Social Work and Social Welfare in Canada
06.06.2019 Jeanette Elizabeth SchmidContent
- Historical Perspectives
- Contemporary Perspectives
- Contemporary Issues for Canadian Social Welfare
- Social Work Practice
I wish to acknowledge that this paper has been written on the unceded territory of the Snuyneymux First Nations, who allow the Vancouver Island University community and surrounding neighourhoods to live and learn on their lands.
Social work tends to be shaped by socio-political demands, and this is true of Canada also. The Canadian context is in constant flux. The contemporary situation can be understood only through a lens that locates Canadian social work and social welfare historically. In this paper, I first provide a review of the evolution of Canadian social welfare and identify current issues. I then situate Canadian social work against this backdrop.
Canada’s social welfare approach has long been considered as conforming to a liberal orientation. This paper recommends a more nuanced categorization that takes into account the country’s historical context, decentres dominant understandings, recognizes the political contestation of social welfare and acknowledges the movement within Canadian social policy. Further, the role of colonization in shaping current social welfare practices must be appreciated, noting that a land inhabited by Indigenous persons was settled as of the seventh century by Europeans. First this was the French, followed by the British in 1759 (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). The diverse Indigenous tribes and communities had their own systems of governance. The local people invited the settlers to live alongside and share the land. Some treaties were signed. However, the colonists increasingly took over the land, including taking control of unceeded territories. A raft of laws served to decimate Indigenous populations and eroded and often eradicated cultural practices and languages.
Canada was formed into one national territory in 1867 by Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. The two territories of Yukon and the Northwest joined in subsequent years, Newfoundland coming in in 1949, and Nunavat in 1999. Approaches to social welfare were not uniform: as noted Indigenous populations were treated as a separate category, while Quebec’s policies were heavily influenced by French and Catholic perspectives. There were also further regional disparities. It is difficult to offer a linear, chronological account.
The history of Canadian social protection laid the foundations for current social welfare frameworks (Finkel, 2006) and thus merits investigation. I present the historical perspectives from three vantage points, namely that of Indigenous, French and English-speaking Canadians. However, these are not clear, discrete entities, and the reader should thus anticipate intersections across these groupings.
The Indigenous Context
The oppressions, displacement and eradication of Aboriginal persons cannot be adequately described in such a short paper. I highlight only some of these events of suppression by the colonizers.
First Nations, Inuit and Metis constitute the Indigenous persons of Canada, reflecting significant heterogeneity. In the period before colonization, there were accordingly diverse forms of governance, from loser confederations to more hierarchical arrangements. Finkel (2006) outlines specific features at this time. For example, all seemed to be characterised by egalitarianism, with sharing and cooperation being emphasized. Educational, health and social institutions tended to be interlinked. Governance procedures and protocols were typically entrenched orally and through ritual rather than through any written form. However, not all nations were peaceful; some were strongly ranked; and some owned slaves (the latter having a subjugated position).
Despite a 1763 Royal Proclamation by King George III that Aboriginal groups should be protected from exploitation, by 1844 there were clear agendas for assimilation of what were perceived to be lazy, uncivilized and dangerous ‘Indians’. Despite Indigenous persons now being assumed to be British subjects, they – along with Chinese and black populations- were excluded from any social care provision (Finkel, 2006). Land had been taken typically without regard -even in the cases where formal treaties existed (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006).
The Indian Act promulgated in 1876 ended self-governance and legitimized harsh state intervention (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Government structures were established to supervise Indians on reserves, Aboriginals with ‘status' now being considered wards of the state. Assimilation was focused on reducing the numbers of persons with Indian status. It was implemented by enforcing the use of European languages and substituting Christian values for Indigenous practices and worldviews. The goal also was to reduce those with formal Indian status. Thus, Indigenous persons who adopted professions such as law or medicine were expected to become ‘enfranchised’ by relinquishing their Indian designation and status Indian women and subsequent children were no longer considered Indian if they married non-status individuals (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Cultural practices including wearing cultural regalia and conducting communal potlatches were prohibited.
Children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in residential schools where the speaking of their mother tongues was prohibited, adherence to Christianity fostered, and contact with family minimized. Conditions in these schools were often abusive, nutrition was inadequate, and health care absent, many children dying. More than 150 000 Inuit, First Nations and Metis children attended residential schools between their inception in 1883 and the last school closure in 1996 (Chappell, 2014). Little was done to address major health issues among Indigenous persons, though children with TB, as well as their adult counterparts (Finkel, 2006) were treated in segregated Indian hospitals which often were far from home and functioned as a seamless system with the schools. Trudeau in March 2019 extended a formal apology for the practice of removing TB-infected persons from their communities without notification to families of their whereabouts or even of their deaths.
In a next phase, known at the Sixties Scoop (although extending into the 1970s), significant numbers of Indigenous children were placed in (white) foster care. As with residential schools, children became dislocated from their families and communities of origin, losing their sense of belonging. Despite recent official recognition of the harm done in this phase, the child protection system has continued as an agent of repression. Currently every second Indigenous child is placed in care (Chappell, 2014), representing half of the children in care in Canada.
Indigenous persons have despite the intensive persecution continued to fight for their rights, recognition of their identity and nations, and control over resources. Chappell (2014) offers insight into this process. In the 1960s formal advocacy groups were established, and in 1982 Aboriginal rights became entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. In 1995, the right to self-government was acknowledged, government interference lessened, and on reserve there was now administrative control for health, education and social welfare initiatives. Further recognition of nation-to-nation authority was formalized in the 2004 Kelowna Accord. Resources were allocated but these were severely reduced with the election of the Conservatives in 2006. As a legacy of such repression and of decades of underfunding, education, housing, health and social service provision have been severely compromised, leaving Indigenous persons in poverty and divorced from resources that are rightfully theirs. Certain harms have been acknowledged through formal state apologies, and there has been some recompense through, for example, the 2007 Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The present Trudeau government has indicated that it wishes to address these injustices. There have been many symbolic gestures and some limited action in this regard over the last three years. It did in 2016 accept the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights (https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/canada-adopting-implementing-un-rights-declaration-1.3575272). In April 2019, the federal government introduced legislation to empower and legitimize the establishment of Indigenous child welfare institutions and responses. This is intended to ensure that Indigenous children could grow up in their communities.
The active erosion and elimination of a cultural foundation, heritage, identity and decision-making left generations of Aboriginal persons with tenuous links to their families, language, spiritual practices and land. Recognition of the associated intergenerational trauma and its effects for individual, family and community functioning are relatively new. It is primarily through the Truth and Reconciliation process and the 2015 associated report and its specific calls to action that broader society is beginning to pay attention to the plight of Indigenous Canadians. (Find the report on this government website: https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1529106060525). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has allowed for the naming and expression of the extent of colonization. Institutions of governance are expected to implement the recommendations in areas such as social services, health, education, corrections, housing, natural resources and child protection.
Having described the arc regarding Aboriginal persons in Canada, I turn to the French and English-speaking communities. The functions of trade and government characterising the fur trade were separated in 1663. (Finkel, 2006). Due to colonization, European forms of social policy impacted developments in what is now known as Canada (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Rice & Prince, 2000). As such, the French colonies in Canada adopted the prevailing French social welfare approaches. These assumed that persons in need were supported first by their families, and only thereafter by the state. The church also played a dominant role (Finkel, 2006). Thus, in addition to government services, charitable organizations (predominantly Catholic) provided a range of services, including housing, education, skills training and physical care (Chappell, 2014). Finkel (2006) asserts that French colonial society was highly stratified and that services received were based on class.
In 1759, British conquerors decimated such supports, though as of 1774 with the passing of the Quebec Act, the Roman Catholic church was permitted to deliver needed social welfare services. Volunteers played a central role in caring for the vulnerable (regardless of the latter’s religious affiliation). The influence of the Catholic church continued to be strong and facilitated a distrust of the state into modern times (Villaincourt, 2012). In the 1930s a more corporatist approach was adopted including for example, the introduction of a family allowance intended to bolster larger families against poverty (Villaincourt, 2012). Quebec also adopted a passive approach towards federal policies. This shifted in the 1960s and 1970s under the influence of modern nationalism when a residual welfare approach was rejected in favour of social democratic policies and state leadership and coordination (Villaincourt, 2012). The need for state social assistance was affirmed, and significant health and social welfare reforms were undertaken (Villaincourt, 2012).
Villaincourt (2012) argues that over the last thirty years, Quebecois social policy has been a unique mix of neoliberal, neo-welfarist regulation and social solidarity perspectives. As of 1994, despite strong federal neoliberalism, Quebec instituted a range of progressive policies regarding housing, three-year funding cycles for community agencies, local development centres, child care, youth employment supports, encouragement of social economy organizations, antipoverty and anti-exclusion strategies and active citizenship (Villaincourt, 2012). Quebec provided universal low-cost child care as of 1998 and then offered generous parental social insurance as of 2006 that also targeted fathers specifically (Evans, 2012). It has more recently established community services that are driven by partnerships of service providers, and mental health service users and their families (Nelson, 2012).
Early Canada. Mirroring developments in the French colonies, the legacy of English approaches to social care were reflected in the social welfare system that emerged in English-speaking Canada. There was no uniform system, regions developing their own approaches (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Generally, though, formal support was associated with social control (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Self-sufficiency was encouraged, charity being stigmatized (Chappell, 2014; Rice & Prince, 2000). Indeed, the Protestant Work Ethic along with perspectives adopted from the English Poor Laws informed public relief systems, which accordingly were residual, conditional and offered limited benefits (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). The assumption was that poverty was a result of poor character and moral failings. It was expected that families provide for their own before state assistance was offered, some settlements imposing fines on families who failed to do so (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006; Rice & Prince, 2000). Poor houses, work houses, houses of industry, and houses of refuge were established in many parishes, the individual being seen as responsible for their own misfortune (Finkel, 2006). The vestiges of this early social policy approach are evident in contemporary welfare, for example, in the strong moral slant to decision-making linked to the notions of deserving and undeserving poor; gender differentiation regarding benefits; individual responsibility; ideas of eligibility (and restricting eligibility due to costs); and practices of wage supplementation as well as the value placed on work (Finkel, 2006; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Rice & Prince, 2000).
The social context began shifting with the increased numbers of immigrants, greater urbanization and changes regarding the nature of work (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). In the late 1800s there were two primary streams of welfare support: government (which acted through Houses of Industry and institutions such as hospitals) and the private or voluntary sector (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). The latter included both philanthropic organizations as well as a politicized social movement (including workers’ organizations/trade unions, temperance groups and women’s organizations (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003).
Ideas about poverty began to change. With industrialization roles shifted, leaving the man as the primary bread winner (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). This was also a time of significant economic growth, though such progress was not uniform across Canada (Finkel, 2006). Social reformers, many acting within the parameters of Christian belief (such as the YWCA or the temperance unions) began advocating for governments to take a more active role regarding conditions for workers, children and women (Chappell, 2014). Middle class parenting ideas became the dominant standard, and it was believed the state should intervene if parents were found inadequate. Indeed, children’s later misbehaviour was identified as related to the child’s parenting (Finkel, 2006). The child saver movement did not necessarily protect children better: many children were indentured., or as noted previously, in the case of Indigenous children, removed to residential schools (Finkel, 2006).
The policy environment shifted fairly dramatically. Workmen’s compensation, introduced in some provinces as early as 1886, was in place in all provinces by 1920. Child welfare legislation was enacted in Ontario in 1893, soon followed by other jurisdictions (Chappell, 2014). The British North America Act of 1867 set the foundation for matters of ‘housing, transportation, social supports, education and other human services’ to be relegated to the provincial level (Dunn, 2012, p. 281). While in some instances these developments appear positive, Finkel (2006) argues that social control was at the heart of this policy agenda and was clearly evidenced in child welfare and criminal justice policies. It was in this context that the first Canadian school of social work was established in 1914 (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003).
War and Depression
The fallout of both wars as well as the Depression seem to have shifted social welfare policy towards a more universal approach, significant numbers of people requiring some type of intervention beyond familial help. Collective responses were rooted in ideas of solidarity (Westhues, 2012). As such, the vulnerability of soldiers during World War I led to initiatives supporting soldiers, and also their families, though Finkel (2006) suggests supports were inadequate and disappointed veterans. It was now thought that vulnerable children should be kept in their families and Mothers’ Allowances (1920) provided the extra assistance to keep families together. Such initiatives supported widows and deserted wives, but excluded unwed mothers (Finkel, 2006). Means-tested Old Age Pensions were introduced in 1927, funded by federal and provincial governments and substituting for relief payments which were seen as too expensive (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006). Medical care for women and children were introduced (Chappell, 2014).
The Depression brought along significant unemployment. Private charitable organizations and municipalities (with federal support) provided direct assistance to respond to the concomitant poverty, health and housing issues, but also acted indirectly through public works programs. The responses were poorly planned and lacked significant impact, resulting in protests (Chappell 2014). Ultimately, unemployment insurance became available as of 1940, being the first significant income security initiative in Canada (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Rather than being viewed as stigmatizing, it was considered a right (Finkel, 2006).
Post-World War II- a welfare state
After WWII the public mood was in favour of state intervention and support. Social values of ‘social equality, human rights, social citizenship and stability’ underpinned the notion of a state supported social safety net and notions of a social minimum (as proposed in the Marsh Report on Social Security of 1943) (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Westhues, 2012). Stronger economies with associated higher employment accommodated such values. Despite the significant political contestation as to what should be offered (Finkel, 2006), the period from 1950 to the late seventies was associated with a marked increase in social program spending (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). In fact, this next phase has been described as interventionist, institutional and as a welfare state (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006; Graham, Swift and Delaney, 2003).
Various benefits became available. For example, Universal Family Allowances were introduced in 1944 (Chappell, 2014). Again Finkel (2006) interrogates motive and suggests these allowances were introduced partly because they allowed wage dampening and motivated rural school attendance (Finkel, 2006). Generous veteran supports were launched (Finkel, 2006). In 1962, immigration criteria became more flexible, increasing the numbers of newcomers to Canada (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Regarding old age security, in 1951, the previous Old Age Pension Act of 1927 was replaced by the federally funded, indexed and universal benefits of the Old Age Security Act along with the means tested Old Age Assistance for vulnerable seniors (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). In 1965 a compulsory, contributory Canada Pensions Plan offering protection in retirement and disability was introduced, followed in 1965 by the Guaranteed Income Supplement. In 1968 the age of eligibility was reduced from 70 to 65 years of age. The first home care program was offered in Manitoba in 1974 to promote the independence of seniors (Finkel, 2006). Another significant development occurred in 1966 with the introduction of a national health insurance system. By 1972 this was provincially administered (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Disability allowances had also been introduced. During the 1960s and 1970s social movements (feminist, peace, environmental and gay) began problematizing stigmatizing attitudes. Groups which were to have a long-term impact, such as the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, emerged. In many provinces, various income security programs were introduced. Additionally, in 1975, in recognition of female poverty, a Spouses Allowance became available to struggling wives of male pensioners. in 1982, Canada was a forerunner in addressing physical and mental disabilities in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Dunn, 2012). A Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced in 1982 and a Criminal Code in 1985 (Westhues, 2012). A Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Disabled Persons was established in 1987.
There were though certain gaps. For example, the provision of affordable daycare was debated as of the 1950s, becoming an ever more important issue as greater numbers of women entered the workforce. However, universal day care or even sufficient affordable spots were not provided (Finkel, 2006). A 1968 study on poverty highlighted the issue of the working poor as a growing social concern, and although a guaranteed annual income was considered, it was never implemented (Chappell, 2014). The provision of affordable housing (for example, for low income families or cash-strapped elderly) similarly was limited, despite federal loans to housing cooperatives from the 1960s to 1992 (Finkel, 2006). Programs such as the Assisted Home Ownership Program that was brought in in 1973 and provincial initiatives supported by federal loans tended to benefit the middle class, but even then, within constraints (Finkel, 2006).
Global Recession and Neoliberalism
By the early 1980s close to 14 % of GDP was spent on social welfare (Chappell, 2014). This was all to change, beginning with concerns expressed in the late 1970s that due to the slowing of the economy and growing government debt that governmental spending needed to be reined in (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012; Westhues, 2012). Canada, like other countries impacted by emerging globalization, began favouring monetarism and associated neoliberal perspectives. Adopting a business perspective, the Liberals as of 1995, reduced spending, downsized and decentralized government and began to dismantle the welfare state (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006; Rice & Prince, 2000). Federal government funding decreased; selective criteria replaced universal access; and there were claw backs as well as consistent reductions in the scope and number of social programs (Chappell, 2015). Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). As part of welfare devolution, the Canadian Assistance Plan, which had transferred federal funding to provinces for post-secondary education, health and social welfare, was first capped and then revised to become the Canada Health and Social Transfer program. This latter program now offered block funds, allowing provinces to allocate these monies as deemed appropriate. With such autonomy, provinces tended to prioritize healthcare, hollowing out social spending and placing marginalized vulnerable sectors of the population at risk (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012; Lessa, 2012).
Policymakers rationalized such measures by suggesting that social support created dependency. Social welfare beneficiaries were now constructed as lazy and suffering due to their own fault, rather than structural issues -such as the poor economy- being viewed as a cause (Chappell, 2014). Instead, federal budget surpluses were directed towards a new social investment approach. This focused on social inclusion, self-sufficiency and multiculturalism. Seniors’ programs were funded. There was greater focus on Aboriginal communities (Chappell, 2014). Children and youth became a priority and the National Children’s Agenda to address children’s poverty was adopted in 1999. Accordingly, early learning and child care programs were established. A Family Violence Initiative was set up (Chappell, 2014). At the same time though, a promise to dramatically increase child care spaces and develop a national child care program was not fulfilled – barring an affordable child care program that was launched in Quebec, (Finkel, 2006). Originally introduced in 1990, by 2001, parental leave was available for 35 weeks, three times as much as previously (Evans, 2012). However, the universal Family Allowance program and income-tax-based measures were amended to become the New Integrated Child Tax Benefit in 1993, which in turn was replaced by with the income-tested Canadian Child Tax Benefit (1997, thus reducing these supports significantly (Chappell, 2014; Finkel, 2006). In focussing on the promotion of individual responsibility, the state instituted welfare-to-work programs and integration into the workforce, for example, of immigrants, single mothers or persons with minor disabilities (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012). In 1987 the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Mullins, 2012) and immigration legislation was amended in 2008 to promote the entry of skilled immigrants (George, 2012; Mullins, 2012). Regarding disability, despite various governmental reports being produced highlighting issues relating to employment, the mainstreaming of disability policies, and coordinated collective action, disability rights activists initiated a Call to Action in 2005 urging action by the government (Dunn, 2012).
Simultaneously, welfare assistance became more difficult to access (Finkel 2006). The use of tax-free savings accounts for education and retirement were promoted and tax relief for persons with disabilities offered. The federal government ended its financial support of the Unemployment Insurance program and then perceiving it as overgenerous, replaced it in 1995 with Employment Insurance. This further tightened eligibility criteria and periods of benefits (Finkel, 2006). The limited budget for housing similarly was reduced further along with the relaxation of rent controls (Finkel, 2006).
The state did, however, still provide around two-thirds of social welfare programming finances (Chappell, 2014). The use of a contracting out model meant that funding became increasingly competitive, conditional and required marked administrative accountability and investment. Funding tended towards being project-based and thus short term (Chappell, 2014). The lack of consistent core funding models created significant insecurity regarding long term programming, and facilitated short term, fragmented and often instrumental service which did not address underlying issues. Workers, never sure about contracts being extended, felt undervalued, and were increasingly overloaded and undervalued. Family members increasingly were expected to provide care, and such unpaid caregiving was not sufficiently acknowledged (Chappell, 2014). Social welfare policy became more and more residual (Chappell, 2014). Fewer people were considered to be in need, criteria for support becoming increasingly restrictive and the number of recipients of social welfare decreasing (Chappell, 2014). This re-alignment of the welfare system meant that social assistance supports were so eroded that the combination of benefits seldom provided adequate help (Finkel, 2006; Hunter, 2012). While in the early 2000s federal budgets were balanced, and provincial deficits less daunting, the social deficit had increased dramatically: in one-decade (1999-2000) poverty had increased to affecting 16.2 % of Canadians (children being disproportionately impacted).
Conservatism- 2006–2015. The crisis was deepened when the conservatives were in power under Stephen Harper for the period 2006–2015. This government aimed to significantly reduce the size of government and to minimize social investment. Healy and Trew (2015) explain that under the conservatives, civil society debate and dissent were stifled; the voice and rights of labour, unions, immigrants, Indigenous persons and women undermined; a punitive approach to crime strengthened; public health weakened; and safety relating to food, water and environmental safety compromised. Adopting a fiscalization approach, taxes were lowered (Chappell, 2014). The assumption was that individuals would have more disposable income to take care of their own needs. The penalizing impacts of a regressive tax system on the poor was overlooked (Chappell, 2014). This government now gave provinces full control regarding social welfare issues, who in turn increasingly privatized social welfare delivery and expected service agencies to seek non-governmental funding sources (Chappell, 2014). The 2008–2009 recession further exacerbated the situation, with provinces having fewer resources to allocate, and non-profit organizations struggling to find needed funds. Targeted rather than universal benefits became the norm. Welfare supports were hollowed out further, but with the perverse rationale that this provided the incentive towards work (see for example, Finnie and Irvine, 2008). Berg and Gabel (2015) argue that welfare claims were dramatically reduced because of marked barriers in accessing assistance. Canada now faces major challenges regarding income and gender inequity as well as child poverty. There were some positives, for example, Canada became a signatory to UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010 (Chappell, 2014; Dunn, 2012).
The devaluing of social programs and the shifting of responsibility for welfare onto the individual mean that the entitlements associated with a welfare state are no longer priorized by the state. Social inequities are now a feature of Canadian life. Having examined the historical context, I turn to contemporary perspectives.
The statistics have all been drawn from Stats Canada (https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/start). The country comprises ten provinces and three territories, the population reaching almost 37 million in 2017. The southern areas are the most settled. 16.9 % of the population is over 65 %, with 16.6 % being under 14, marking a shift towards an aging population. Aboriginal people make up 4.9 % of the total Canadian population. This figure has grown significantly over recent decades due to natural growth as well as increased self-identification, and young people under age 14 represent about one third of the Indigenous population. Inuit, Metis and First Nations people are spread through the country, many still in reserves, though half are in urban areas, the shift towards urbanization increasing progressively. One fifth of Canadians are foreign born. Indeed, in Toronto, 76 % of residents were born outside of Canada or have a parent born outside of Canada. This diverse tapestry of the Canadian population has consequences for Canadian social welfare.
Social Welfare Mechanisms
Policy is developed at federal, regional and local levels (Westhues, 2012). Successful federal policymaking and the legislative process begins with a proposal that is reviewed through ad hoc consultation that results in a Memorandum of Cabinet; a committee report is then established and ratified; thereafter a Bill is produced which goes through a first and second reading; and then to a committee and report state before a third reading in the house. Next there are first, second and third readings at a senate level, culminating in royal assent and the passing of an Act (Westhues & Kenny-Scherber, 2012).
There is a mix of social welfare mechanisms utilized to reach those considered to be vulnerable in Canadian society. These include (Chappell (2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003):
- Income security measures including
- Targeted cash transfers, these including social assistance, Guaranteed Income supplement and disability pensions. Such transfers rely on income, needs and asset-based assessments.
- Universal cash transfers include old age pensions or child care benefits.
- Social insurance, such as employment insurance or worker’s compensation as well as the Canada and Quebec Pension plans, are built on individual contributions
- Tax relief measures: Canada’s tax system is a progressive one is intended to offer some relief to those who are financially at risk. In some provinces, regressive tax measures in the form of VAT (Valued added tax) or GST (General Sales Tax) are also used.
- Goods and services including hospital insurance, legal aid, education, and home care provisions
These mechanisms have not been implemented consistently over time, depending often on the political orientation of the government and their assessment of the worthiness of potential recipients (Chappell, 2014).
Institutions of Social Welfare
Social welfare services are delivered through a mix of private and public agencies viz. government (provincial and municipal) on the one hand and non-governmental, voluntary (both for profit and non-profit) agencies on the other (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). In the voluntary sector there are around 87 500 registered charities which rely on voluntary contributions (donations of goods and funding and the time of volunteers) and are key to the delivery of social services (Lightman, 2003). Provincial governments access funding through legal gambling initiatives (almost 4 %) in addition to federal transfers (Lightman, 2003). Government agencies include welfare service (offering primarily financial supports/social assistance) and corrections and probation. Child welfare services are predominantly offered as a government service through ministries. Where private not for profit agencies deliver such services, for example, in Ontario, the primary funding source is the provincial government, who also determine the legislative and policy framework for the delivery of service.
Contemporary Issues for Canadian Social Welfare
I would like to spotlight some of the issues that compromise well-being in Canada. Once I have explored these, I will examine the role of social work in this contemporary era. This reflection is being presented with the Justin Trudeau government in its 3rd year in power, elections looming in 2020.
A major driver regarding social policy has been the advocacy of Indigenous Canadians who demand that the intergenerational and extensive harm resulting out of colonialism be recognized. Their voices are being heard, hopefully in a new way. The formal apology by Prime Minister Harper to Indigenous persons regarding residential schools as well as the report emerging out of the Truth and Reconciliation set the stage for change. Much of the state response has been symbolic, but these formal acknowledgements of the harm perpetuated historically have created greater space for articulating the truths of the Indigenous experience and for seeking opportunities for reconciliation.
There is some limited movement towards official understanding regarding past harms and the ways in which current policies perpetuate oppression. Greater nation to nation discussion and respect of treaties and international declarations has been demanded and is beginning to occur. A notable example is that in 2018 the highest court of the land has redirected the federal government to review its consultation process regarding the proposed Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline expansion and thus all governmental decisions with an environmental impact. On a provincial level, it was decided in British Columbia in 2018 that ocean salmon farms which cause risk for wild salmon populations and thus also for whales should be halted. The connection between such initiatives and Indigenous food sustainability as well as maintenance of cultural practices is recognised in this decision. Food sustainability is a particular concern for isolated communities, and in this regard, there has been some indication that there might be improved and consistent subsidization. Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to environmental harms, caused primarily by economic exploitation. Grassy Narrows is a community that has become known for the impact of lead on health and wellbeing- lead that has leaked from a mine tailings dam. The current government has reportedly prioritized access to clean water, though efforts since 2015/6 suggest that while there is indeed increased access this is not necessarily to permanent sources. Clean water security thus remains fragile. There is a promised increase to education funding, based on per capita enrollment and under the discretion of band councils, which should ease the historical concerns regarding education. In British Columbia, the educational curriculum now requires that Indigenous history and worldviews be reflected in primary and secondary education. Limited supports are offered to enable Indigenous students to proceed to and succeed in tertiary education. As inferred earlier, efforts are being made to ensure culturally appropriate and meaningful responses regarding child welfare, though the situation regarding the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care remains dire. Cindy Blackstock has advocated for the consistent implementation of Jordan’s Principle: that each Indigenous child should be given the same health funding as a non-Indigenous child. Suicide rates are especially high on reserves, particularly for youth. While there has been talk of making mental health services more available, shifts in this area are slow, and potentially not the response that will address this deep alienation and anomie. The vulnerability of Indigenous women and the lack of intentional responses through the systems of law and order have been formally acknowledged by the establishment of a commission. This commission has completed its hearings, but has been plagued by challenges, undermining and constraining the voices of those who might be willing to name the losses and harms associated with the injustices perpetrated against Indigenous girls and women. Only in recent months has forced sterilization of Indigenous women come to light. Another area of overrepresentation and harm is that of the criminal justice system, the shift towards ever more punitive penal approaches having exacerbated the situation (Hunter, 2012). Canadian systems have long been identified as containing inherent institutional racial bias and visible minorities and Aboriginal persons are markedly overrepresented in the criminal justice system (where they are more likely to be surveilled, charged, sentenced to longer terms, and released later than other Canadians ( Mullins, 2012).
The Canadian Broadcasting company has in 2018 and 2019 highlighted inherent racism within the Thunder Bay and Toronto police services. High profile cases have revolved around a murder of an Indigenous youth being tried by an all-white jury in 2018(https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/colten-boushie/article32451940/); and a young Indigenous male having served more than four years in solitary confinement (2019)(https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/four-years-solitary-1.3821245). Adequate housing on reserves is a further concern. It is evident that Indigenous communities are plagued by intersecting challenges that are exacerbated by outdated and discriminatory policies.
Poverty in Canada
As noted, inequity in Canada has increased substantially in recent decades. A challenge regarding social policy development in the area of poverty is that a standard, agreed upon measure of poverty is absent in Canada (Hunter, 2012). Nevertheless, one can assert that the quality of life has decreased for many Canadians as poverty has increased. Ultimately, income inequality is a primary driver of poverty including childhood poverty, explaining why poverty has not lessened despite income growth (Hunter, 2012). One in three single adults (45-65 years); one in five persons living with a disability; one in five lone parent families (typically headed by women); one in six immigrants (particularly those arriving after 2000) and one in six Aboriginal persons are poor (Chappell, 2014). Assets/private wealth, precarious work and under/un-resourced families and networks result in families often being severely compromised (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012). Persons in poverty often live in impoverished, disadvantaged communities, this compounding challenges. Those finding themselves in poverty mostly struggle to move into a more secure income level (Hunter, 2012). Women are particularly affected by cuts to social programs (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Poverty is thus both ‘racialized and gendered’ (Finkel, 2006, p. 304.)
Many Canadians find themselves in chronic underemployment (Chappell, 2014) or in precarious employment. There is growing wage inequality (Hunter, 2012). The so-called gig economy might in theory offer flexible employment but attracts primarily those who are unable to access other job opportunities. However, such challenges are framed as individuals having poor attachment to the economy, rather than structural contributors being addressed (Hunter, 2012).
Using the Low-income Cut-Off measure, fourteen percent of children live in poverty, with some provinces reporting at least a quarter of children being impacted by inadequate income (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012). Despite public commitments to children, the campaign to eliminate child poverty by 2000, the launch of ‘A Canada fit for Children’ policy in 2004, child poverty appears to have become entrenched (Chappell, 2014; Hunter, 2012). Only in Quebec is there a comprehensive family policy as well as affordable child care (Chappell, 2014). Subsidized child care spaces are at a premium, many children not finding space within this system. Indigenous and racialized children are particularly vulnerable to poverty.
Poverty is evidenced in food insecurity, a persistent problem despite the introduction of a 1998 federal guide Action Plan for Food Security and the provision of free food, nutrition education programs, food kitchen, community gardens or food box programs in many communities.
The lack of affordable and appropriate housing is a concern for many, especially as federal government investment in social housing has seen major decreases since the 1990s (Chappell, 2014; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Grant & Munro, 2012). As asserted by Graham, Swift and Delaney, (2003, p. 95), ‘homelessness has become an increasingly visible problem in Canadian cities, affecting about 80 000 Canadians (mainly men and youth) (Chappell, 2014). Some people are unsheltered, while others ‘couch surf’ moving between short term accommodation provided by a social network. Both rental and owned properties are becoming harder for low- and middle-class income earners to access. Housing stock itself is not available both in major and lesser urban centres (for example, in Vancouver, a big city and Nanaimo, a small traditionally working-class town, vacancy rates are less than 2 %). Even middle-class earners are in certain contexts need to decide between paying their rents and buying food.
Women often find themselves in poverty (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Rice & Prince, 2000), but through the neoliberal lens, unemployed single mothers (where racialized groups are overrepresented), are portrayed as irresponsible and responsible for their circumstances (Lessa, 2012). Single parenthood, especially lone motherhood, is seen to create particular vulnerability (Hunter, 2012; Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; Lessa, 2012). Currently, single, poor mothers, who cannot raise families on limited state supports, are rewarded for integration into the workforce by receiving various benefits, though these workfare programs do not necessarily ameliorate poverty (Hunter, 2012; Lessa, 2012). The lack of affordable daycare spaces is a further barrier especially for mothers who are typically the caregivers (Lessa, 2012).
Canadian health care is seen as a universal, publicly funded provision (Burke & Silver, 2012; Chappell, 2014) and is assumed to offer equal care to all Canadians. However, poor Canadians do not receive the same healthcare as their richer counterparts due to a range of factors. For example, there is relegation of health care responsibilities to the ‘individual, family and not for profit sector” (Burke & Silver, 2012, p.383). Certain medical concerns such as dental care, physiotherapy and vision care are not offered across the board. Benefits offered by employers allow those working to access such services. Indeed, private medical care spending continues to increase as proportion of the health care budget (Burke & Silver, 2012). The neoliberal commodification of health care has affected the provision of service, provinces adopting increasingly restrictive policies (Burke & Silver, 2012). Some provinces require that an annual premium be paid. Wait times have been a concern for a number of years, those with financial security sometimes paying for health care services outside of Canada. Another issue is that health care provision is substantially better in urban areas. Moreover, although a pharmacare program is available to indigent patients, expensive medications tend to be available only to those on medical benefits. Thus, although a two-tiered system is officially resisted, in practice poor Canadians have significantly less access to adequate health care.
Those living in poverty face barriers in many areas of their lives. Activists have been calling for a national poverty strategy and thus a systemic, systematic response.
Refugees, Immigration, and Visible Minorities in Canada
Despite being popularly known as a country of immigrants, Canada’s history is steeped not only in paternalistic, harmful attitudes and practices towards Indigenous persons, as discussed earlier, but also in racism against visible minorities and various immigrant populations (George, 2012; Mullins, 2012). For example, Canada’s history of slavery continues to be ignored (Mullins, 2012). Regarding historical injustices, Canada has needed to account for (amongst others) the head tax imposed on Chinese workers in the 19th century; the limitations on Japanese immigration as well as the internment of Japanese Canadians; and the rejection of Jewish refugees during the Second World War (George, 2012; Mullins, 2012). While immigration has always been contested, it appeared for the first time in 2018 with the rhetoric of Maxime Bernier that it might become an issue motivating political action and polarization. Social services for immigrants are often fragmented and inadequate (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003), although the federal government is investing in Local Immigrant Partnerships to offer more systematic and consolidated support.
Canada is perceived internationally as welcoming refugees and offering clear settlement programs. Critics suggest that the refugee application process as enacted most recently in the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, is arduous and that in many respects, Canada’s processes are quite restrictive (Chappell, 2014; George, 2012). The detention allowed under the Act potentially traumatizes particularly children and youth who may be held separated from their families (Chappell, 2014). Other challenges include the difficulty newcomers often have in finding work (educational and professional qualifications frequently are not recognized) (Chappell, 2014). Indeed in 2011 14 % remained unemployed after being in Canada for five years or less- compared to a 7 % national unemployment rate at that time. Having been granted entry on a points system, the challenges in securing an adequate income, loss of status and general racism if they are part of an identifiable minority is distressing- especially when gratitude is expected from dominant society. Mental health issues are prevalent amongst newcomers, because of the trauma often encountered in their countries and en route to Canada, but also because of the struggles in finding a meaningful place in Canadian society. George (2012) points out that immigrants from visible minority groups are often disadvantaged in comparison to immigrants who appear white- indeed, the prejudices they experience continue to impede settlement long after their newcomer status has passed. Further, those identified as visible minorities frequently are treated as newcomers through generations of settlement in Canada (George, 2012). These various barriers increasingly place immigrants in a precarious situation, newcomers often dealing with poverty (George, 2012). A group often overlooked when considering refugees and immigrants are temporary migrants, who typically enter Canada for seasonal work. Temporary migrants also face many barriers in participating in Canadian society and accessing relevant supports.
Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) along with its equality clause passed in 1985, each individual in Canada has the right to expect equal treatment regardless of their social location (Mullins, 2012). Mullins (2012) argues that one area where there is patent inequality is in the area or employment despite the Employment Equity Act of 1986, racialized groups feeling the impact. The Human Rights Tribunal shows clear bias and discrimination against racialized groups (Mullings, 2012). Moreover, racialized persons are impacted by visible racism, which seems to be on the rise, with a 43 % increase in expressions of hate in 2017 alone (Statscan). This is primarily attributed to the new sanctioning of racist behaviour under the Trump administration, this being seen to legitimize such behaviour also in Canada. There was a lethal attack on a mosque in Montreal in 2017. Thus being an immigrant, refugee or a racialized person increases the risk of daily discrimination.
A number of key policy shifts have taken place in recent years in relation to the LGBTQ+. Canada decriminalized certain issues related to homosexuality in 1969, outlawed discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in the 1980s responded to the HIV and AIDS crisis (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003; O’Neill, 2012). Same sex partners qualified for equal spousal benefits as heterosexual partners as of 2000 (O’Neill, 2005). In 2005, Canada was amongst the first countries to legalize same-sex marriages. This stood in contrast to such policies that prevented the immigration of LGBT individuals before 1977 and the sponsorship of same sex partners under the Immigration Act only being permitted in 2002 (O’Neill, 2012). In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau made a formal apology to gays and lesbians who had been shamed and excluded from civil service and military life if their sexual orientation became known. Transgender persons no longer need to choose a sex on official documents.
Despite increasing acceptance and acknowledgement of a spectrum regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, Canada continues to be a heteronormative society. Indeed in 2018, gay activists in Toronto alleged that a series of murders targeting men having sex with men were initially under-investigated. Offering toilets that are not gender exclusive has not yet become the norm. Hate crimes against persons assumed to be LGBT are an expression of continued public discrimination (McNeill, 2012).
Shifting Demographics of Age
Because of the aging baby boomers, increased life expectancy and declining birth rates, seniors occupy an ever-growing proportion of the Canadian population (Chappell, 2014). Social welfare policy needs to pay greater attention to this diverse sector of Canadians, especially those who are frail or have mental health issues (Chappell, 2014; Neysmith, 2012). The old age grants, which between 1950–1980 raised many elderly persons out of poverty, have not been increased significantly. The associated bureaucracy prevents all claimants applying for benefits. As a consequence, many seniors live in significant poverty. This is especially so for women who are less likely due to mothering responsibilities to have sufficient years of employment contributions to the Canadian Pension Plan (Finkel, 2006; Neysmith, 2012). This is another area of social service that is underfunded (Neysmith, 2012). Appropriate housing options must be made available to seniors (Chappell, 2014). Policy must consider not only the elderly, but the needs of informal and formal (employed and volunteer) caregivers, ensuring adequate financial support or remuneration, respite options and sustainable working conditions (Neysmith, 2012).
Graham, Swift and Delaney (2003) suggest that geography also discriminates, an issue social policy must consider. This is despite government initiatives since the 1960s to facilitate regional development. Persons in rural areas are less likely to have access to services, and are more likely to deal with poverty as well as health concerns (ref?) They further argue that the urban-biased materials emerging from the United States especially, should be interrogated.
Fourteen percent of Canadians live with a disability (Chappell, 2014). Historically, persons with disabilities were relegated to institutions. In the early 20th century, persons with physical and/or intellectual disability were the target of eugenics and subjected to sterilization (Graham, Delaney & Swift, 2003). Canada has undertaken a number of apparently progressive initiatives regarding disability and has been influenced by international shifts (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Despite fundamental rights being formally acknowledged, social policy is this area is a patchwork of underfunded provincial policies and programs, with increasing downloading of such responsibilities to the municipal level (Dunn, 2012). Although rights are formally acclaimed, and inclusion is increasingly promoted, practically significant barriers remain, for example, in the areas of education, employment and barrier-free housing (Dunn, 2012). Financial support is meagre and complicated to access (Dunn, 2012). Personal support also is uneven and often does not address basic needs (Dunn, 2012). Transportation is frequently offered locally but is ultimately a fragmented service. Additionally, public transport is often inaccessible (Dunn, 2012). Streets and physical access to buildings remains challenging. Even so, women with disabilities and indigenous person with disabilities struggle to find meaningful work and supports. Programs for children and youth tend to be fragmented and/or inadequate.
Although universal health care has been available since the 1960s, Canada lacks a specific mental health act, provinces generating their own (Nelson, 2012). A national plan seems to be needed (Nelson, 2012) that goes beyond the historical use of the medical model in responding to mental health. Persons living with mental health issues are overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a move to deinstitutionalization, but only as of the 1980s were there attempts on the provincial level to shift towards community-based services (Nelson, 2012). Community-based service delivery does not necessarily offer inclusion, and empowerment, recovery and community participation are needed. Nelson (2012) further suggests that strategies to support persons living with moderate mental health issues are required in such a plan. Prevention and promotion require further attention (Nelson, 2012). The impact of ethnoracial and gender dimensions must be considered (Nelson, 2012).
Social policies need to be increasingly informed by persons living with disabilities (Dunn, 2012). The independent Living movement, originating in the USA, established a Canadian body in 1986. This grouping has advocated for human rights, community living and full societal participation in Canadian social policies and has succeeded in offering services within this framework (Dunn, 2012). This has intersected with persons living with mental disabilities increasingly insisting on having their voice heard and lived experience noted (Dunn, 2012). Nevertheless, many areas continue to require attention (Dunn, 2012). One illustration of this need relates to the recognition of persons affected by the thalidomide scandal. In Canada those who could prove their mothers were prescribed this medication were provided with compensation. It is only in 2019 that there have been concessions to persons suffering the consequences of this drug but who could not offer proof.
The fentanyl crisis has over recent years highlighted the vulnerability of those dependent on substances. It has also illuminated the place of pharmaceutical industry and doctors in creating opioid dependency. It has also become evident that substance misuse crosses class.
Social Work Practice
As noted earlier, the first social work school was established in 1914. Bachelor of Social Work as well as Master degrees became available after WWII (Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). There around 86 000 social work practitioners in Canada. Social work practice in Canada is typically clinical. Many practitioners are employed by the state, working in child welfare and in corrections. Social work educational institutions are accredited through the Canadian Association of Social Work Education (CASWE), there being 42 accredited programs. Curricula are informed by accreditation standards (https://caswe-acfts.ca/commission-on-accreditation/). They are guided also by CASWE principles. These suggest that the wellbeing of individuals, families, groups and communities are addressed through attending to human rights and social justice; eradicating inequities caused by structural factors; respecting human diversity; facilitating participation; integrating theory and practice; engaging interdisciplinarity; and maintaining a critical, reflexive stance. Further, education should be responsive to local conditions. The specific place of Francophone realities must be acknowledged, and the history, colonization and self-determination of Indigenous people addressed. Francophone, Anglophone and Indigenous models of social work intersect, but are informed by different assumptions and may look different in practice. Social work practice is guided by the Canadian Association of Social Work ethics (https://www.casw-acts.ca/en/Code-of-Ethics).
In Anglophone contexts, anti-oppressive social work has typically become the guiding framework. Anti-oppressive social work is informed by critical social work and recognizes the impacts of structural factors on individual, group, family and community functioning. It recommends an intersectional understanding of social location and its impact on social work interventions and demands an examination of power. Raising awareness or conscientizing service users/clients and making explicit and visible the impact of micro, mezzo and macro factors is encouraged. Anti-oppressive practice further promotes solidarity with others similarly affected and the building of social networks. Empowerment through a focus on strengths and extension of human and social capital is encouraged. Reflexive praxis is also an essential element of effective anti-oppressive work. Dumbrill and Yee (2019) caution against the mainstreaming of anti-oppressive practice. This occurs where binaries are substituted for complexity, and where the superficial examination of oppression and discrimination does not unsettle privilege and dominant (whether in the classroom or in practice settings). The impact of the environment on functioning is increasingly being recognized ((Graham, Swift & Delaney, 2003). Green or ecological social work is thus being introduced into the curriculum. In many contexts, it is not just Indigenous history that is being taught. Indigenous worldviews and approaches to helping are being included and even centered in curriculum. In social work there are increasing numbers of programs that are offered from a holistic worldview. As described by Saulis (2012) this includes the mental, spiritual, emotional and physical; looks to the integration of individual and collective perspectives; and affirms the place of land (place) and nature. Culturally appropriate social work is increasingly an alternative to the cultural competency approach imported from the United States. Much work remains to be done in this area.
While social work programs aim to teach critical social work, as elsewhere in the Anglophone world (see Ferguson), neo-liberal influences undermine such work. Faculty struggle with large class sizes, overload resulting in a lack of time to work more intentionally. Academic freedom is constrained by university expectations and by a push towards standardization. The centrality of student evaluation is experienced as undermining.
Neoliberalism has also changed the experience of social service organizations, who are expected to function more like businesses with a focus on the financial bottom-line (Chappell, 2104). As alluded to above, funding models have eviscerated long-term programming, and redirected efforts from service to fundraising. Similarly, there are ever-increasing pressures on accountability, drawing time away from client interactions to administration (Chappell, 2014). While on the one hand there is increasing professionalization of social work (for example, British Columbia in 2015 introduced social work registration; hospital social work requires a Master degree), there is on the other, an increasing push for social work tasks to be carried out by less qualified, cheaper personnel that has been accompanied by wage depression (Chappell, 2014). A further dynamic is that increased specialization of roles results in greater fragmentation of service. Contract staff are used more often. Indeed, already in 2003, Graham, Swift and Delaney, (2003) observed that altogether fewer social service personnel were being hired. There is also an encroachment on social work, for example, nurses taking on social work functions. Social welfare organizations are encouraged by government to increasingly rely on volunteers. While this offers some benefit, these agencies have to invest considerably in the training and retaining of volunteers (Chappell, 2014). Tensions between professional and volunteer staff also have to be managed (Chappell, 2014). The irony is, that as the review of some contemporary Canadian issues shows, there is an ongoing, and arguably increasing need for well-trained social workers.
Where does this leave social work? A study I, Marina Morgenshtern, Shane Young and Jessie Turton are conducting, concludes from the literature that dominant social work practices have limited relevance. Contextualized social work practice and education that attends to historical and current oppression; privileges participation; situates itself locally while attending to the global; understands and works in the intersections of the micro, meso and macro; and centres Indigenous/local knowledges and ways of doing and being, is essential in offering appropriate and meaningful practice. Advocacy (Westhues, 2012b) and community work become primary tools.
Canadians would portray themselves as belonging to a caring society that offers a clear safety net. However, as demonstrated above, while there are certain important foundations to the social welfare system, these are being significantly weakened. Important gaps exist, particularly for Indigenous persons and those identified as visible minorities.
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Jeanette Elizabeth Schmid, Dr., Instructor at Vancouver Island University (Canada).
Research Fellow of The University of Johannesburg since 2008.
Teacher and Researcher whose interests include child welfare policy, developmental social welfare, international social work and socialjustice issues.
Cite this publication
Schmid, Jeanette Elizabeth, 2019. Social Work and Social Welfare in Canada. In: socialnet International [online]. 06.06.2019 ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: https://www.socialnet.de/international/en/papers/social-work-and-social-welfare-in-canada.html
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