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Whitton, Charlotte

Abstract and Keywords

Charlotte Whitton (1896–1975) was a woman of enormous energy, personal ambition, and drive. She had essentially three careers: as a social worker who was the guiding force behind the ascendency of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare, as a journalist and campaigner on child welfare and other social service issues, and as a municipal politician who rose to be the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city.

Keywords: child welfare, Canadian Council on Child Welfare, family allowances, Social Service Council of Canada

Charlotte Whitton was a woman of enormous energy, personal ambition, and drive. She had essentially three careers: as a social worker who was the guiding force behind the ascendency of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare, as a journalist and campaigner on child welfare and other social service issues, and as a municipal politician who rose to be the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city.

Born in Renfrew, Ontario, in 1896 into a family of mixed religion, Charlotte Whitton was raised, by agreement of her parents, in the Anglican Church. Unusual for the time, she attended Queen’s University as a scholarship student during the years of the First World War. She left Queen’s University in 1918 with a B.A. after completing studies in pedagogy. By convention of the time she was entitled to and did put M.A. after her name because she graduated with high standing. She was hired shortly after graduation as assistant to the Reverend J.G. Shearer, Secretary General of the Social Service Council of Canada (SSCC), necessitating a move to Toronto. In addition to her administrative duties, she was also to be the associate editor of and occasional writer for Social Welfare, the new publication of the SSCC. She attended committee meetings and conferences on behalf of the organization, thereby building a circle of friends and acquaintances in the nascent social work, many of whom she would involve in her work over the next 30 years.

In October of 1920 she attended a conference in Ottawa on child welfare on behalf of the SSCC at which the Canadian Council on Child Welfare (CCCW) was formed by delegates from the Dominion government and the many charitable agencies in attendance. It was decided that Charlotte Whitton should be the honorary secretary of the new organization. She would receive an honorarium of $500 a year in the position.

After her appointment, she kept the Canadian Council going from the SSCC offices in Toronto and later, after she moved, from her office at the House of Commons in Ottawa. In March 1922, she left the SSCC to become the private secretary to Tom Low, the Liberal MP (Member of Parliament) for Renfrew who was a Minister Without Portfolio and later Minister of Trade and Commerce in the first and minority government of William Lyon Mackenzie King. In the October 1925 election, Low was defeated but Whitton already had other plans. In September, the Canadian Council Vice President Helen Reid convinced her Board that the organization needed a full time secretary and that it should hire Charlotte Whitton effective November 1925. Whitton was hired at a salary of $3500 per annum, which put her at or close to the top in the emergent social work field. The organization had a budget of $10,000, half in a grant from the Dominion Government. As the Council’s full time employee she began a vigorous correspondence and lobbying effort on a range of child welfare issues and published the Council’s magazine Canadian Welfare. She also successfully lobbied to win the nomination as Canada’s assessor on the League of Nations’ welfare committee.

Under Whitton, the CCCW became engaged in a wide range of issues from child rearing to neglect and delinquency. The Council responded to government inquiries and participated in organizing several social surveys, becoming the Children’s Bureau for Canada (CBC). Her writings at this time on juvenile immigration reveal her class and racial biases. She was concerned about whether Canada would remain Anglo-Saxon in character or be changed by the immigration of those who she believed would be unfit for Canadian life. Between 1927 and 1934 she engaged the CCCW in more than 20 child welfare surveys establishing her and the organization’s preeminent reputation in the field. Her themes were similar—use a combination of photos, vignettes, and data to demonstrate the deplorable conditions of children in the area, support the need for new facilities, and especially for professional staff to supervise and administer child welfare services.

In 1932 she undertook a western Canada report on relief for R.B. Bennett, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada. Although opposed to make work employment projects, she did recommend that the government set up relief camps in rural areas for unemployed single young men, which would keep them away from the cities. Later that year Bennett introduced legislation to create the camps under the control of the Canadian military. She was rewarded by Bennett for this and other work with an appointment as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). In 1936 she accepted a short appointment to Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s National Employment Commission, writing a lengthy report on relief. She continued to maintain her hectic schedule of meetings both national and international throughout the decade of the depression, serving on the boards of many Canadian organizations, as well as International Labour Organization (ILO) and League of Nations committees. She resigned in 1941 from the Council, by then known as the Canadian Welfare Council (now the Canadian Council on Social Development), and launched into a second career as a freelance researcher, writer, journalist, and speaker until 1950.

In 1943, she was asked by John Bracken, national leader of the Progressive Conservative Party to provide advice on the recently published Marsh Report on social planning. This she did, publishing her ideas later in the year in a book entitled the Dawn of Ampler Life. In contrast to Marsh and other proponents of a Canadian welfare state, she supported some non-cash "social utilities" and a needs related social assistance program. Throughout the 1940s she continued speaking and writing for magazines and newspapers on child welfare and other social welfare issues. Her 1945 pamphlet on Baby Bonuses: Dollars and Sense continued her opposition to family allowances and brought these ideas together with her earlier racial arguments. She was concerned about the incentive to non-Anglo Saxon immigrant groups with large families. Her most controversial report, on child welfare in Alberta, was written during 1947 at the invitation of the International Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), a national women’s charitable organization. She began releasing her findings in April continuing during July 1947. By August of that year, the Alberta government was forced to appoint a Royal Commission into child welfare. A December 1947 article in New Liberty magazine for which she had provided some of the material, led to charges of conspiracy being filed against the journalist, the publisher, and Charlotte Whitton. The fierce outcry across Canada led to the charges being dropped by April 1948.

In December 1950, Whitton entered a new career as a politician, winning election to the City of Ottawa Board of Control, and becoming acting Mayor in September 1951 on the death of Mayor Goodwin. She won election in 1952 and 1954, becoming the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city. She ran unsuccessfully for an Ottawa federal constituency as a Progressive Conservative Party candidate in the 1950s, returning to the mayorship between 1960 and 1964. She finished her political career as a city councillor from 1966 to 1972. She died in January 1975.