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Keywords:

  • Social policy;
  • Social spending;
  • Canada

This paper sets out to document and explain the major structural changes which have taken place in Canada’s social security system since the mid-1980s. Most major programs have been cut back one way or another, in response to a combination of pressures. Foremost amongst these has been the commitment to reduce federal and provincial government deficits. In addition there have been the consequences of high unemployment and increasing job insecurity, demographic and social changes, and "tax fatigue" on the part of the public. The paper documents major recent changes of social policy both in general—with regard to the changed approach evident at federal level and its effect on social transfers to the provinces—and in respect of key programs, including unemployment/employment insurance, old age pensions/the Canada Pension Plan, and child benefits. The paper next identifies "currents and undercurrents" common to all of the developments commented on: the decline of universality, the practice of "social policy-making by stealth", the evidence of the contemporary Canadian public’s "collective ambivalence and loss of memory" in respect of the major, historic social programs. It concludes by urging the case for social reinvestment in genuinely sustainable social policy, in the currently more favourable fiscal climate.