Lesson 4

Philanthropy in Canada

In this section we will discuss the state of philanthropy in Canada and examine who is giving what to whom.

We will look at:
  • The History of Philanthropy in Canada
  • Where private sector support comes from
  • What private sector donors like to support in Canada
  • Why private donors give charitable donations
  • What does this have to do with fundraising for your archive

The History of Philanthropy in Canada

Early Philanthropy

First Nations traditions include the honour of giving & reciprocity. Without the support provided by First Nations people early explorers and settlers would not have survived in their new country.

French Tradition in 1600s

During Canada’s first 150 years the French crown provided funds, through the Catholic Church, to sustain a modest level of health care, education, and welfare and to establish alms houses for the aged, crippled, and orphaned.

Disease and poverty became widespread-making it difficult for families to survive as a unit. Begging became prevalent, so the colonial government established a Bureau of the Poor in 1685. This bureau was a Christian charity responsible for identifying the “unfortunate and miserable poor” and doing three things:

  1. Ensure no one starved
  2. Find useful work for those capable of working
  3. Put an end to the public annoyance created by beggars

This bureau worked by appointing two women in each town to go door-to-door to collect alms. The women were instructed not to press people for donations but “to allow all to contribute according to their means and dictates of conscience.”

The Catholic Church provided funds for the financing of human services-offering relief primarily to the poor. Financially self-sufficient pioneers were encouraged to make their parishes self-sufficient through their donations.

Instances of individual altruism also emerged during this period. The pioneer ethic of helping a neighbour in trouble was evidenced. Disasters were common in the wilderness and when a disaster struck, the neighbours pulled each other through. This was the beginning of Canada’s pioneer ethic and of neighbours helping neighbours.

This period of French rule saw the French crown, the Catholic Church and individuals all providing assistance to people in times of trouble. Thus began the Canadian tradition of partnerships between government, religious organizations and individuals to provide assistance to citizens in need.

After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 Things Changed.

When the British took over they wanted people in the colonies to assume personal responsibility for their own welfare. This meant that, in the British colonial tradition, if people were unable to be self-sufficient they should seek help from their church.

This self sufficient view did not work very well and in the early 1800s the English colonial government followed the lead of the French crown and began to subsidize church welfare organizations on a regular basis. This established the Canadian tradition of government funding for private organizations because governments did not want the burden of delivering services directly.

In 1801 the British colonial government applied their definition of charity to the colonies. This definition was known in Britain as the Elizabethan Poor Law while the actual name was the Statute of Charitable Uses that had been passed by the British parliament in 1601. The intent of this statute was to create, control and protect the charitable trusts & endowments which had been created for schools, poor relief and general civic purposes.

The statute regulated the collection of funds and it marked the beginning of government regulation of philanthropy/charity in Canada.

This statute is still used today as the basis for the government to grant an organization Charitable Status. Several attempts have been made to challenge the statutes definition of charity but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it could only be changed by an Act of Parliament.[1]


During the early and mid 1800s numerous societies and organizations were established to help the needy. These organizations were set up by churches, benevolent societies, labour unions, immigrant groups, and neighbours.

James McGill, fur trader & merchant, gave his estate to a provincial commission for the purpose of endowing McGill University. He could have established the university himself but instead he began the Canadian tradition of providing private money to establish public organizations.

The 1800s also saw the rise of the business of benevolence with early fundraising campaigns and partnerships between private and public sectors. In 1821, the first fundraising campaign was held to supplement a provincial start up grant for the Montreal General Hospital and in 1830 York University received the first provincial operating grant given to a hospital. In 1864, the first Canadian fundraiser was hired by the Charitable Irish Society to raise money through membership renewal.

The Social Gospel Movement

The late 1800s saw the rise of the Social Gospel Movement, which in Canada, caused a shift in focus from individualism to collective well-being. In the United States, wealthy Social Gospellers used their wealth to establish institutions whereas Canadian Social Gospellers tended to donate money to their churches who then decided what the money from individuals should be spent on. This is one of the major differences in the practice and history of philanthropy in Canada and the United States.

Philanthropic Response to Disaster

Canadians have a reputation for responding to natural and man made disasters and the 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion was an early example of this tendency. A munitions ship anchored in Halifax Harbour exploded three weeks before Christmas and maimed thousands. The worldwide relief effort raised $30,000,000.00 – and this was before telephones, television and the Internet! The archival community has also been involved in disaster response in many ways. Can you think of some recent examples?

1920s: Organization of Philanthropy

In a practical solution to the proliferation of appeals, Canadian philanthropy began to be channelled through federated campaigns such as the Community Chest. These campaigns were established by a partnership between business and labour groups and were designed to take over fundraising so the numerous charities could concentrate on delivering their services and so that donors would only have to give one gift, once a year.

The first community foundation in Canada, The Winnipeg Foundation, was established with a gift from William Alloway. Alloway gave $100,000 to the City of Winnipeg and asked that the community foundation be established to benefit the citizens of Winnipeg. This philanthropic gift followed the emerging Canadian pattern where an individual provided funds to establish a public rather than a private organization.

The Number of Charities Increases

The number of Canadian charities rose from 1909 in 1936 to 39,965 in 1980. In the 1980s there was a decrease in government financing of health care and universities and this helped to increase the number of charities when health care and educational organizations began to raise money from the private sector to help supplement what they had lost in government funding.

This decrease in government funding also affected other sectors of the community and led to an expansion of private sector fundraising by over 100,000 charities today.

Canadian Philanthropy

Every culture and community has its own traditions of giving and sharing. Canada’s traditions include the legacy of French rule when the crown sent money to enable the Catholic Church to help citizens in the colonies and the British practice of government funding for privately run organizations administered through churches. Regulation of charities and philanthropic giving through public policy is a Canadian tradition as is the symbiotic relationship between government, religious organizations and philanthropic individuals.

[1] The text of the decision itself can be found at the website of the Supreme Court of Canada http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca/