Social Policy in Canada – Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Queens University School of Policy Studies, Working Paper No. 46

36 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2012

Date Written: November 1, 2008


This paper discusses recent policy trends in Canada, the changing role of the various actors in the system, international comparisons and a range of other social policy topics. The immediate purpose of the paper is to examine the reasons why social policy analysts need to look to the future and to explore ways of managing the inevitably large risks associated with such future-looking exercises. The underlying purpose, however, is pedagogical -- to introduce a range of important Canadian social policy topic to students and others who are interested in social policy, but without much previous background in the area.

The first part of the paper was taken directly from a 1994 presentation that was intended to provide outside social policy experts (from Latin America in this case) with an overview of the Canadian social policy landscape, particularly of recent trends and possible future directions, mainly from a federal government perspective. At that time, major reform of social security policies was being discussed and I tried to give our visitors some flavour of the background to that reform, with particular emphasis on the challenges of undertaking reforms in a time of constrained resources. That presentation ended with a discussion of possible future directions in social policy in Canada.

The timing of that conference was interesting in hindsight -- 1994 may have been the last year in which an optimistic paper could have been written about comprehensive social policy reform in Canada, using the lens of the traditional welfare state. The years since then have had a very different look and feel, with much greater emphasis on smaller marginal changes, use of different social policy instruments particularly tax instruments, new relationships between the federal and the provincial and territorial governments, a different fiscal climate, and some new thinking about the purposes of social policy. In reality, this shift had started well before 1994; the reforms that were being discussed then might be thought of as the last gasp of a faded era.

The second part of the paper assesses the 1994 forecasts in light of hindsight. It describes what has happened in the intervening period and makes some observations about the newer forces that might drive social policy in the future. An assessment of the success of current policies is an important factor in determining the nature and scale of the changes that may be needed in the future. Are there big problems to be fixed, or will incremental changes be sufficient in order to assure that we remain world leaders? Many criteria can be used to assess current success. A particularly powerful approach is to compare ourselves with other countries who are recognized world leaders. That is the subject of Part Three of the paper.

The final part of the paper returns to the way in which the 1994 paper discussed future directions and suggests that a more nuanced approach is needed. There are quite different reasons for looking to the future, each with its own methods and risks. We need to be clear about which purpose is being served if we are to find a better way of managing the risks of looking into a, largely unknowable future, More generally, the paper provides context for the shift that is taking place between traditional welfare state concepts to newer citizen-centric, enabling society perspectives.

Keywords: Canada, social policy, life-course, history, teaching, labour market policy, projections, scenarios, strategic planning, government policies, forecasts, graduate students, welfare state, citizen-centric, welfare state

JEL Classification: A20, A22, A23 ,H00, H40, H55, I31, J21, J22, J24, P16

Suggested Citation

Hicks, Peter, Social Policy in Canada – Looking Back, Looking Ahead (November 1, 2008). Queens University School of Policy Studies, Working Paper No. 46, Available at SSRN: or

Peter Hicks (Contact Author)

Peter Hicks Consulting ( email )

154 Crichton Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1M 1W2

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