Social Programs in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social Programs in Canada

Canada offers a wide range of social programs to help Canadians with their financial, personal, social and emotional well-being. Permanent residents and some refugees also have access to some of Canada’s social programs. Canada’s three levels of government fund and run many of these programs. These levels are federal, provincial/territorial and municipal. Some social programs are the same across Canada, while others have different names and structures in each province and territory.

In the past, Canadians received social support mainly from churches and their own families. The Canadian State introduced many of its social programs and expanded existing ones after the Second World War. (See Social and Welfare Services.)

The two main types of programs are income assistance programs and services-based social programs. Income assistance programs make direct payments to individuals. They supplement a person’s income at times of life such as childbirth, injury, illness, unemployment and retirement. Also called social security programs, they include Employment Insurance Benefits, Family Benefits and Public Pensions.

Services-based social programs provide services that support personal, social and emotional well-being. These include health care, housing and education. Some of these programs also make one-time direct payments to individuals in the form of a grant or rebate. Individuals need a Social Insurance Number (SIN) issued by the federal government to access income assistance programs and services-based social programs.

Income Assistance Programs

Employment Insurance Benefits

The Employment Insurance (EI) program provides temporary financial support to citizens in case of unexpected job loss, illness or injury. If workers lose their job through no fault of their own, they are eligible to apply for regular benefits. If workers cannot work due to illness or injury, they are eligible for sickness benefits.

Did you know?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The CERB provided financial support to workers who had stopped working due to the pandemic. Some people who were eligible for EI or who had recently used up their EI benefits also qualified. The CERB paid $500 per week for up to 24 weeks between 15 March and 3 October 2020. The government created a similar benefit — the Canada Emergency Student Benefit — for students who were unable to find work.

Workers’ Compensation

In Canada, the provinces and territories regulate Workers’ Compensation Boards (WCB). These agencies provide insurance coverage to workers who suffer from work-related injury or illness. They are funded entirely by employers. (See Workers’ Compensation.)

Family Benefits

The Employment Insurance (EI) program provides financial support to workers who leave work due to pregnancy or the birth of a child. Parents who leave work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child may apply for maternity or parental leave benefits. Parental leave can be shared between parents.

The EI program also provides Caregiving Benefits to workers who leave work to take care of a family member who is critically injured, ill or in need of end-of-life care.

The Canada Child Benefit (CCB), previously called the Family Allowance, is a monthly payment made to Canadian families with children under 18. The federal government uses information from a family’s income tax return to determine the family’s CCB payment amount. The CCB is tax-free and may include the Child Disability Benefit. The Child Disability Benefit (CDB) is available to families with a child under 18 who has an ongoing severe impairment in mental or physical function (see also Disability).

Public Pensions

The Old Age Security (OAS) program is a monthly payment made to Canadians aged 65 and older, whether they have worked or not. This payment is called a pension. The federal government’s general tax revenues fund the OAS program. The amount of OAS pension a citizen receives depends on how long they have lived in Canada after the age of 18.

The Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is a monthly payment made to Canadians and their families to partially replace their income after retirement, disability or death. Working Canadians make regular payments to the CPP in order to be eligible. The province of Quebec runs its own pension plan, the Québec Pension Plan (QPP). The CPP “survivor’s pension” pays the surviving spouse or common-law partner of the person who paid into the plan before their death. A worker under age 65 who becomes severely disabled and unable to work is eligible for disability benefits.

Income Support

Income support programs provide financial assistance and employment assistance to people in financial need. They are a last-resort source of income if all other sources are not enough for a person to support themself. The provinces and territories run these programs. They go by different names including Social Assistance (NB, ON, QC, PE, YT), Employment and Income Assistance (MB), Income Assistance (BC, NU, NS, NT) and Income Support (AB, NL, SK). People receive direct payments, also known as “welfare” payments, while they are looking for work. Income support programs also provide employment assistance. This includes job counselling, training and access to education through various channels. (See also Poverty.)

GST/HST Credit

The goods and services tax/harmonized sales tax (GST/HST) credit is a quarterly payment that Canadians with low and moderate incomes receive. This payment offsets all or part of the GST or HST that they pay each year. To receive the GST/HST credit, Canadians must file their taxes every year, whether or not they earned income that year.

Services-based Social Programs

Health Canada

Health Canada is a federal institution that helps Canadians live healthy lives. It has different branches that provide health services and information. Canada’s health-insurance program, also called medicare, is a publicly funded health care system that ensures all Canadians have access to hospitals and physicians. Citizens and permanent residents need provincial or territorial health cards (also called care cards) to access health services. The federal government directly provides health support to certain groups of people, including members of the Canadian Armed Forces and inmates in federal prisons. (See Health Policy.)


The federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1946 to help improve access to housing for all Canadians, including those with lower incomes and special needs. Several policies exist to help homeowners with the cost of purchasing shelter. These include grants and rebates for homeowners and low-cost public housing. Subsidized housing exists throughout Canada, but policies differ in each province and territory. (See Housing and Housing Policy; Homelessness in Canada.)


The provinces and territories fund and deliver primary and secondary public education (see Public School). Students pay tuition for post-secondary education. Post-secondary education is also subsidized by the federal and provincial governments. Canada Student Grants and Loans helps post-secondary students with the cost of tuition. The federal government offers apprenticeship loans for training in the trades and tuition support for student athletes.

The federal government offers the Canada Education Savings Grant (CESG), which it pays directly into a family’s Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP). This program helps families save for post-secondary education. (See Financial Aid to Students.)

Legal Aid Program

The provincial and federal governments fund legal aid programs, which are run by the provinces and territories. These programs help people with low incomes access legal services for criminal, immigration and refugee cases.


Child welfare programs in Canada provide services whose main goal is the protection of children from abuse and neglect. They also support family stability to keep children with their birth families whenever possible. Provincial and territorial governments across the country have set up children’s aid societies to deliver these services.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Services Canada, a department of the federal government established in 2019, works to improve access to social programs for First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. These programs include education, health care and family and child welfare. Indigenous Services Canada aims to support Indigenous peoples in independently delivering social programs within their communities.

People with Disabilities

Regional support programs foster inclusion and healthy living for people with disabilities. These programs help participants work, volunteer, exercise and improve their daily living skills. Community agencies also provide group homes, family homes and specialized residences for those in need of extra support.

Newcomers to Canada

Canada’s Resettlement Assistance Program financially supports government-assisted refugees. Refugees are immigrants who have been forced to leave their country due to war or persecution. The Immigration Loans Program provides financial loans to refugees selected for resettlement.


The federal government offers special benefits to current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. These programs include income support, compensation for injury or illness, prisoner-of-war benefits, death benefits and emergency funds. (See Department of Veterans Affairs.)

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