Fighting the Crime of Poverty: The Life Work of Dr. Fred MacKinnon

The following entry is an excerpt from Al Etmanski’s blog, posted 22 February 2011.

“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.

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.

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.

Editor’s note: The full blog can be read here. We have decided to cross-post this blog in an effort to raise the profile of the ongoing work finding solutions to one of the most-entrenched social problems – poverty. Al Etmanski, one of our SiG Directors has begun a series of posts discussing issues and action around combatting poverty. Follow his posts and add your voice to the discussion there.

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About Al Etmanski

Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is an Ashoka fellow and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute. He is founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact and co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). He blogs at His new book, Impact-Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation is already a Canadian best seller.

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