The Canadian Association of Social Workers has a long history of commenting on, and analyzing, the social policies of the federal government. In making such comments, however, CASW, like any federation of professional associations, is faced with two important concerns. The first is the importance of having a set of principles to guide current and future assessments of federal social policy and the development of any new policy recommendations. The second is the need to link social policy and social work practice. Without a common understanding and commitment to principles, it is difficult to evaluate policy initiatives. Without linking social policy principles to practice, it is difficult for CASW to represent social workers across the country. This document, approved by the Board of Directors, addresses both concerns.
Established Social Policy Principles
There are some established social policy principles that align with social work values, principles, and worldview. Four examples are the principles of the Canada Health Act, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Social Work Code of Ethics and Scope of Practice.
The five principles of the Canada Health Act are a cornerstone of the health care system. The Act, originally passed unanimously by Parliament in 1984, affirms the federal government's commitment to basic principles which are used to guide funding to the provinces and territories.
The principles are:
- Public administration: the administration of the health care insurance plan of a province or territory must be carried out on a non-profit basis by a public authority.
- Comprehensiveness: all medically necessary services provided by hospitals and doctors must be insured.
- Universality: all insured persons in the province or territory must be entitled to public health insurance coverage on uniform terms and conditions.
- Portability: coverage for insured services must be maintained when an insured person moves or travels within Canada or travels outside the country.
- Accessibility: reasonable access by insured persons to medically necessary hospital and physician services must be unimpeded by financial or other barriers.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in response to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Over six years, the TRC gathered millions of documents, and visited over 300 communities hearing from more than 6,500 witnesses. The findings that surfaced through the personal testimonies shared by residential school survivors and their families highlighted inherent racism and discrimination across Canada, which continues to impact Indigenous peoples today. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada developed a guiding set of 10 principles that they deemed necessary for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous of Canada. The recognition of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples as self-determining was highlighted with increased attention to the distinct cultural practices among Indigenous Nations. Central to these principles was the role of truth sharing, apology and commemoration with a shared responsibility among all Canadians in maintaining mutually respectful relationships. Reconciliation required that the disparities in social, health, and economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada be addressed.
The Principles are:
- The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.
- First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, as the original peoples of this country and as self-determining peoples, have Treaty, constitutional, and human rights that must be recognized and respected.
- Reconciliation is a process of healing of relationships that requires public truth sharing, apology, and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.
- Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health, child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportunities and prosperity.
- Reconciliation must create a more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health, and economic outcomes that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
- All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.
- The perspectives and understandings of Aboriginal Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers of the ethics, concepts, and practices of reconciliation are vital to long-term reconciliation.
- Supporting Aboriginal peoples’ cultural revitalization and integrating Indigenous knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, protocols, and connections to the land into the reconciliation process are essential. 9 - Reconciliation requires political will, joint leadership, trust building, accountability, and transparency, as well as a substantial investment of resources.
- Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canadian society
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is an international instrument affirming that Indigenous peoples be free from discrimination and (be) treated with respect. UNDRIP addresses individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples with emphasis placed on cultural rights and identity. UNDRIP considers the historic injustices Indigenous peoples have faced and recognizes their right to self-determination. UNDRIP was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007, with 144 states in favour, and only four against. Canada (along with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) voted against its adoption then reversed the decision and officially endorsed UNDRIP in 2016. In 2021, The UNDRIP Act received Royal Assent and became law in Canada.
Since its inception, the social work profession has advocated (for) social justice and social policy reform. That tradition is reflected in the IFSW Declaration of Ethical Principles of Social Work and the CASW Scope of Practice (June 2020) and Social Work Code of Ethics (under revision). Principles of respect for the inherent dignity and worth of persons, the pursuit of social justice, and culturally responsive practice that applies an anti-oppressive lens to all areas of practice and grounded in ethics, values, and humility, are central to social work. A commitment to adopt a Code of Ethics that focuses on Social Work’s journey of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and communities is presently underway.
Advantage and Limitations of the Above Principles
The advantage of the above principles (being adopted) is that they provide an established base upon which CASW can draw to enunciate its own social policy principles. Many, if not all, of the principles reflect values and expectations which Canadians share, and most are consonant with the stated values of social workers as stipulated in most codes of practice. Hence, several of them can be incorporated into a list of social policy principles for the association. There are, however, three limitations which need to be considered. The first is that some of the principles have been developed for specific policies. Hence, while they may be appropriate for some social programs, they may not be appropriate for others. For example, the portability principle for health care has relevance to insured programs but is less relevant to other programs.
A second important limitation (to be considered) is that in none of the principles is there a declared commitment to the constitutional division of powers with respect to social programs in Canada. This is particularly problematic since some of the controversy about health, education and social services stems from federal intrusion into provincial affairs. Unless the problem is addressed in a manner which serves to correct the overlap, it is difficult to hold governments accountable since one level of government blames the other for inadequacies of funding. In the CASW policy principles which follow, the importance of adhering to a constitutional division of powers is incorporated into the list. A third and corollary limitation is that there is nothing in the aforementioned principles to guide the delivery of social programs. In some cases, it may be appropriate for governments to deliver programs. In other cases, governments may not be the best or most desirable form of provision. This issue is addressed below by reference to the principle of subsidiarity, which is widely acknowledged in Europe in dealing with multiple levels of service delivery.
CASW Social Policy Principles
These Principles are intended to speak to all those who live in Canada, but also seek to recognize the special relationship that Canada has with Indigenous People and Communities, and to the particular harms Canada has and continues to cause to Indigenous as well as people of Colour. Drawing from the Principles of Truth and Reconciliation (2015) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the Canadian Association of Social Workers has developed these Principles to reflect our commitment to redress past and/or ongoing harms when evaluating and commenting on federal social policy initiatives, or when developing new policy recommendations. Each of the Principles is accompanied by a short statement which identifies the linkage to practice.
Note these Principles appear in no order and are not in order of importance.
Dignity, Respect, and Agency: each individual has a right to self-fulfillment to the extent that the right does not encroach on the right of others. To that end, social policy measures should intrude as little as possible on the choices which individuals make to live in the manner they so choose.
Implication for Practice: Commitment to upholding the values of self- determination, and respect.
Universality: Individuals, families and communities are entitled to universal access to social programs and services. Universality with an awareness of equitable treatment affirms that historically oppressed groups are enabled to receive social services with the necessary supports in place. Such an approach recognizes the structural reality of marginalization and discrimination in social systems and works towards limiting its impact. Social policy should identify social inequities and address barriers through the recognition of individual circumstances and needs.
Implications for Practice: Recognition of the need of affirmative action and targeting for some clients to minimize social exclusion. Local knowledges should be embraced and integrated to respect the individual differences of clients.
Equity and Justice: because of in the intrinsic worth of every human being, no person shall be subject to discrimination on the basis of ability, color, social class, race, religion, language, political beliefs, gender identity, sex or sexual orientation.
Individuals, families, and communities are to be treated equally if they are in like historical and/or ongoing circumstances: policy is considered just to the extent that it results in best serving the least advantaged people, groups, or communities.
Implication for Practice: Recognition of the need for targeted policies to support equity.
Comprehensiveness: all persons in Canada are entitled to educational, health and social services and social security in a manner which assures a range of choice and maximizes respect for the individual.
Implications for Practice: Recognition that solidarity is a fundamental basis of a society that supports the well-being of all.
Quality Services: services are to be based on best practices, best evidence and following the critical principle of ‘nothing about us, without us.’ Voices of lived and living experience must be reflected in policy.
Implications for Practice: Empowerment through policy in which the individual can see themselves reflected and privileging of participatory or co-created policy.
Constitutional Integrity: social programs are to be financed, regulated, and provided with full regard to the jurisdictional responsibility and competence of each government or First Nation.
Implications for Practice: Recognition of the regional, cultural, and linguistic diversity of the country in the development of social policy and delivery of social services.
Shared Responsibility and Subsidiarity: The health and well-being of all citizens is considered a shared responsibility, and there should be measures to ensure that services and programs are culturally safe with equitable funding and support. Local communities should be supported in delivering social programs when possible, respecting the right to self-determination. Social programs are to be provided at the lower levels of community where possible unless it’s shown to be more effectively provided by higher levels of government.
Implications for Practice: Ensuring that decisions, and the delivery of social services, are made as close as possible to those they intend to serve. Working with those we serve to identify programs and services that reflect their cultural background while respecting individual differences.
Social Dialogue: policy should be developed through robust, cooperative, and equitable consultation. Social workers have a responsibility to remain part of the social dialogue in Canada, and to the principle that policy is improved by a greater diversity of voices.
Implications for Practice: Recognition of the right, and obligation, of social workers to participate in professional and community associations in order to influence the development of social policies.
Accountability and Truth Sharing: Trusting relationships are grounded in honesty and respect. Truth sharing must set the foundation for social policy initiatives as we move towards reconciliation. This involves an understanding of the role of the profession of Social Work in perpetuating systems of oppression that has led to inequities in child welfare, education, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. This includes an informed awareness of the various Canadian policies and practices which inflicted harm on Indigenous peoples, including the Residential School System, Sixties Scoop, the banning of usage of native languages, cultural practices, and ceremonies. Acknowledging the historical and contextual significance for past and present inequities should be at the basis of all discussions centered on social policies.
Implications for Practice: Acknowledgement of the history of slavery and structural racism in Canada, including an understanding of how foundational colonial policies, such as the doctrine of discovery, continue to impact Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour.
Humility and Trust Building: Every individual, family, and community deserves to be heard and feel understood. Embracing a position of humility that highlights the value of active listening with communities will be an important undertaking when reviewing social policy initiatives. This will be addressed through meaningful consultation with organizations and agencies representing the lived experience of communities. Social policy measures should amplify voices that have been historically silenced. Reconciliation is a process of healing which requires humility and a responsibility to redress past and present harms.
Implications for Practice: Social workers adopting a stance of cultural humility and empathic understanding when working with diverse populations.
Solidarity and Self-Determining: We all deserve to feel valued and supported for being our authentic self. Support for the inherent connection Indigenous peoples share with the land is central to self-determination. Standing in solidarity with Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour, involves a commitment to question colonial social policy and a requirement of respect for various knowledges, cultures, and traditional practices.
Implications for Practice: Social workers recognizing that reconciliation requires lifelong learning with a duty to educate themselves on the histories, cultures, and values of the families with whom they work.
Social Justice and Meaningful Consultation: Social justice involves revealing injustices and acting in building a more inclusive and equitable society. Therefore, disparities in health, income, and education that stem from social policies, will be reviewed through a social justice lens. Access to the social determinants of health will be examined through the identification of structural barriers which limit individuals, families, and communities from thriving, such as, racism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism, cisgenderism, ageism, and classism. Building relationships through meaningful consultation with organizations and agencies representing communities that have been historically marginalized will be pursued to ensure that social needs are met in culturally respectful ways.
Implications for Practice: Recognition of how the profession of Social Work is complicit in perpetuating oppression and inflicting harm towards Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, and to other communities including queer communities and disability communities Social workers should explore ways to decolonize their practice, organization, profession, and community.
Relational Interconnectedness and Interdependence: Social policy measures should consider the interdependence between people and consider how economic conditions have the potential to improve or impede societal outcomes. Societal health and well-being are typically better in countries where there is a smaller income gap between the rich and the poor, with the reverse also being true. The reality that economic opportunities influence living conditions, and the social determinants of health, should be taken into consideration when reviewing social policies.
Implications for Practice: Social workers are often tasked with supporting clients in accessing income supplements and government assistance. Extending this support would involve identifying economic inequities that are embedded in social policies, and advocating for change and progress, such as a universal basic income.
Holistic Approach and Vitality: A holistic approach considers the diverse aspects influencing the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Such an approach embraces the vitality of distinct knowledges, languages, and cultures. An exploration of various perspectives and critically questioning narrow definitions will lead to a more accurate and inclusive approach to social policy measures.
Implications for Practice: Social workers respecting diverse knowledges and ways of understanding the world, which involves a commitment to learning and maintaining a curiosity to understand others.