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Touzel, Bessie

Abstract and Keywords

Bessie Touzel (1904–1997) left her mark on the local, provincial, and national levels in Canadian social services. Through her visionary development of concrete strategies for developing social policy, and establishing equitable welfare standards, she contributed lasting blueprints for social action and a re-definition of social responsibility.

Keywords: Marsh Report, Ontario Welfare Council, Social Planning Council, Social Work activist

Born on September 3, 1904, in the pioneer town of Killaloe in rural Ontario, Bessie Touzel was afflicted with poliomyelitis at the end of the first year of her life. While death and paralysis were often the outcomes of this illness, Touzel was taken to Hospital for Sick Kids for treatment and, after numerous lengthy hospital stays and painful surgeries, she survived into adulthood with a distinctive limp which accompanied her throughout her life. Raised as a Protestant, with high value placed on education and literacy, and often confined to bed, Touzel read voraciously and widely. While she aspired to a career in medicine throughout her high school years, by 1926 at the age of 22, she was more interested in a “social approach to human needs” and decided to enroll in the University of Toronto School of Social Work.

Following completion of her degree, Touzel accepted a position as a caseworker with the Neighbourhood Workers Association (NWA) and was soon promoted to a position of District Secretary, coordinating relief and casework. Touzel considered that she honed her professional skills in those rookie years on the streets of the settlement areas of Toronto during the Depression years. It was there that she realized that the welfare of children was dependent on the welfare of their mothers. The enabling and empowerment of these women who were often immigrant, typically uneducated, and universally poor became a touchstone of her career.

After building a strong framework in relief work as the Chief of Staff at the City of Ottawa Welfare Board from the mid to late 1930s, she became Executive Director of the Toronto Welfare Council (now the Social Planning Council) 1939–1947. Touzel became the key coordinator in a political struggle, led mainly by women, to change Toronto’s welfare standards. At the city-level, she created a Public Welfare Committee to monitor the city’s welfare department, and then mounted a research study on the adequacy of food allowances for families on relief. Armed with this report she mustered a coalition of the Red Cross, the University, the Welfare Council, and grassroots neighborhood organizations, and successfully pressured the provincial government to review its designated minimum amount for relief payments. The cost of living booklet that was prepared with the research results became a “bestseller” in Toronto and was taken up by the labor movement as part of wage and labor negotiations. Her success was no doubt the main reason she was seconded as a consultant to the Marsh Commission in 1943, a Federal initiative, where she spent six weeks participating in planning and discussion and the two studies she orchestrated were cited in the final report (Marsh, 1975), which is widely recognized as one of the most influential policy documents in Canadian welfare history. During the war years Touzel served on a Federal Cabinet Study of manpower needs.

This strategic process of research and coalition building was to serve as a framework for her response to poverty, housing shortages, and daycare at her next position working as assistant executive director of the Canadian Welfare Council (1947–1953). She completed a study of the welfare services in New Brunswick and directed relief services for the Canadian Red Cross during the 1950 Winnipeg flood. Later, in her position as executive director of the Ontario Welfare Council (1953–1964), she completed an overview of welfare services in York County and Peel County and campaigned tirelessly for reform in children’s institutions until her retirement in 1964. One of her later projects was on rural poverty in Lanark County. Her international stature was established with her post-retirement work as a United Nations advisor on social services, and she spent two years in newly independent Tanzania assisting the country to set up a welfare system.

Touzel joined the newly formed Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) early in her career, and was the national president from 1952–1954. Policy advocacy, standards of practice that respected the dignity of clients, and professional recognition were important to her. Always a staunch feminist, she was one of the founders of the Voice of Women in the late 1950s.

Honored nationally and internationally in her lifetime, Touzel received the Jubilee Medal (1935), the City of Toronto Award of Merit (1959), the Outstanding Contribution to Social Work Award, Ontario Association of Professional Social Workers (1985), and The Order of Ontario (1987). In 1994 she was awarded the honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Toronto, as well as the most distinguished graduate award from the University’s Faculty of Social Work.


Marsh, L. (1975). Report on Social Security for Canada. Toronto, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.Find this resource: