Fighting the Crime of Poverty: The Life Work of Dr. Fred MacKinnon, 2nd, On Poverty

“The sad and unfortunate fact is that we continue to view poverty as the fault of the individual and ignore the social and economic systems and mechanisms that are so often responsible for it.”                                                 FR MacKinnon 

Fred MacKinnon served as a Nova Scotia public servant and poverty fighter from the 1940's to 1990's.  He retired after 55 years of public service in 1995 at the age of 83.

He believed his greatest achievement as an 'institutional entrepreneur' was the passage of the Social Assistance Act of 1958.  It replaced the Poor Law which treated poverty as a crime!   He was combatting the moral stigma of the 17th and 18th century which had managed to seep into the 20th century.   For more than 200 years, Nova Scotia’s poorest — including many of its elderly, chronically ill and mentally disturbed—were sent to poor houses and  jail-like institutions.

I met Dr. MacKinnon when I was a social work student at Dalhousie in the late 70's.  By then, he was known as a key designer of Canada's modern social assistance cost sharing program.  The Canada Assistance Plan outlined equitable cost sharing agreements between the federal government and the provinces and created national standards to live up to regardless of the economic vitality of any one region. 

Despite his legendary status as a long serving Deputy Minister he clearly enjoyed spending time with students.  He once gave me a personal tour of the Nova Scotia Legislature pointing out the various locations of Joseph Howe's magnificent orations.  According to John Stapeleton ( a poverty fighter, I will profile in a subsequent essay) who was a young policy analyst sitting in the back row of national Deputy Minister meetings in the mid to late 1970's, an urban myth had developed that MacKinnon still carried a small caseload just to stay connected. 

He was a man who 'walked briskly to work' as my boss at the time, Harold Crowell observed.  He was in a hurry for social and economic justice. I still remember one particular lecture in which he admitted his greatest failure.  He and his colleagues had the opportunity to enact and implement a national Guaranteed Annual Income program and in his words, "we blew it." " We had the political will ( this was the era of Trudeau's Just Society – mid 1970's) and the financial resources and we dilly dallied with the MINCOME pilot project in southern Manitoba for too long.

Fast forward to today and Senator Hugh Segal's main policy objective as I outlined in my previous post on poverty – a guaranteed annual income.

In many ways I am only now understanding and  appreciating the lessons this great man shared with the Maritime School of Social Work class of 78.  Perhaps that's why this piece is more personal and nostalgic than usual! Imagine the systemic and cultural shifts required to move from the Poor Law to Social Assistance to the Canada Assistance Plan to a Guaranteed Annual Income.

Here is what he taught me:

  • Give it 30, 40 even 50 years – poverty is a tough stubborn challenge deeply rooted in attitudes of the past with many layers of complexity.  No one solution is enough.  No short term effort is sufficient.  You have to keep at it.
  • Government can't do it on its own.  Unless government is backed by informed public opinion, change or reform is difficult, if not impossible.
  • Stay alert for context – political timing and societal resonance are more important than ironing out all the details . 
  • Be bold! Hesitation and reticence delays or destroys too many opportunities
  • Stay humble – complex challenges defeat hubris every time.  Learn the lessons of previous efforts.  Don't assume you have part of the answer let alone all of the answer.  Keep your efforts grounded by staying connected to those who experience poverty.  Admit your failures.

Dr. MacKinnon passed away on August 17th, 2006 hopefully aware that even his passing kindnesses carried lasting personal impact.


My next post will reflect on the Manitoba MINCOME pilot referred to above.

This is the second of a series on poverty. Click Poverty to access the others.




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