A Bourgeois Duty: Philanthropy, 1896-1919
Janice Harvey, Dawson College



As the population increases and cities industrialize in the 19th century, extreme poverty and illness are serious urban problems. Most of the social services formed to deal with them are created by philanthropists, not the government.

Philanthropy is usually associated with upper- or middle-class citizens providing aid to the poor, the sick or the otherwise needy by donating money, organizing charities or creating foundations. Motivated by human kindness, religious salvation and humanitarianism, philanthropists also advance many causes other than charities, including hospitals, universities, museums, public health and reform movements, such as temperance and animal protection. Before the advent of the welfare state, philanthropy thus plays a major social role. This is especially true in Quebec and Ontario, where no poor law exists and government involvement is minimal.

Philanthropy is also closely linked with the urban élite's culture and role in society. It is a way for families to establish their social status and for the élite to impose order and build civic pride. However, liberal beliefs about the role of moral weakness, laziness and intemperance as causes of poverty make many of the rich hesitant to give too much money. Indeed, most philanthropic work has clear overtones of social control and moral reform.

Leading philanthropists donate their time or money, or both. But projects are also often supported by a wide range of people through fund-raising events like bazaars and charity balls. Although men tend to provide more spectacular sums of money, much of the actual running of charities is done by dutiful women of the élite.

In cities like Montreal, the Protestant economic élite sets up numerous private charities for poor children, women, the elderly and the homeless. This aid is supplemented by Protestant churches and national societies. Parallel to this network, the Catholic church and its religious orders run aid services for Catholics, some of them funded by private philanthropists. By 1900 many people are critical of this model, calling it 'sentimental charity' and demanding instead a more 'scientific' approach, including professional workers. The shift to a larger role for the Canadian state finally occurs by the 1930s.