants such as corn, pumpkin, squash and beans that soon became the mainstay of their diet.

As the pioneers struggled to adjust to their new way of life, families depended on each other to survive and prosper. People willingly pulled together to help one another in times of need. This spirit of mutual assistance was needed to combat the wilderness and the rigours of the long Canadian winter, as well as to prevent social isolation.

In this tradition of cooperation, farming neighbours frequently combined efforts to accomplish vital work such as clearing land, building houses and barns, harvesting the crops, making quilts and spinning wool for clothing. These «» relationships within the settlements also instilled a sense of what we call community. As more and more settlers arrived in a district, the commitment to voluntary cooperation to achieve common goals continued, and volunteer organizations began to form.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, humanitarian developments on the British and French communities in eastern and central Canada were focused around religious institutions and social reform movements in Britain and France. A similar pattern of mutual assistance was to take place when the first homesteaders began opening up the Canadian West in the late 19th century.

Back in 1688 in New France, a crisis was reached in the town of Quebec as the ranks of the destitute were swollen by residents who had lost everything they owned in a major fire a few years earlier. Concerned for their less fortunate neighbours and alarmed at the increasing number of beggars in the streets, public-spirited citizens of Quebec took action to help these individuals.

They established what was probably the first voluntary agency in Canada. Known as the Bureau des Pauvres, this agency was managed by a board of volunteer directors (primarily prosperous merchants), run by volunteers and supported by donations from the community. Money, food and clothes were gathered through collection boxes around the town and door-to-door solicitation each month.

The Bureau des Pauvres offered a comprehensive package of relief that was available even to non-residents. Elderly, incapacitated and sick individuals were given food, money and, wherever possible, a place to live. If work could not be found for the unemployed, they were given the tools with which to carry on their trade, along with food, clothes and lodging, until they were back on their feet again. A landmark in the history of Canadian voluntarism, this community organization was in operation until about 1700, by which time religious charities began taking over its responsibilities.

Also in the late 17th century in New France, remarkable examples of charitable institutions were established by religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church in the two major centres.

The Hôtel Dieu, founded in Quebec in 1658, rendered essential services to the town and the surrounding district over the next century by providing relief and support to the sick, the injured, and victims of the plague.

A similar institution was created a few years later in Montreal. In 1688, La Maison de Providence was established in Montreal to provide residential care and an education for young girls from very poor families and to care for sick and elderly citizens.

As well, the Hôpital général in Quebec, modelled on that of Paris, was set up in 1693 to lodge the sick, the aged and the destitute, and to teach trade skills to those in need.


From the Eighteenth Century to Confederation

Responding to growing social needs

DURING THE 18TH CENTURY (AND CONTINUING THROUGH THE 19TH AND INTO THE 20TH), support for the sick and the poor in Quebec came from private sources. These were primarily charitable organizations associated with the Roman Catholic Church: local parishes, religious orders (for example, the Grey Nuns and the Sisters of Providence which were founded in the mid-19th century), and lay groups (for example, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul).

Direct government assistance was virtually non-existent. Modest grants were, however, given to encourage the work of charitable institutions such as hospitals, orphanages and, later, schools for disabled children, hospitals for people with psychiatric disabilities, and homes for the aged.

Across Quebec, volunteers from religious charities helped the underprivileged in many ways. They delivered food and firewood, ran soup kitchens and depots for clothing, furniture and tools; they visited sick and disabled people in institutions and their homes; they helped the unemployed find jobs.

Volunteers also provided support to penniless widows and orphaned children following deadly epidemics, such as cholera in 1832 and 1849 and typhoid in 1847.

A lay organization of volunteers of the Roman Catholic faith, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was introduced to Canada from France, first in Quebec City in 1846 and then in Montreal in 1848. By 1870 there were Societies throughout Quebec which provided aid to large segments of the population.

The movement soon spread to other parts of Canada. Although usually parish-based, Societies were established to assist all underprivileged citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Then, as now, volunteers ran clothing depots, helped those in need find employment, provided emotional support to sick or disabled individuals through friendly visits, and offered many other forms of support. As the Society evolved, another important aim was to advocate for social justice by calling attention to the problems faced by disadvantaged citizens.

In the Maritime Provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick adopted the English Poor Laws in the mid-18th century. Dating back to the Elizabethan era, this system mandated government-supported institutions such as public workhouses for impoverished families and orphanages for the care of parentless or abandoned children.

In Ontario, where the Poor Laws were not adopted, the responsibility for the relief of sick and destitute citizens remained an essentially private affair until the mid-19th century. The well-being of these unfortunates depended to a large degree on the goodwill of friends and family, assisted by private charity from the more wealthy citizens. Only very limited and sporadic assistance was provided by the municipalities in times of extreme emergency.

When the first social welfare programs began in Ontario in the latter half of the 19th century, the provincial government began to assume limited responsibility for sick and elderly citizens and for impoverished women with dependent children. Assistance was given only under very strict conditions, however. The only social welfare institutions supported from public funds were orphanages and asylums for individuals with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities.

By the early decades of the 19th century, charitable organizations to aid sick and destitute citizens were springing up in communities throughout Canada. These « societies» addressed the growing social needs that had been created, in part, by an influx of impoverished immigrants from European countries. Often linked with religious organizations, this form of organized volunteer effort tended to follow contemporary European models of private charity.

For example, the Quebec Friendly Society was established in 1810, followed within a few years by the Ladies' Benevolent Society of Montreal whose primary aim was to help impoverished widows keep their children. In Halifax, the Poor Man's Friend Society was founded in 1820 under the leadership of a group of local businessmen. Volunteers from this society regularly visited citizens who were poverty-stricken, sick or disabled to offer them assistance in the form of cash and, during the winter months, potatoes and firewood.

By the time of Confederation in 1867, the population of the four founding provinces had grown substantially as the result of increased immigration from Europe and an influx of Loyalists of many origins from the American colonies.

Growing urbanization introduced new social problems, and, with chronic poverty on the increase, the conditions of many families were deteriorating. The plight of the underprivileged, particularly children, was attracting increased public attention.

Organized volunteer activity in social welfare areas continued in the new nation much as it had prior to Confederation, and then mushroomed in the final decade of the 19th century.

As settlement moved westward and immigration sources expanded, charitable organizations were established in response to local needs. Many of these aimed at assisting members of specific ethnocultural groups. In Winnipeg, for example, Jewish citizens founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society to provide relief for impoverished settlers, railway fares for needy families seeking re-settlement, and job placements for new immigrants.


Early Ethnocultural Organizations

Helping one another

ALTHOUGH THERE WERE A FEW ORGANIZATIONS TO SERVE MEMBERS of specific ethnocultural groups in the early history of Canada, their numbers began to increase rapidly with the surge in immigration that occurred at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Some ethnocultural groups formed volunteer organizations to help preserve the language and culture of their homeland. For example, before the end of the 19th century, immigrants from Iceland set up a network of libraries and reading clubs. Similarly, a variety of reading clubs were formed by Canadians of Ukrainian descent.

But most of the first organizations formed by specific ethnocultural groups were based on the concept of mutual aid þ that is, members help one another according to need. In the New World, many immigrants feared that death among strangers would mean burial without the religious rites they considered essential. They also feared that accident, illness or loss of their job would leave them destitute. (Back home in their countries of origin, the traditional support of the extended family would have been available to help out in times of emergency).

To meet these needs, Canadians of German descent formed the first funeral or burial society in Halifax in 1753. Polish immigrants founded their first mutual aid society in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario in 1872. A variety of mutual aid societies for Italian-Canadians were founded in Montreal and Toronto by the end of the 19th century. The Hungarian Sick-Benefit Society began in 1901 in Lethbridge. Lithuanian mutual aid organizations were formed in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg very early in the 20th century.

However, after the Second World War, with the introduction of government programs that provided certain safeguards in terms of social welfare, these mutual aid organizations tended to wane.

As they became more established, many ethnocultural communities formed organizations to help recent immigrants from their own homelands. Their volunteers provided information on social and legal aspects of life in Canada, as well as translation services. For example, in western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homesteaders from Hungarian and Ukrainian communities became unofficial settling agents, helping newcomers start a new life on the Prairies.

Some groups also formed more broadly-based charities to assist both recent immigrants and other Canadians of their same background. For example, Jewish groups in Toronto and Montreal were well known for their charities by the 1920s.

Chinese immigrants were perhaps unique in that they tended to form voluntary associations very soon after their arrival in Canada. In British Columbia, as early as the mid-19th century, they began local organizations based either on kinship or on the district of origin. Volunteers ran hostels and co-operative boarding houses for miners and transient railway workers; others focused on maintaining contact between immigrants and their relatives in China.

By the 1880s, Victoria's Chinatown was booming. Chinese organizations there and elsewhere in British Columbia were continuing to grow in number and size. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) of Victoria, the first community-wide Chinese association in Canada, was formed in 1884. Supported by a network of volunteers and donors from throughout the province, this organization advocated for changes to the legal system to prevent discriminatory practices towards Chinese-Canadians and provided many services to its members.

Working for the CCBA, volunteers ran homes for the sick and the poor of Chinese ancestry. (Many of those in need were unemployed workers who had been dismissed by railway construction companies and left penniless in various towns along the railway.)

Volunteers raised funds to assist elderly men who could not afford the fare to return home to China, to cover the burial costs of Chinese-Canadians without relatives who had died in poverty, and to provide legal aid to any members of their community accused of a crime. Volunteers also arranged for the shipment of the bones of the deceased back to China, a practice that had become common by that time. In addition, the CCBA founded the first Chinese public school in Canada and the Jubilee Hospital, both in Victoria.

There is no doubt that the many and diverse ethnocultural organizations that were formed across Canada filled an important role in the lives of those who belonged. They met needs that were not being, or could not be, provided by society at large. Among the many benefits these organizations offered their members was a way to maintain contact with others of their same background and native tongue.

These organizations were also often the key player in representing their specific ethnocultural group to the various levels of government in Canada -- and to the rest of the world.

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