NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN: UNEMPLOYMENT AND THE CANADIAN WELFARE STATE 1914-1941
Volume 11 Number 5.
This is a timely book. In the 1980s, Canadians have witnessed the worst unemployment in fifty years. The shocking thing for those who read No Fault of Their Own, is that we have forgotten many of the lessons we should have learned about unemployment in the dirty thirties. There is a strange sense of deja vu in this book and an unfortunate feeling that history does truly repeat itself.
No Fault of Their Own provides a careful, detailed analysis of the problem of unemployment in Canada from 1914-1941 and the official attitude to it. The federal government, whether that of Conservative R. B. Bennett, or that of Liberal W.L. Mackenzie King did not want to admit responsibility for the unemployed. Both hesitated to provide relief, claimed the problem was a provincial one, and hoped it would go away. When unemployment continued year after year, Ottawa was forced to admit responsibility. However, it did so grudgingly, and even as war approached in 1939, King did not have an unemployment insurance bill.
This is not a book that can be read casually. Struthers, who teaches in the Canadian studies program at Trent University, takes his subject seriously and fully documents his view that there was little the unemployed could do to alleviate their problem. He shows that many of the popular attitudes toward the unemployed were archaic and bore little relationship to reality. Politicians blamed the unemployed for being out of work, and kept relief assistance low to prevent men from acquiring a "dole mentality." The government wanted to punish the unemployed and force them to return to the country, where it was felt, work was available on farms.
Struthers is objective in his treatment of politicians, even though it would be easy to make them look foolish. Both Bennett and King were products of their time and were hampered by old-fashioned ideas. If one sympathizes with the plight of the unemployed, No Fault of Their Own will be frustrating reading. Since they were poorly organized and politically powerless, governments handled the unemployed in a cavalier fashion. Suggestions were made but little concrete action taken because the political will was lacking and resistance from farmers and industry, who did not want unemployment insurance, too strong.
The history of unemployment up to 1940 is a classic example of passing the buck. Municipal governments could not afford the costs of providing work, and the other levels of government refused to assume responsibility. What federal assistance there was for road-building programs was not enough. The fact that there was not a serious challenge to our political and economic system is amazing. The unemployed endured considerable hardship with an incredible stoicism.
Struthers leaves one with a better understanding of the official attitude to unemployment during a difficult time in Canadian history. It will be useful to students of the period and should be read by anyone seriously interested in understanding the history of unemployment in Canada.
Thomas F. Chambers, Canadore College, North Bay, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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