Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Social Service Legislation in Quebec Prior to 1921


[This text was written by Esdras Minville in 1939. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]

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The organization of social welfare in the prov­ince of Quebec before the advent of big industry and the resulting transformation of our social economy was simplicity itself. The life of the people was founded on the family and the parish. The family was self-sufficient and could always count on the assistance of the neighbours or the group that had arisen around it. Institutions and religious orders assumed responsibility for the care of the child and the aged.


Hence, legal enactments providing for the pro­tection of the defenceless and the poor, for the care of the sick and the crippled, were few in number and very general in their scope. Save in the case of certain classes of children and of the insane, where the help of the public authorities was provided, these laws were limited to establishing the framework within which private initiative was given free play. Moreover, these provisions of the civil law have been the basis of all ensuing legisla­tion. They are as follows:


- I -




Legitimate children have the right to demand of their parents that they be fed, looked after and reared. In return the child, of whatever age, must honour and respect his father and mother. He is subject to paternal authority until he reaches his majority or is emancipated. The unemancipated minor may not leave the family roof without the permission of his father. He must submit to the moderate and reasonable correction of his father and of those to whom the latter entrusts his education. Moreover he must provide food for his father and mother and other kin, in case of need, in proportion to the need of the claimant and the resources of the one who must give.


The child born out of wedlock has the right to seek to establish, even by recourse to the courts, the identity of his father and mother, and to demand sustenance from the father and mother who have recognized him either voluntarily or under compulsion. He must provide food for the father and mother who have recognized him.


The Civil Code of Quebec province recognizes only judicial or dative tutorship: all tutors are appointed by the courts or the prothonotaries of the Superior Court on the recommendation of the family council. The tutor assumes the care of the person of the minor ward and represents him in all civil procedures. He administers his property. With the authorization of the judge and on the recommendation of the family council, he may continue an established business, borrow on behalf of his ward, alienate and mortgage his real prop­erty, transfer his capital or movable goods, accept or repudiate a legacy bequeathed to the minor, etc. The tutor may not bring about a final distribution of the minor's real property. Before appealing a judgment and in order to transact business on behalf of his ward, he must obtain the authoriza­tion of the judge, who grants it only on the advice of the family council.


He must render an accounting of his tutorship, on request of the relatives and connections of the ward, or of the surrogate tutor or of any other interested party, either during or at the expiration of the tutelage.


The minor is emancipated: (a) as of right, by marriage; (b) by the court, on the advice of the family council; at the request of the minor or of his kinsmen or blood relations. The emancipated minor may sign leases of not more than nine years' duration, may receive revenue and give receipts, in a word perform all purely administrative acts. In all other cases he must have the assistance of an administrator appointed in about the same manner as the tutor.

- II -




Husband and wife owe each other mutual faithfulness, aid and assistance. The husband must protect his wife; the wife must obey her husband. The wife is obliged to live with the husband and to follow him wherever he chooses to reside. The husband is obliged to receive her and to supply her with all the necessities of life, according to his means and his position.


In the province of Quebec marriage is dissolved only by the death of husband or wife, since the Civil Code does not recognize divorce (1). However, for reasons provided for by law, the judge may grant a separation from bed and board. In this case the husband is no longer obliged to receive his wife, nor is she under any obligation to live with him. The wife recovers her full legal status: she may perform all civil acts without marital or judicial authorization. If one of the consorts thus separated be without sufficient means the other party may be enjoined to pay alimony. The children are entrusted to the marital partner obtaining the separation, unless the court should order, for their greater advantage, that all or some of them, be given in the care of the other consort or of a third party. Whoever may be entrusted with the care of the children, the father and mother retain the right to watch over their upbringing and education and must contribute to the cost according to their means.


The rights and duties of the parents are correlative to the duties and rights of the children.


The following may be interdicted: the insane, habitual drunkards, persons making an immoderate use of drugs, and persons committing acts of prodigality which give reason to the fear that they might dissipate the whole of their property. (s. 325 and following.)


Interdiction is decreed by the court after in­vestigation. To the person declared incapable an adviser is appointed who, in the case of interdiction for lunacy, has over the sick person and his property all the powers of the tutor. In the case of interdiction for prodigality, habitual drunkenness, or abuse of drugs, the powers and the obligations of the adviser extend only to the property. (s. 343.)


For those who, without being absolutely insane or spendthrifts, are weak-minded, or so inclined to prodigality as to give reason to fear that they will dissipate their fortune, a curator is appointed. (s. 349.) The latter is appointed after the per­formance of the required formalities to obtain the interdiction of the mentally diseased. The judg­ment appointing the curator sometimes defines his powers. In principle, the person to whom he is appointed is prohibited from pleading, transacting, receiving movable capital and giving a discharge therefor, as also from alienating or hypothecating his properties without the assistance of such curator. (S. 351.)

Section 358 of the Municipal Code authorizes the local corporation to enact a resolution providing for the needs of the poor persons of the munici­pality who cannot earn their living. The right thus conceded to the municipality, however, implies no legal obligation.


- III -


Besides the above provisions of the Civil Code, there were, prior to 1921, in our statutes, laws affecting certain types of children and sick persons. In the first case : law respecting Found Children (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 194) ; law respecting Immigrant Children (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 195) ; law respecting Industrial Schools (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 160) ; law respecting Young Delinquents (Revised Statutes of Canada, 1927, c. 108, amended by 19-20 Geo. V, c. 46) ; law respecting Reformatory Schools (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 159). In the second case, law respecting Mental Hospitals (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 190, 191 and 192). A summary of these laws is given below.


The Commissioners appointed by the government, by virtue of chapter 194 (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925), for the purpose of supervising the Hôtel-Dieu and the General Hospital at Quebec, and the Grey Nuns' Hospital at Montreal and any institution in the Three Rivers District receiving found children, are legal tutors of the found children, admitted to those institutions. They have the powers acknowledged by the Civil Code to the dative tutors.


These institutions, as well as the Saint-Vincent de Paul Crèche, may entrust, by agreement, the care of found children to any person, society or corporation agreeing to raise them.


However, they possess the right to take back, at any time when they judge proper, the care of their pupil. The persons who are entrusted with the care of a child possess the same supervisory powers as the institution itself.


By virtue of chapter 195 (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925), societies may be formed to bring , and place in the province immigrant children less than 18 years of age. These societies, however, must, beforehand, obtain a permit from the government. The said permit is issued only if the Cabinet is convinced that the society contemplates bringing only children of good moral character. Any society thus approved by the government must possess a hospital in the province. If a person who has received a child from the society is unwilling or unable to fulfil the terms imposed, he must, at his own expense, send the child back to the society's hospital.


The Cabinet, if convinced that the society has neglected to fulfil its duties, may cancel the permit it has issued.


The law respecting Industrial Schools in the province of Quebec (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 160), may be summarized to the following essential provisions.


The children enter the industrial school from the age of six. They are sheltered and fed, pro­tected and instructed. They leave the school at fourteen, unless, the cost of their maintenance not being paid, the authorities are compelled to send them back earlier.


Several classes of persons may request the admis­sion to an industrial school of any child, whether or not an orphan, left in a state of physical or moral abandonment by those on whom the child is dependent: (a) the taxpayer (in this case the expenses are borne half by the province and half by the municipality, if the latter has acknowledged its responsibility) ; (b) the mayor (costs borne by the municipality) ; (c) the Provincial Secretary (costs divided between the province and the muni­cipality) ; (d) the judges, on their own authority or at the request of the Attorney-General of the province, or some other party (costs borne by the municipality) ; (e) the parents, or other persons responsible for the child (costs borne by the parents) ; (f) the peace officer, within territory subject to the jurisdiction of a Juvenile Court.


The Provincial Treasurer may contribute to the keep of children interned at the request of their parents, in the amount that the ministerial council sees fit to recommend. The municipalities called upon to defray, in whole or in part, the expenses incurred in the care of a child placed in an industrial school may lay claim for recovery against the goods of the child or of those upon whom the child is dependent. Should payment not be obtained in this way and if the municipalities are known to be poor, they may appeal to the municipality of the county which may then divide the cost among the local municipalities. The same procedure may be followed in the case of a child who is penniless or is not a resident of the province.


The law authorizes the directors of industrial schools to place children, under certain conditions, in respectable families or with their relatives; also to apprentice them or have them employed as domestics for a period which may extend up to their majority. The Provincial Secretary may, ex officio, place children in homes without their pass­ing through an industrial school.


The children kept in the industrial schools are not paid a salary when they are apprenticed, but their master must provide for their maintenance and their technical education. If they are orphans, they may receive a remuneration. If the children work at the industrial school, what they earn is applied to the cost of their maintenance and, on their leaving the school, they receive the balance left to their credit.


The Cabinet may order that a child be released from an industrial school, either absolutely or on conditions approved by the Provincial Secretary. The parents are then advised to receive him. If they neglect to follow that advice without cogent excuse, they may be sentenced to a fine or to imprisonment.

*     *     *     *     *

The law respecting Juvenile Delinquents was entirely amended in 1929 by 19-20 Geo. V, c. 46.


It starts from the principle that any child less than 16 years of age or, as prescribed by the federal Cabinet, less than 18 years of age, violating the provisions of the Criminal Code, of a provincial law, or of a municipal by-law, must be treated not as an offender, but as punishable, and in need of assistance, of direction and of proper guidance. However, if the child be more than fourteen years of age the court may order that he be indicted in the ordinary courts, in compliance with the provisions of the Criminal Code, if the court decides that the welfare of the child and of society demand it.


The Juvenile Court is established under a pro­vincial law. The presiding judge is invested with all the powers of a magistrate. The proceedings are held privately. Neither the name nor the identity of the child may be disclosed.


The procedure is as simple as the circumstances and the proper administration of justice will allow.


When the offence is proven the court may, at its discretion, follow one or more of the directions given in the Act.


Whatever may be the decision of the court, it may order the parents or the municipality to contribute to the support of the child in such proportion as the court may determine. The municipality, however, is entitled to recourse against the parents for the money spent in obeying this order.


The court may order that the fine and costs imposed on a child be paid in whole or in part by the child's father, mother or guardian, if con­vinced that the latter, through neglect or other-wise, were responsible for the offence committed. For such infraction the fine may be levied under the provisions of the Criminal Code.


The juvenile delinquent must not be handed over to a children's aid society nor to an industrial home, nor placed in a family of religious beliefs other than his own, save when it is impossible to do otherwise. The law forbids the sending to an industrial school of a child less than twelve years old, before an attempt has been made to effect the child's reform within his own home, unless, in the opinion of the court, the child's own interest demands that he be confined in an institution.


Save by exception, no juvenile delinquent must be confined in an institution where adults are, or may be, imprisoned.


The Juvenile Court has the assistance of a committee of citizens, called the Juvenile Court Committee, and of a supervisory official clothed with the powers of a police officer.


Whoever deliberately induces a child to commit an offence or to leave the house, the industrial school or the institution where he has been placed by order of the court, is liable to a fine or to imprisonment. The same applies to the father and mother whose neglect is judged to be a contributory cause of a child's criminal conduct.


The Reform Schools Act (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 159), containing similar provisions to the Industrial Schools Act, concerns children found guilty and sentenced by the court..


Children are confined in the reform school from 10 to 16 years.


The Act (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 190), recognizes three kinds of insane asylums: (a) public; (b) private; (c) military.


The public asylums are those which receive patients whose maintenance is paid for by the province. They are under the direction of a medical superintendent appointed by the minis­terial council, which fixes and pays his salary.


The public hospitals may admit insane patients able to pay the cost of their maintenance.


The admission of sick persons and their release are subject to formalities provided for by law.


Persons who may be admitted to the mental hospitals at the expense of the government and of the municipalities are: (a) the insane who have not by themselves, or by the persons bound to furnish them food, the means of paying, in whole or in part, the cost of their hospital care; (b) the idiotic or half-witted, dangerous or scandalous, incapable of providing, totally or partially, for the cost of their stay and of their treatment.


The conditions of admission and of release are provided for in the law. The confinement of the dangerously insane is ordered by a recorder, a magistrate, or a justice of the peace.


The maintenance cost of a needy insane person is paid half by the province, half by the muni­cipality, of the town or of the county whence the patient comes. The government has recourse against the refractory municipalities. However, if the patient or those responsible for his food are in a position to pay part of the cost of maintenance, the Provincial Secretary may demand from each of them his contributory share.


At the request of the insane patient's parents a judge may appoint a provisional administrator to the non-interdicted interned. This administrator has over the person and the property of the insane all the powers of an ordinary curator whose obliga­tions he assumes. If no provisional administrator is appointed, the medical superintendent and, since the last session of the Quebec Parliament, a curator appointed by the law, has over the person and the property of the interned all the powers of an ordinary curator, which he exercises according to the instructions of the ministerial council.


The government may establish asylums intended to receive the insane sent to a penitentiary or a provincial prison when federal or provincial law so provides. The Provincial Secretary assumes the supervision and the control of all such asylums.


When an insane person is transferred from a prison to an insane asylum, the maintenance and treatment costs are owed and paid by the muni­cipality where the patient was arrested. If the place where the arrest was made is not established as a municipality, the county council in whose limits the territory is located pays all the expenses. Furthermore, if the municipality called upon to pay proves to the Provincial Secretary that the prisoner, prior to his arrest, lived for six consecutive months in some other municipality, the latter must assume the obligation of paying the maintenance costs.


Any person wishing to keep a private insane asylum must, beforehand, obtain a permit, the obtaining and the cancelling of which are subject to regulations provided for in the law.


The law defines the powers and the duties of the owner of a private asylum. Each asylum sheltering one hundred patients or more must have a resident physician as superintendent. If less than one hundred patients are sheltered, a physician must visit the asylum every day or twice a week, according to the number of patients.


The private asylums are subject to the super-vision of inspectors appointed each year by the judges of the peace, at least one of whom must be a physician. Four times a year these inspectors, one of whom is a physician, visit each private insane asylum, enquire as to the regularity of the patients' admission and as to their physical and moral conditions of life.


The province may enter into an agreement with the federal Minister of Soldiers' Civil Re-estab­lishment concerning the establishments of hospitals for the insane veterans within provincial territory. (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 192.)


Any person who wishes to open a private asylum intended for the treatment of habitual drunkards must obtain authority from the ministerial council.


Not more than four such asylums may be estab­lished in the province.


No person may, against his own free will, be detained in an asylum by the director, unless the latter is authorized by an order from a judge of the Superior Court.


A habitual drunkard may, on a written request, signed before a judge of the Superior Court, ask a director of an asylum to admit him for the period he decides upon with the consent of the judge. Then that is a sufficient authority for the director to retain such patient for the time thus determined. (Revised Statutes of Quebec, 1925, c. 192.)


(1). The Civil Code, section 185, does not allow divorce. Marriage annulments by Rome or by the courts must not be considered as divorces. Such verdicts do not annul the marriage itself; rather do they establish the fact that the marriage never did exist since it was not performed in accordance with the requirements of Canon Law and the Civil Code. The judgment declares the marriage non-existent, hence null and void. With respect to divorce by parliamentary decree, such divorce is recognized in the province of Quebec, since the matter is one of federal jurisdiction.    

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Source: Esdras MINVILLE, “Social Service Legislation Prior to 1921”, in Labour Legislation and Social Services in the Province of Quebec. A Study Prepared for the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, Ottawa, 1939, 97p., pp. 50-54.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College