In this post, I’ll share terrible stories of how old and poor Nova Scotians were treated in the past. I implore you to reflect on the treatment of this same population during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more details, please see the published article in the Canadian Geriatrics Journal, and feel free to contact me for the longer version, which was the winner of the 2020 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada History of Medicine Essay Prize.
Auctions of the poor and elderly were an annual event
As Atul Gawande points out in his book Being Mortal, inheritance was once tied to caring for an aged parent. Older and poorer adults were therefore the responsibility of families; Nova Scotia in the 17th and 18th centuries was no different. But what happened to individuals who had no families? – These individuals were auctioned off to their communities (townships):
“Once a year the poor were auctioned off to the lowest bidder in order that the taxpayers would have as little to pay as possible… As a boy those auctions were downright revolting to me, and to many others of that time; and from the more humane viewpoint of today they are even worse. They were, of course, the only means provided for the care of our poor and our harmless insane…We weren’t concerned about their welfare.”
Government officials championed institutionalizations as a fiscally responsible solution to the rising number of those in need
Townships were responsible for caring for their poor and elderly. But townships lacking funds “…[i]ncreasingly sent them to Halifax, creating an almost constant state of over-crowdedness in the Halifax Poor Asylum” – paid for by the provincial government. In 1879, the provincial government passed the County Incorporation Act to “relieve the pressure on the provincial treasury”, it empowered and financed municipal councils to build poor houses. There were only nine poor houses in Nova Scotia prior to 1879 – this would more than triple following the County Incorporation Act.
Halifax’s deadliest fire occurred in a poor house – the victims were those most defenceless
Halifax’s deadliest fire in its history claimed the lives of 31 inmates, most of whom were older or infirm. From the Chronicle Herald on November 6, 1882, “[c]onditions within the Poor House were harsh, aimed at providing relief to the inmates at the lowest possible cost…Thirty-one died in the most horrible manner one could possibly imagine.” Steven Laffoley, author of The Halifax Poor House Fire, A Victorian Tragedy explores the neglect and corruption leading up to the tragedy.
Underlying British North America’s approach to the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Law, which introduced the concept of the deserving poor. Also known as the worthy poor, a small population was deemed not responsible for their impoverished state and were seen as proper and deserving recipients of the community’s charity. However, inevitably, this also led to the concept of the “undeserving poor” – those who were seen as appropriate for poor houses as they were responsible for their poverty through idleness, addiction, or bad decisions. The legacy of the Poor Law is profound. With the tendency “to view poverty as a reflection on the worth and character of the person”, the care of the poor and aged became a system ripe for abuse.
Let’s remember that poor houses would eventually become modern long-term care facilities.
References for the works cited in this post can be found in the online version of the “A Short History of Long-Term Care in Nova Scotia” article.