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Five things to know about pre-1964 Canadian housing policy

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Photo: Montréal 1958. Quartier Saint-Michel Est. Source: Philippe Du Berger/flic

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On November 4, I gave a historical presentation on Canadian housing policy at the annual conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. My slide presentation, which focused on pre-1964 Canadian social history, can be downloaded here.

Here are five things to know about pre-1964 history that set the tone for important developments in Canadian housing policy:

1. Prior to the 1940s, there was virtually no government-assisted housing for anyone at all in Canada.

In the early 1900s, if you were without work and needed help paying the bills, you typically had to rely on family or friends for assistance. In some cases, a social welfare agency might provide you with time-limited support (i.e. used clothing, food, fuel); in other cases, a local church might help you. But barring any of those options, you likely faced destitution.

2. The Great Depression had an important impact on the role of government in Canada's social welfare system.

Prior to the Great Depression, it was easy for some Canadians to see unemployment as an individual failing; but by the end of the Great Depression, it was clear to most that unemployment was often brought on by macroeconomic factors that were largely outside of the control of the individuals who found themselves without work. This changed the mindset of Canadians -- suddenly, it wasn't hard to convince people of the need for government to play a strong role in both job creation and social policy supporting unemployed persons.

3. The Second World War had a profound impact on Canada's social welfare system.

By the end of the Second World War, Canada's national and provincial governments were in a relatively strong macroeconomic situation; indeed, unemployment was at an all-time low. This more favourable fiscal situation, combined with the abovementioned change in mood vis-à-vis unemployment, made it much easier for Canada's federal government to start contemplating increased spending on social programs.

4. After the Second World War, Canadian veterans had to fight hard for government-funded housing.

As Professor Kevin Brushett has eloquently pointed out here, veterans returning to Canada after the Second World War were not given government-funded housing; rather, they had to fight for it. Once the federal government made government-funded housing available for veterans, this made the thought of government-funded housing for other groups of Canadians more palatable.

5. The introduction of government-sponsored mortgage insurance in 1954 had a profound impact on home ownership in Canada.

This social insurance program protected financial institutions against risk when they provided mortgages to Canadian homeowners. Indeed, it was a government-sponsored insurance program rather than a subsidy per se. Under the scheme, individual homeowners would pay insurance premiums. This plan, which remains in place today, resulted in higher levels of home ownership.

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The following individuals were very helpful in helping me prepare the present blog post: George Fallis, Francesco Falvo and Allan Moscovitch. Any errors are mine.

Photo: Montréal 1958. Quartier Saint-Michel Est. Source: Philippe Du Berger/flickr

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