Golden years weren’t always ‘golden’

by Ruth Griffiths

The “golden years” have become much more comfortable for Canadian senior citizens during the past century. Don’t get me wrong… old age isn’t for sissies. But financial security is less of an issue for today’s elders than it was for their grandparents.

At Confederation, retirement was not yet considered an entitlement of seniors because the participation of the elderly in the industrial system had not yet been fully recognized. Since so many of the aged continued to work as hard as younger people until the end of their lives, those who fell into destitution were not treated very differently from other poor people.

The aged poor were offered the same degree of assistance as the younger poor. They were either given emergency relief only, in amounts small enough to strongly encourage them to find work, or a place in the poorhouse, which was also designed to be extremely uncomfortable so that the poor would see it as a very last resort. Around 1900, for the first time, the aged were identified as a distinct group among the poor and new social reform movements began questioning the appropriateness of their treatment.

Most Canadians were farmers until The Dirty Thirties drove them off the land. Up until then, everyone worked on the farm and older people were cared for at home. When families moved away from the farm, the strain was often too much for wage earners. Old people were left destitute.

In May 1927, the House of Commons approved an Old Age Pension Plan for those over 70 with demonstrable need. Applicants had to prove that their children could not support them in order to be considered for a pension. The first Old Age Pension was $20 per month and was available to British subjects only. Status Indians were not eligible.

By 1951, the new Old Age Security Program offered $40 per month to those Canadians 70 and older without a means test. First Nations people were included in the program.

The Canada Pension Plan was established in 1966, to allow workers to save for their retirement. Flexible retirement was introduced in 1987, allowing Canada Pension Plan contributors the option of receiving a pension as early as the age of 60.

Still, most seniors lived in poverty. The Guaranteed Income Supplement was introduced in 1967. The Spouse’s Allowance was introduced in 1975 and the Widowed Spouse’s Allowance was introduced in 1985.

Better inflation protection was put in place. From 1973, Old Age Security benefits increased quarterly based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.

In 2000, all Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan benefits and obligations were extended to same-sex and common-law relationships.

The 2021 federal budget proposed to provide a one-time $500 benefit this year to those aged 75 and older (as of June 2022). OAS payments are proposed to increase by 10% beginning in July 2022.

Starting in April 2023, the age of eligibility for OAS will gradually increase from 65 to 67 over six years, with full implementation by January 2029. This change will affect people born in 1958 and later.

By the time the government pension for Canadian seniors reaches its centenary who knows how much else it will have changed?