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A History of Family Allowances in Canada – Emphasis on Inuit Peoples

influence of canada family allowances on inuit indian first nations peoples of canada

A drum dance, by Luke Iksiktaaryuk, from the exhibition An Inuit Perspective: Baker Lake. © Marie Bouchard, 2000.

Learning the history of family allowance benefits in Canada was even more fascinating (and depressing) when I researched how the Inuit and Indian peoples were affected.

Not much good news here, I hate to report.

Oppression, marginalization, powerlessness, and even “dog tags” or discs with numbers instead of people’s names are the themes of family allowances with regard to Inuit and Indian peoples in Canada. This was supposed to be a universal social welfare policy, but for First Nations peoples it was another way to control and “convert” Inuit and Indians to white man’s way of thinking.

Here’s my paper on the history of family allowances, for my social policy class (I’m getting my Master’s of Social Work at UBC). If you have any questions, please fire away below! I’m no expert on family allowances or First Nations peoples, but I learned alot when I researched and wrote this paper…

A Brief History of Family Allowances in Canada:

With a Special Emphasis on Inuit Peoples


In this paper, I will briefly summarize the controversial origins of the family allowances in Canada. The bulk of this paper explores how the Canadian government delivered the family allowances to the Indian and Inuit people, and describes how this social welfare scheme became another method of oppressing and controlling the First Nations peoples – “for their own good.”

“The more sensitive the material, the more likely its history is sealed in confidential government documents,” says Jane Ursel in From Needs to Rights (p. 5). She describes the history of family allowances as a “research puzzle.” There was no archival evidence about the beginnings of the program in the Department of National Health and Welfare, which was the department ultimately responsible for administering the program. The paper trail for the origins of this welfare program is found in the papers of bureaucrats, politicians, social organizations, numerous collections in the Library and Archives Canada, and the federal government’s Department of Finance.

However, the Canadian government’s archives and website is not where I found evidence on how the family allowances were delivered to the Indian and Inuit peoples. That “sensitive material” isn’t something the government is proudly and openly sharing with Canadians.

A Brief Overview of the Origins of Family Allowances

Heated government discussions and debates about the family allowances began in 1929, and continued until the final bill was passed in 1944. It was a universal allowance for all children, administered cheaply and easily, and intended to avoid discrimination and social stigma. Family allowance was a controversial social welfare program because, at that time, both Canadian people and the government weren’t keen on the state intervening too much in the way of social welfare.

Proponents of the family allowances program believed it would support the family as a fundamental social unit. It was the government’s responsibility to provide for the family’s well-being, and the allowance would ensure the family could meet is basic needs. Also known as the “baby bonus”, the family allowance was Canada’s first universal income security scheme. Some proponents of the family allowances wanted Canada’s families to increase to four or more children (because a healthy nation requires a large, growing population) and stem the flow of emigration to American. The family allowances would be an important social security measure that would provide greater opportunities for Canadian children, and develop future human resources in Canada. It would unite Canada and increase affinity for the Canadian government. Family allowances would create employment opportunities and provide an economic stimulus that was sorely needed in the postwar period. The family allowances would help prevent economic depressions by increasing spending and stimulating the demand for goods and services (Blake, 2009).

However, not everyone supported this welfare program. Charlotte Whitton, one of the leading social workers in Canada and the director of the Canadian Council on Social Welfare, maintained that the family allowances were an admission of the government’s failure to govern and provide decent wages to workers so a decent level of life could be sustained. Other critics argued that it was an extremely costly venture for the government, and families would simply waste the money they received. It was an invasion on provincial jurisdictions, believed some politicians, and it was unconstitutional.

Whitton also believed the family allowances plan was wasteful because wealthy families received it, same as poor families. She maintained that social welfare programs should target the most needy with “social utilities” such as health and housing, rather than cash. Whitton also believed family allowances infringed on individual rights and threatened the sanctity of marriage by reducing it to economic relations. The role of men as bread winners of the family would be undermined, and women might be financially exploited. Family allowances could “relegate women to mere slaves and employees of the state, and ultimately result in limiting and even undermining the position and privileges women enjoyed in Canada” (Blake, 2009).

The discussion and debates seemed to centre around white families and/or European immigrants. Nobody considered how the passage and delivery of the final family allowances bill would affect First Nations peoples.

Nor, it seems, would anyone have cared.

Sharing the Wealth With the Indians and Inuit

Two separate family allowance sections were approved for First Nations peoples, who were at the time commonly referred to as Indians and Inuit or Eskimaux. “The first [family allowances regulation] accepted the definition of an Indian as described by the Indian Act and made it clear that the regulations applied only to those Indians who lived in an organized territory and resided permanently on a reserve,” writes Blake in From Needs to Rights (p 140). The second section covered Eskimos and nomads. “Applicants were designated as Inuit if they appeared on the roll or records of the Bureau of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Affairs of the Department of Mines and Resources, the federal department then responsible for Aboriginal affairs,” writes Blake (p 140). Nomads were defined as people of mixed Indian or Inuit blood, residing in the Northwest Territories or the Yukon Territory, who followed the Indian or Inuit mode of living.

Family allowance benefits for Indians and Inuit could be delivered in cash or in kind, whichever the Indian agent thought best. Even though the regulations stated that family allowance benefits for Indians would be payable to the mother if an application was made jointly by both parents, it was decided that the benefits could be directed to the Indian Agency Trust Account of the agency where the parents resided, on the advice of the Indian Affairs branch of the Department of Mines and Resources.

However, for Inuit and nomads, the regulations did not specify that payment was to be made to the mother of the children. “Rather…payments were to be paid to the Bureau of Northwest Territories and Yukon Affairs, to be distributed by the bureau on behalf of the child for whom the allowance was paid, in accordance with the provisions of agreements from time to time made between the director of family allowances and the bureau,” writes Blake (p 141).

Unlike the rest of Canada, First Nations peoples were told how to spend their family allowances. When the benefit was first delivered to Inuit peoples, the government set a policy of using family allowances to help Inuit obtain local foods. However that plan was quickly deemed a “failure” and abandoned in favour of overhauling the traditional Inuit diet (Tester, 1994). Inuit peoples were given foreign (to them) food items such as dried milk, dried eggs, pablum and other children’s foods not part of their traditional diet, regardless of their food supply. This directive revealed the government’s lack of trust in Inuit parents to spend money wisely or take care of their children responsibly. Ottawa assumed the Inuit peoples would waste their allowance on the “wrong” purchases and neglect their families’ health and welfare. The government was also concerned the Inuit would become dependent on the family allowance program (Blake, 2009).

Registering Inuit Peoples With Discs or “Dog Tags”

The Inuit didn’t start receiving family allowance benefits until 1947 – which was three years after the bill was passed. Communicating with the North was difficult at the time, and there wasn’t a comprehensive census of Inuit peoples. Further, Inuit naming was foreign to Canadian officials and authorities, who found it difficult to remember, spell, or pronounce Inuit names. So, the government created a number-and-disc system to catalogue and register Inuit peoples. It wasn’t until 1950 that all Inuit families were registered with discs or E-numbers.

“Registration was essential to receive the allowance, and the disc numbers issued to all Inuit in the Artic were used for this purpose,” writes Tester in Tammarniit (p. 71). “The disc numbers had been issued earlier in the decade as a way of keeping track of Inuit, most of whom, at the time, had no Christian names and whose identities were, subsequently, a problem for non-Inuit administrators. A letter and number identified the person and the region he or she was from.”

Ann Meekitjuk Hanson recalls what it was like to be given a number. “To the Canadian government, I was Annie E7-121. In the early 1940s, Inuit had to be counted and identified for government records so that our parents or guardians could receive family allowance. E stood for east and W stood for west. We were given a small disc looped on a sturdy string, brown with black lettering. I only learned about last names when I went to school in Toronto in the early 1960s. My foster parents let me use their family name, so in Toronto I went by Annie Cotterill — E7-121 was not a very attractive name for a young girl! And when I came back home, I certainly did not want to be Miss E7-121 as a secretary in a government office, so I took my father’s first name, Meekitjuk, as a surname.” (Hanson, 2012).

Hanson was not alone in disliking the number system. She describes how Project Surname was started: in the late 1960s, Simonie Michael, our first elected Inuk member of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, stated that he no longer wanted to be known by his E7- number. Between 1968 and 1970 Abe Okpik, a respected Inuk from the western Arctic, visited every Inuit home and asked the families to choose a name. The head of the family picked a surname – often a relative’s given name – and the Inuit were no longer known by numbers (Hanson, 2012).

Another problem with the imposition of the disc system was that Inuit children weren’t regarded as “belonging” to one single family. Rather, they were part of a large extensive family network and they moved within the family unit. “With the advent of family allowances, children became a source of income in a situation where income was very scarce. As a result, children were often unconsciously shared with childless and older couples who otherwise had no or very restricted means of support,” writes Tester (p 72). This prompted the government to regulate Inuit adoptions to ensure they were “satisfactory for the child.”

Delivering the Family Allowances to Inuit

Even though the family allowances was purported to be a universal social welfare program for all Canadians, the Inuit and Indian people had to fulfill certain requirements before they could receive it. School-age children had to be in regular attendance at school. However, given the lifestyle and settlement patterns of many First Nations peoples, regular attendance wasn’t always possible. If Inuit or Indian children could not attend school, there was no provision for them or their families.

Regardless, the director of the Indians Affairs branch in the Department of Mines and Resources wrote in a 1945 memorandum that if Indian pupils lived on a reserve with a day school and if the children did not go to school regularly, the family allowance would be immediately cancelled. The director believed school attendance would substantially increase education levels among First Nations people, and strictly enforced this law (Blake, 2009).

Payment of family allowance benefits was in the form of supplies from a list of approved items, and retroactive payments were authorized if delayed registration wasn’t the parent’s fault. However, this led to the accumulation of large family allowance accounts because of the delays in registering families. The government and related authorities feared that access to these provisions would create dependency and encourage the purchase of “luxury” items, so back payments were limited to one year after the date of registration (Tester, 1994).

“Controlling and distributing payments became a source of power for northern field staff, especially the RCMP,” writes Kulchyski in Kiumajut (p 224). RCMP officers acted as mediators between Inuit people and store managers. That is, the Inuit person would verbally list what he or she wanted not knowing what was on the shelves of the store, and the officer would write it down and go get the items from the store. If there was any confusion, the written list would prevail – even if it wasn’t what the Inuit person originally desired (Kulchyski and Tester, 2007).

Impact of the Family Allowances on First Nations Peoples

The family allowances program had a serious, permanent effect on First Nations people. Many Inuit and Indians understood that if their children did not attend school regularly, they would not receive their benefits. So they left their barrens and moved to settlements that educated their children in ways that had no relationship to their peoples’ way of life or traditions.

The threat of not receiving benefits unless Inuit parents sent their children to school “led to the creation of a grotesque system that devastated aboriginal people’s morale, shattered their communities, degraded their culture and language, smashed families and destroyed ancient spiritual beliefs that had sustained people for thousands of years” (University of Ottawa, 2011). This social welfare program was another method of oppressing First Nations peoples and forcing them to abdicate their culture, history, and traditions.

The government’s stance is that Inuit peoples could not live self-sufficiently from the land, so the government had to adopt programs that acculturated and assimilated Inuit into Canadian culture and southern Canada. The goal was to create wage-earning Canadian citizens. The government felt the need to provide employment alternatives to the fur trade, which had largely collapsed, and ensure that Inuit peoples had a reliable food supply and access to healthcare.

According to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website, before 1953 “the federal government advocated the maintenance of a traditional way of life for Inuit and occasionally relocated families to areas with supposed abundance of natural resources. Most of these projects failed because resources in the new location were not sufficient and Inuit continued to go hungry. Many relocated Inuit became quickly disillusioned.” This is typical government-speak that glosses over the pain, dislocation, disrespect, suffering, and oppression that First Nations peoples experienced at the hand of white settlers, government officials, and other authority figures…including social workers.

The family allowance program was controversial in its origins, and yet neither proponents nor critics seemed to consider the impact it would have on First Nations peoples. The existence of the program wasn’t the problem; it was the delivery method that seemed to further oppress First Nations people and contribute to the historical trauma we see today.



Blake, R.B. (2009). From Needs to Rights: A History of Family Allowances in Canada, From 1929-1992. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Bonesteel , S. (June 2006).  Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program

Development. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from the World Wide Web: https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100016900/1100100016908#chp7

Hanson , A. M. What’s in a Name? Retrieved November 23, 2012 from the World Wide Web: https://www.nunavut.com/nunavut99/english/name.html

Kulchyski, P.K. and Tester, F.J. (2008). Kiumajut (Talking Back): Game Management and Inuit Rights, 1900-70. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Tester, F.J. (1994). Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-63. Vancouver: UBC Press.

University of Ottawa (September 13, 2011). Determinants of Health Status of Aboriginal People in Canada. Retrieved November 24, 2012 from the World Wide Web: https://www.med.uottawa.ca/sim/data/Aboriginal_Health_Determinants_e.htm

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1 thought on “A History of Family Allowances in Canada – Emphasis on Inuit Peoples”

  1. I worked in “Frobisher Bay” and had the chance to travel with Abe Opik when the government of the the day decided to have Inuit chose surnames….. interestingly enough the Inuit at the time really could have cared less. The half dozen that worked with me just thought that white man was not smart enough to keep track of names otherwise.
    By and large adult Inuit adapted to the white mans ways like they adapted to hunting conditions. The education system, now that was a whole other story.
    The RCMP and the village nursing staff did a tremendous job in connecting the inuit to the outside world and the odd customs that came along. They lived in the communities and have been largely neglected when it comes to the good work that they did back then.
    It is poor science to evaluate policy 50 years ago by today’s standards. I imagine how society 50 years from will judge…. maybe finding out why things were done back then would answer some of the questions and they why is the hard part, conclusions based on todays norms are the easy way across the divide.