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Provincial and Municipal Social Assistance Programs
March 1996

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mars 1996

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Provincial and Municipal Social Assistance Programs
MARCH 1996

The source of this file is the Inventory of Income Security Programs in Canada (Health & Welfare Canada, multiple editions from 1984 to 1993). The text below is a version of the Overview/Introduction to the chapter on social assistance (or welfare) that's been updated to 1996, just before the Canada Assistance Plan was replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer. There's a snapshot of how welfare operated in 1996, and you'll find that some of the rules haven't changed that much since then. There's also some interesting information on this page about the Federal-Provincial Agreements to Enhance the Employability of Social Assistance Recipients (mid-to-late 1980s), known in federal-provincial government circles as "the Four-Cornered Agreements."



Provincial and municipal social assistance programs, often called Canada's social security safety net of last resort, are designed to provide income to meet the cost of basic requirements of a single person or a family when all other financial resources have been exhausted.

This overview contains general information on selected design features of the social assistance programs in Canada in March 1996. It should be noted that the relevant legislation in each province also includes provisions concerning health and social services, assistance to persons in designated institutions providing care or supervision, and a wide range of administrative matters that are either not covered or only given passing reference in this chapter.

Jurisdictional Matters

In accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982 (formerly the British North America Act of 1867), each province is responsible for the design, administration and delivery of its own social assistance program. Most provinces have a single, unified social assistance program. Long term benefits are generated by computerized payroll issue from the provincial headquarters, and short term and emergency assistance are issued manually in local or regional offices of the provincial department of Social Services or its equivalent.

Unlike other Canadian provinces, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba did not move to a unified social assistance system during the 1960s and 1970s. These three provinces retained their "two tier" system of social assistance. Under the two-tier system, the provincial authority grants assistance where the client falls within a category which has been characterized as contributing to long term need, such as permanent unemployability. Each municipality in a two-tier province is responsible for providing assistance to persons who do not fall within the categories under provincial jurisdiction, such as "unemployed employables". Applicants for long term assistance awaiting transfer to the provincial program and households requiring single issue grants of emergency assistance may also be required to apply for municipal social assistance.

The three remaining two tier provinces have been moving towards an integrated approach to social assistance in the 1990s. Please see the individual provincial summaries for information concerning the status of the program unification efforts in these three provinces as at March 1996.

More recent (2010) info
on two-tier provinces:



From 1966 until March 1996, the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) authorized the federal government to share 50% of approved costs of provincial social assistance programs. In its 1990 and 1991 budgets, however, the federal government announced that increases in its contributions under CAP to British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario would be limited to 5% per year until the end of 1994-95.

The 1995 federal Budget announced that as of 1996-97, the Canada Assistance Plan and Established Programs Financing (EPF-Health and EPF-Post-Secondary Education) would be replaced by a new block transfer - the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). The budget cut total federal funding to provinces and territories under the CHST for 1996-97 by $2.5 billion, to $26.9 billion compared with the projected transfer entitlement under the old programs. In 1997-98, the CHST would be $25.1 billion, a reduction of $4.5 billion from the projected transfer under old programs. According to the federal budget papers, the CHST would provide provincial and territorial governments with greater flexibility to innovate and improve social programs to help them better address emerging social issues. It would also eliminate the administrative burden of cost-sharing.

In two-tier provinces, a portion of municipal social assistance payments is cost shared by the provincial authority. Until April 1996, claims to the federal government under CAP included these municipal expenditures. Social assistance benefits that were shareable under CAP were not considered as taxable income under the Income Tax Act; however, they were considered as income for the purpose of determining eligibility for certain federal and provincial tax credits. Questions regarding cost sharing issues should be directed to the appropriate federal or provincial authorities.

The federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has accepted responsibility for the cost of social assistance paid to treaty Indians living on a reserve or in a band, even though the band council itself may be responsible for administration of social assistance on its territory, as in Ontario. Whether social assistance is administered directly by an Indian band or by the provincial department responsible for financial assistance programs, the same eligibility rules and benefits apply to Native persons in need as to the general population.




In general terms, the only eligibility requirement for social assistance is need, regardless of cause. Assistance may be granted to individuals or family heads who are found, on the basis of a needs test (described later in this section), to be unable to provide adequately for themselves and any dependants.

Administrative Requirements

In all provinces, social assistance legislation provides for certain basic administrative requirements in the establishment of an applicant's initial eligibility. Depending on the province and the circumstances of each case, an applicant may be required to:

i)submit a duly completed application to the appropriate authority (usually on a prescribed form);

ii) provide any evidence as required in support of the application for assistance, such as proof of age, a medical certificate to confirm disability, a separation agreement, bank books, pay cheque stubs, etc.;

iii) meet with a worker to discuss the financial and social situation of the household (this requirement may be waived in some cases, such as emergency and short term assistance);

iv) provide written permission to the administering authority to verify any statement made in the application and any supporting documents concerning financial resources or any other circumstance of the household; and

v) agree to report any change in circumstances that might affect eligibility or the amount of assistance to which the household is entitled, such as the death or departure of a family member or additional income from work or other sources.


Residence in a particular jurisdiction for a minimum period is not a condition of eligibility for social assistance, except in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba, where municipalities are responsible for the delivery - and a portion of the cost - of short term assistance. In these provinces, an applicant's period of residence is a determining factor only with respect to which municipality or level of government is responsible for the cost of any assistance granted to that person.

Categories of Beneficiaries

Provincial social assistance legislation includes some specific conditions of initial and continuing eligibility that apply to particular client groups; although some of these requirements are unique to a particular province, some general observations may be made concerning these groups.

The majority of social assistance clients are either disabled, unemployed employable or aged persons or single parent family heads. Persons in these four categories and their dependants account for the majority of the clientele, with the remaining small proportion comprising a number of smaller target groups, such as large, low income families, transients, strikers, children living with a relative or guardian and employed persons. Most jurisdictions will grant assistance to a fully employed person on the basis of a budget deficit, while others provide assistance to employed people only in cases of extreme hardship.

i) Disabled Persons

An applicant requesting assistance because of illness or disability is generally required to submit a medical certificate indicating the level of impairment and the potential for rehabilitation. This requirement may be waived - at least in the initial determination of eligibility - where the disability is obvious (e.g., paraplegia, severe mental handicap). All provincial programs have features designed to assist disabled persons, including one or more of the following: higher exemption levels on assets and income, higher basic assistance levels, special disability related allowances, and supplementary coverage for health and medical services.

ii) Unemployed Employable Persons

Each provincial social assistance program includes a number of measures designed to promote the entry or re entry into the active labour force of able bodied unemployed clients. These measures may include different exemption levels on assets and income than for the general caseload, different benefit levels and a wide range of employment support services and programs, some of which may be compulsory for clients in this category. Some provinces require unemployed employable applicants to sign and respect an individualized contract that stipulates training and rehabilitation measures to be undertaken in order to leave social assistance. In general, however, assistance may be granted to unemployed employable applicants only when the administering authority is satisfied that:
a) any current unemployment is due to circumstances beyond the person's control,
b) the person is willing to accept suitable employment or to engage in academic upgrading, retraining or other measures to reach a state of job readiness, and
c) the person is making reasonable efforts to secure employment.

iii) Aged Persons

A person of advanced age may qualify for social assistance notwithstanding eligibility for benefits available from federal and provincial programs for seniors. Financial hardship might be due to some age related special needs, the number of dependants in the household or ineligibility for Old Age Security benefits (where an applicant has not resided in Canada long enough to qualify for such benefits). Provided the person meets legislated eligibility criteria, social assistance may be granted. Most provinces have established higher basic assistance benefit levels or other special considerations for persons beyond their middle years.

iv) Single Parent Families

Social assistance programs recognize the financial obligations of parents towards their children, regardless of the family situation. As a condition of initial eligibility for social assistance, a sole support parent may be required to either initiate legal proceedings against an absent spouse, ex spouse or putative father respecting maintenance payments, or to transfer that right to the government through subrogation. Moreover, some provinces may consider single parents as employable - and require them to actively seek and accept reasonable employment - where the parent and dependent children are physically and mentally healthy and where the dependants have reached a certain age (stipulated in provincial legislation). Depending on their age and family circumstances, single mothers may be required, as a condition of eligibility for assistance, to participate in rehabilitation programs (academic upgrading, life skills training, job orientation, etc.).


Financial Eligibility

Needs Test

Generally speaking, social assistance may be granted to "persons in need" (i.e., persons who are found to be unable to provide adequately for themselves and any dependants on the basis of a needs test). The needs test takes into account the budgetary requirements and the income and assets available to the applicant and other members of the applicant's household to meet such requirements. This procedure is also known as the "budget deficit method" of determining eligibility. Each jurisdiction has established regulations under its social assistance statute which serve to define the budgetary requirements covered and their value, as well as the treatment of income and assets from various sources. Assistance may be granted on the basis of a budget deficit or an insufficient budget surplus. A deficit occurs where regularly recurring budgetary requirements exceed available financial resources, as determined in accordance with provincial legislation. Where a budget surplus (income remaining after the calculation of budgetary requirements) is inadequate to provide for a special need or an unexpected situation, assistance may also be granted in most jurisdictions. Thus, an applicant may be eligible for social assistance in an amount sufficient to cover only the cost of a particular medical requirement (e.g., diabetic supplies) or other item of special need, provided that the applicant meets other eligibility conditions.

Although each province defines "financial resources" differently, the following general provisions apply in all jurisdictions.


Certain exemptions are allowed with respect to actual and potential liquid assets and property of an individual or family applying for social assistance; any non exempted assets are deemed to be available for current maintenance of applicants and their dependants. In all jurisdictions, asset exemption levels vary in accordance with case classification (employable, disabled, etc.) and the size of the applicant's household; specific definitions of liquid assets and asset exemption levels are included in the provincial summaries. Homeowners applying for social assistance are not required to sell their principal residence and household effects (within reason) as a condition of eligibility. Persons applying for long term assistance are usually granted a time limited exclusion with respect to property value that exceeds allowable exemptions in order to allow for the sale of such property at a reasonable price. Assistance may be withheld, reduced or terminated where applicants or recipients have dissipated, spent, or otherwise dealt with their liquid assets or other property in an unreasonable manner, including assignment or disposition of property for insufficient compensation (in order to qualify for assistance).


Once a household's assets have been determined to be within the limits allowed, income from all sources is examined in the calculation of entitlement to social assistance. Whether through program regulations or policy guidelines, each province stipulates how specific types of income are considered, in order to ensure that all applications are treated in the same manner. Some types of income, such as workers' compensation benefits or an Old Age Security pension and, in most provinces, maintenance or alimony payments, are defined in legislation or policy as "unearned" and thus totally available for current maintenance. The net effect of unearned income is to reduce the amount of social assistance payable dollar for dollar. Other types of income are totally exempted in the calculation of financial resources, including the federal Child Tax Benefit , payments to foster parents and some special donations from charitable organizations (for example, to replace furniture lost in a fire). The household's social assistance entitlement is thus unaffected and its financial well being improved. Where the source of income is employment, a partial exemption on earnings may be granted on that income as an incentive for the individual or family head to gain or regain financial independence. In some jurisdictions, the earnings exemption provision applies only after initial eligibility has been established (i.e., an applicant's employment income may not be reduced using the earnings exemption in order to establish eligibility for social assistance). The actual calculation of the earnings exemption varies among provinces and is noted in the individual provincial summaries. Partial exemptions are also allowed in some provinces on income from other sources such as room and board or property rentals. Part time employment earnings of dependent children attending school and irregular income or casual earnings of other members of the household are totally or partially exempted, depending on the province.

In the determination of financial eligibility, a welfare authority may include imputed income in a household's financial resources, even though that household is not actually receiving money from any particular source. The most common examples of income imputation are situations where the applicant is living rent free in return for janitorial services or as a result of shelter payments made by an absent or deserting spouse directly to a landlord, or, in Quebec, where an applicant's excess property (i.e., exceeding allowable exemption levels) is deemed to be producing regular income.

In most jurisdictions, a person or family may receive social assistance while awaiting benefits from another program - such as Unemployment Insurance (UI) - or a lump sum payment of unearned income. Because the needs test takes into account all current and anticipated income, including non exempted benefits and payments covering retroactive periods, client households may be required to sign an agreement to reimburse some or all of their social assistance covering those periods once they receive the benefit or payment. The recipient may be required to assign UI or other benefits to the provincial department responsible for social assistance in an amount equal to the social assistance benefits received during or after the prescribed waiting period, or to repay such sums out of future social assistance benefits.


Budgetary requirements covered by basic social assistance include food, clothing, shelter and utilities, household and personal needs, and (in some provinces) regularly recurring items of special need. No two provinces use the same method of calculating social assistance benefit levels. Most use a "pre added budget" approach, which combines non shelter needs under a single support allowance with shelter related costs paid separately up to specified maxima, while a few have chosen to grant assistance based on individual rate scales for each of the basic need components. Depending on the province, maximum shelter allowance levels may be established at the local/regional level (based on prevailing rates in that area) or for the entire province. Variables affecting the amount of shelter allowance payable may include the number of beneficiaries in any given household, the type of living arrangement (home ownership, tenancy, public housing, etc.), and the cost of heating fuel and utilities. In Quebec and New Brunswick, all basic needs including shelter are combined into a "global benefit"; where actual shelter costs are less than minimum levels set by regulation in those two provinces, the difference is deducted from the household's social assistance entitlement.

In addition to financial assistance for basic needs, a wide range of items of special need and social services is also available, including allowances and services related to age, disability, employment, education, training and other special circumstances. All provinces also include provisions in their social assistance legislation respecting health and institutional needs. Examples of relevant types of assistance may include comfort and clothing allowances for persons in need in designated special care facilities, payment of health insurance premiums (in premium paying provinces) and ancillary health related benefits such as prescription drugs, dental care, vision care and prostheses. It should be noted, however, that provinces do not all offer the same level of health related coverage, and that this type of assistance is sometimes not even available to certain categories of clients in one jurisdiction or another.

Each provincial authority is responsible for the indexation of social assistance benefit levels within its jurisdiction. Provinces generally use an "ad hoc" approach to rate adjustments, whether by regulation stipulating that the Minister (or, in other jurisdictions, the Lieutenant Governor in Council or the Director of Social Assistance) shall determine the periodicity and the amount of such increases, or by tradition (i.e., annual rate increases based on various economic indicators). Quebec is currently the only province to establish by regulation both the periodicity of social assistance rate increases (January of each year) and the exact amount of those increases, using the same indexation methodology as the Quebec Pension Plan (QPP). This regulatory provision applies only to households headed by an unemployable person in the Financial Support Program; indexation of benefit levels that apply to employable clients of the Work and Employment Incentives Program (WEIP) remains discretionary.

Because of the complexity involved in any social assistance rate calculation and the difficulty in determining the relative well being of a social assistance household in any province (given the wide range of ancillary benefits and supplementary programs available), social assistance benefit levels are not discussed in this report. Questions relating to benefit levels should be addressed to the appropriate provincial authorities.

Social researchers who are interested in interprovincial social assistance rate comparisons should examine the methodology used in the compilation of the rate tables in Welfare in Canada: The Tangled Safety Net and the series Welfare Incomes, from the National Council of Welfare. The Council's approach to the calculation of social assistance benefit levels (i.e., "annualization" of rates, inclusion of supplementary benefits and tax credits, and use of consistent assumptions for all provinces) was endorsed by the provincial program administrators who comment on these reports. The rate tables provide an accurate profile of the relative financial well being of social assistance households in each province since 1986 compared to other provinces and to the Statistics Canada low income cutoffs


The individual program summaries in this chapter provide the name of the provincial department responsible for the administration of social assistance, the legislative authority (name of Act and Regulations) and an indicator of the program delivery network (regional and local offices). The following points summarize other selected administrative aspects of social assistance programs in Canada.

Method of Payment

Social assistance benefits may be paid in a variety of ways: by cash, automated or manual cheque issue, voucher or authorization to purchase, direct deposit in a banking institution, or direct payment to a third party vendor or supplier. Depending on the method(s) chosen by a particular province and the circumstances of each case, assistance may be granted on an ad hoc basis, every two weeks or monthly.

Case Review

As a condition of continuing eligibility for assistance, clients must report immediately any change in the circumstances of the household that would affect its entitlement to assistance or the amount thereof. In addition, each social assistance household is usually reviewed at least once per year for long term cases and more frequently for able bodied employables, either through a home visit by a case worker or a mail in declaration (often appended directly to the social assistance cheque).

Recoveries and Reimbursement

Every province has established procedures to recover any social assistance granted to a person who was not entitled to such assistance because of an unreported change in household income or other circumstances, accidental or willful misrepresentation or fraud. In addition, certain forms of assistance granted by a province or a municipality may be conditional upon a formal agreement signed by the recipient to reimburse the government for such assistance.


In any province, applicants or recipients are allowed to file a request for appeal where they are dissatisfied with a decision affecting their entitlement to social assistance. Some provinces have established limits on issues that may be formally appealed, while others allow individuals to question any determination bearing on their case. Appeal systems may consist of a provincial appeals board made up of several members appointed by the minister responsible for social assistance, a local review committee of a few community members, or both.


Where recipients are incapable of managing their own affairs, most welfare authorities may appoint a trustee to administer any assistance granted on behalf of those recipients; depending on the province, an honorarium may be granted to the trustee for services rendered.

Federal-Provincial Agreements to Enhance
the Employability of Social Assistance Recipients (mid-to-late 1980s)

The impetus for "active" program measures to help social assistance recipients make the transition to work came with the 1981-82 recession which resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of employable people receiving social assistance and the persistence of the problem after the recession. At that time, training opportunities for this client population were limited, in part by systemic disincentives to participation in training or employment programs and in part by lack of program capacity and availability. Not all provinces had employability programs for social assistance recipients, and this client population tended to be under represented in federal mainstream employment and training programs.

In September 1985, the federal ministers of the Department of National Health and Welfare (NHW) and Employment and Immigration Canada (EIC), and their provincial counterparts responsible for social services and labour market matters, signed a "four cornered" agreement which established the framework for negotiations of three year bi lateral accords between the government of Canada and the individual provinces. These accords were completed by March 1988 and were effective until March 1989. They were twice extended on an annual basis.

The agreements made provision for:

i) increasing the participation of social assistance recipients in Employment and Immigration Canada (EIC) programs under the Canadian Jobs Strategy (CJS);

ii) addressing disincentives to participation in employment or training to ensure that participants would not be worse off in employment or training programs than they would be if they remained on social assistance;

iii) voluntary participation of clients;

iv) demonstration projects using specified federal program mechanisms;

v)the creation of a special fund which was deemed to be monies that provinces would have otherwise spent to support social assistance recipients and which the federal government would have cost shared under the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). Federal "diverted funds", initially $100 million annually and later increased to $200 million, supported social assistance recipients in CJS programs; provinces spent equivalent amounts through similar provincial programs. In certain agreements, a portion of federal funds was transferred to provinces to support provincial employability programs;

vi) the exchange of information to support evaluations; and

vii) a "four cornered" management mechanism.

Under these agreements, which began in 1986 and operated in all provinces and the Northwest Territories, EIC and the provinces provided a wide variety of programs including educational upgrading, literacy and skills training courses, project based work and training experience, individually subsidized work placements, and counselling.

The Current Generation of Employability Agreements

In December 1989, a federal provincial steering committee of deputy ministers directed a working group of officials to review issues and recommendations that arose out of reports and consultations on the operations of the agreements and to develop principles and components which would form the basis for negotiations of a new set of employability agreements.

It was decided that the new agreements would be based on the following principles:

i) voluntary participation consistent with CAP requirements;

ii) a greater emphasis than in previous agreements on quality programming designed to meet individual client needs (a continuum of programs and services);

iii) improved incentives for clients to participate in training programs and in the labour market, including a capacity to provide bridging and transitional benefits, such as assistance for child care and transportation, to clients moving into entry level jobs at low wages; and

iv) strengthened local level linkages between the various labour market and social services partners to address problems of overlap and duplication and to ensure that a full range of programs and services is provided.

The agreements cover a five year period from April 1, 1991, to March 31, 1996, and replace expired agreements that had been in place since 1985. All provinces and territories have signed the new agreements except for Quebec where, under an administrative arrangement, federal programming continues to be provided.
Funding is on a cost matching basis whereby each order of government spends an equal amount of money on its own programming for eligible participants. The current combined funding level is $400 million annually.

The federal government is committed to involving social assistance recipients in existing employment programs beyond the allotment of $200 million per year covered by the agreements. As well, under the new agreements, governments remain committed to ongoing evaluation and to encouraging and supporting the development and the implementation of demonstration projects to test new approaches to enhance the employability of social assistance recipients.

Employability Agreements in the Broader Program Context

Two of the key issues that were identified during the early years of the employability initiative as needing further program consideration were:
i) incentives/disincentives to participation; and
ii) the need for a more systematic case managed approach with longer term interventions that would include the provision of a range of programs and services to support those who are not fully job ready.

In addition to building provisions into the new employability agreements to address these issues, governments responded with major demonstration projects in New Brunswick and British Columbia. (Refer to individual program summaries in this chapter for more information on these initiatives). New Brunswick and British Columbia are by no means alone in pursuing new employability enhancement strategies to address the problem of persistently high numbers of social assistance recipients. Several provinces have launched welfare reforms and employment/training initiatives which include placing greater emphasis and spending on programs to help those who are dependent on social assistance gain independence through employment. In most jurisdictions, total government spending on employability programming now exceeds the funding provisions of the current employability agreements.



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