A People’s History: Poverty in Ontario

Children gathering coal behind boxcars. Place unknown. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-085579

Children gathering coal behind boxcars. Place unknown.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-085579

In this section we explore the various contexts that shaped the realities for people that lived, worked and died at the poorhouse.

Similar to present day, the experience of poverty in the 19th century was shaped by one’s life circumstance and position in society: your age, gender, ability, race, immigrant status, physical and mental health, the circumstances of your birth family and personal tragedies and calamities.

Through this project we seek to better understand the lived realities of the people who resided in the Waterloo County poorhouse: the “inmates”. Through piecing together stories using archival information, we aim to produce a “history from below“.

Unfortunately, the poorhouse archives tell us less about the residents and reveal much more about the views, perspectives and motivations of those who established and maintained the institution.

Poorhouses were an extension of the British approach to segregation and social control of the poor. As in Europe, white settlers in Upper Canada struggled with how to deal with the downsides of unfettered capitalism and the realities for those who could not participate in the labour market.

Poorhouses developed alongside other charitable institutions and policies that formed present day social welfare systems. The story of the poorhouse is the story of the roots of social welfare in Ontario and reveals the beginnings of social work practice.

There is little in the archives to suggest the institution was built on compassion or concern for human dignity.

People who lived the realities of 19th and 20th century poverty were objectified, labelled as deficient and less than, blamed and sometimes pitied for their circumstances. Sexism, racism, ableism and dehumanization of the “other” was the norm; approaches that stand in opposition to modern social work ethics. Though, social movements including labour movements, women’s rights and civil rights were active and growing.

Today, social inequality and wealth disparities in Western countries are returning to levels last seen in the 19th century. It is up to the reader to discern what remains of the legacy of the poorhouse and whether the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending towards justice.

“The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”
― Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Theodore Parker (and Martin Luther King Jr.)

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