Conversations About Inequality and Homelessness in Canada: A Session at the CHA

This is the first post in a series featuring short descriptions of papers and panels that will be presented at the Canadian Historical Association`s annual meeting being held at the University of British Columbia June 3-5.

Homelessness and inequality are at the forefront of public discussions and policy debates. In this panel discussion we argue that a deeper historical perspective on this subject is urgently needed. Our conversation begins with specific times and places, but in bringing these papers together we expect the panel to connect to broader horizons and current public policy issues.

In his paper, Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt takes an explicitly public history approach. Entitled “Debating and Developing Decommodified Housing in Greater Victoria: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” the paper analyzes recent trends in homelessness and proposes a historically-informed policy strategy guided by the concept of social economy, whereby diverse organizations collaborate to work towards social rather than private objectives. Isitt’s idea of social economy builds on the deep historical tradition of non-profit, non-market housing in Canada, but demonstrates that it is not a substitute for the public sector; it exists in partnership with the public sector, and it is the partnership that offers solutions.

Eion Kelly takes a different approach in “Finding the Homeless in Early Twentieth-Century Canada.” Based on a Master’s thesis, completed at the University of Victoria in 2018, Kelly used hitherto unknown or under-utilized sources to analyze the “unhoused” in pre-1914 urban British Columbia. A profile of the unhoused is compiled from the records of Vancouver Associated Charities and the 1911 census. Using this source, it is possible to find the unhoused and to identify potential biases in the sources. The analysis includes both quantitative and qualitative approaches; it is both social science history and cultural history. In the end, Kelly demonstrates that the unhoused turn out to be more diverse than contemporary accounts suggested, and more diverse than is often suggested by images of “tramp” or “hobo.”

Eric Sager’s paper – “Inequality and the Politics of Spiritual Engineering in Early 20th Century Canada” – is drawn from a book, currently in progress, on the history of the idea of inequality in Canada. The problem of inequality is uncovered among radical reformers in the 1830s, the Protestant critics of wealth, labour reformers, socialists, political economists in English- and French-Canada in the early 20th century, social gospelers, and specific social democratic and liberal thinkers in the 20th century. Inequality is a recurring theme in the egalitarian politics of the Canadian liberal order. For the social gospel period, the argument is that the problem of inequality was encased in a postmillennial doctrine of immanence – the belief in a divinely-ordained nearness of brotherhood and social salvation.

This panel will be held on Monday June 3 at 1:30 p.m. For more details about the CHA’s annual meeting, consult the program here. If you would like to contribute a post to this series, please contact Tom Peace (

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