Editorial – on our profession’s shifting terrain – –Colleen Lundy, Thérèse Jennissen

THE SHIFTING TERRAIN OF SOCIAL WORK (from the eastern branch OASW BULLETIN – newsletter. Please see more articles on the profession in the Spring 2011 issue @ http://www.oasw.org/public/about-oasw/branches/eastern.aspx )

The social work profession in Canada is on the verge of a crisis from which it might not easily recover. The recent decisions by the Boards of Directors of two provincial associations to withdraw from the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW), without extensive consultation with their provincial members, is an affront to the almost-ninety year history of professional social work development in Canada. Our convictions and support for the CASW are not born of sentimentality, nor are they an uncritical allegiance to everything that the CASW has or hasn’t done.

Our support is based on historical data that demonstrates that such a national association is central to securing and maintaining our autonomy and for our survival as a profession. Similar to many organizations, the CASW’s history has been one of struggle and compromise. Giving up this struggle, we fear, is acquiescing to a conservative and regional agenda that will undermine our autonomy, our professional identity, and our work.

So what has the CASW contributed to social work in Canada? The simplest answer is that it created the profession. This is not to say that it created social work, but the early pioneers of the CASW worked tirelessly to develop and promote an indigenous social work profession in Canada.

Professionalization has its drawbacks and limitations, but it must be given credit for shaping some important characteristics of social work that we take for granted. For example, the CASW was involved in:
 extricating us from American social work;
 claiming a unique space among the caring professions in Canada with a separate
Constitution, a Code of Ethics, and a specialized skill-set;
 launching the longest-standing social work journal in Canada;
 holding national social work conferences;
 establishing standards for social work
education and practice;
 setting standards of work and pay for social workers;
 advising the nascent welfare state on the development of social policies, programs and
services;
 responding to social issues brought to the forefront at various times in Canada’s history
such as the Depression, WWII, post-war reconstruction, the Cold War, the 1960s; and
 maintaining an active international profile.

Throughout its history the Association has faced the ongoing challenges inherent in the geopolitical composition of Canada. The federalprovincial/territorial power struggles, the northsouth pull of the provinces, divergent regional/provincial/territorial interests, the isolation of the north, and the dominance of a private market economy are characteristics of Canada’s socio-political landscape. It was with a very clear understanding of this complex environment that a group of social workers in Eastern Ontario dared to dream that they had something to contribute to Canadian society in the interests of the least privileged. One of the best known examples is Bessie Touzel who stood up to the municipal government in the interests of her social work colleagues and their clients.

The CASW began as a national organization localized around Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. It was not long before branches were established in other parts of the country. By the end of the 1930s there were four branches in BC, and one each in Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Quebec. A decade later, seven additional branches were formed in Essex County, Kingston, Nova Scotia Mainland and Saskatchewan. Alberta developed branches in 1951.

Throughout its history the CASW struggled with keeping social workers together, working to promote the diverse interests of the regions, and keeping up with and debating the issues of the times. Since its beginning in 1924, the CASW made significant efforts to reflect the voices of social workers from across the country, including all of the regions. This involved conducting regular visits by elected representatives of the CASW to the regions to hear their concerns and their issues, and regular referenda on various issues of importance to the Association. It was not uncommon for social workers to share resources and personnel across the country. Several social work pioneers moved among the provinces to assist in establishing and consolidating a social work presence, as well as providing educational services and training to social workers.

These efforts did not always quell unrest in the ranks, but when they didn’t work, new strategies for settling differences were adopted, or the organization was restructured in the interests of the majority of the membership. Starting as a national organization, the CASW evolved through different structures to eventually become a federation of provincial associations, sharing power across the regions of the country.

The recent announcements of the Boards of Directors of both the Alberta and Ontario
Associations indicate a lack of interest in keeping a strong and united national social work voice and an international connection. A common national voice does not mean that we have to agree on everything, but it should mean that we will work together, and debate and challenge each to find solutions to our differences. It should mean that, in the end, we put aside our differences and remember the social justice mandate that is inherent in our work.

To some extent the decision by Ontario and Alberta Boards reflects the conservative politics of  the day where individual rights are valued over communal rights, and regional and provincial autonomy is prized over anything that might appear to be “centralized,” even if it means eliminating common standards of decent living for people. The current global economic environment has made way for the development of a particularly ruthless form of capitalism that provides much less space for state welfare functions and ultimately for social work. This has meant fewer funds for social welfare, fewer permanent social work jobs, less control of jobs and working conditions, and less-regulated work environments. Increasingly, proponents of globalization are imposing measures of control over occupations and workers, including the practice of social work and social workers. This is facilitated by international trade agreements and conservative governments. The growth of provincial regulatory bodies, moreover, has led to increased fragmentation of the profession, and has pulled us in different directions that are
dictated by forces largely, though not entirely, outside of our profession.

The impact of the Ontario decision to leave CASW is immense in that both OASW and the
branches will lose members. If the Board ignores the growing opposition to its position, the only recourse available for members who want to belong to a Canada-wide association with a common voice and an international presence is the possibility of the national association moving from a federation model to one that allows direct membership to the CASW. This, in fact, was the original model of the CASW upon its inception.

Without a formal structure that provides a national voice and social work visibility, the strength of our profession is seriously compromised. Our profession stands at a precarious crossroads. We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by conservative forces to abandon a longstanding tradition of struggle, compromise, and, in the final analysis, unfailing solidarity—solidarity with each other as social workers and solidarity with the people whose interests we promote both in Canada and internationally.

Colleen Lundy is a Professor with the School of Social Work at Carleton University.
Thérèse Jennissen is an Associate Professor and Graduate Supervisor with the School

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One comment

  1. Dwight Thompson

    I am discouraged by this choice to “leave” our CASW, and not in any way see opportunity for us as a profession to model something we attempt to portray with out clients: relationships are central to what we do!! How can we model professional relationships to our students when we actively demonstrate that when things get tough it’s ok to walk away! Even withdrawing temporarily is not the way to go – improving communication and remembering the bigger picture of unity are important things to consider before showing the world how little it takes to separate a “profession”…..I’m sorry, I agree with the Eastern Branch – we need to stay. If anything history has shown us that walking away (specifically in our profession) has had some really negative effects, and serves to undermine the things we ideally strive for. This is a tough situation – but let’s stay together.