Canada at Confederation in 1867 was a largely pre-industrial, agricultural society. Most people belonged to large families, and most families lived on farms. The farms themselves were very valuable resources, as they often supported entire families for generation after generation.
This social structure had many important implications for seniors and disabled people. People with disabilities who were largely unable to work relied on their families for support throughout their lives.
Seniors who owned farms worked on them for as many years as they had to before their children took over upon reaching adulthood. Moreover, many older people continued to work alongside their children, sometimes until the very end of their lives. In return, they were able to stay in their homes and be looked after by their children throughout their old age.
Thus, neither the practice of retirement (that is, of ceasing to work at a certain age), nor the concept of providing seniors with a retirement income were at all common among the vast majority of the population in this period. People were expected to work on the family farm as long as they were physically able to do so. In a complementary fashion, persons unable to contribute fully were felt to deserve support.
Those who did not belong to families that owned farmland fared much worse as they grew older. People who could not rely upon a large family network survived by working for wages. As their ability to work declined with age or through disability, many older people eventually became destitute and reliant on poor relief and charity.
However, retirement was not yet considered an entitlement of seniors because the problem of the elderly in the industrial system had not yet been fully recognized. Since so many of the aged continued to work as hard as younger people until the end of their lives, those who fell into destitution were not treated very differently from other poor people.
The aged poor were offered the same degree of assistance as the younger poor. They were either given emergency relief only, in amounts small enough to strongly encourage them to find work, or a place in the poorhouse, which was also designed to be extremely uncomfortable so that the poor would see it as a very last resort.
The number of seniors who became poor increased in the late 19th century as the process of industrialization began to affect Canadian society. As factories were built in the cities, more workers were needed. Meanwhile, the population in the countryside grew to the point that people began to be forced off their farms into urban areas to work for wages. Industrial wages were low enough that most people were unable to put money aside, and as Canadians grew too old to work they very often became unable to support themselves.
Without the close-knit family, church and community networks of rural, pre-industrial society, more and more people turned to poor relief and private charity, until the problem of the elderly poor came to be recognized by the turn of the century. Around 1900, for the first time, the aged were identified as a distinct group among the poor and new social reform movements began questioning the appropriateness of their treatment.