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A Poetics of Social Work: Personal Agency and Social Transformation in Canada, 1920-1939.

By Ken Moffatt, University of Toronto Press

If you have the ability to get past the title of this book, and its bland cover, it is well worth reading. This unusual and interesting book explores the way that social work emerged as a profession in Canada during the years between World War I and World War II.

This was a time when our social institutions were experiencing a great deal of change and there was a gradual shift away from religious based alliances toward a network of nonprofit and government interventions.

There were schools of social work that had been established at the University of Toronto and McGill University before World War I but they developed in very different ways during the 1920s and 1930s. This book outlines the specific views of four Canadian social work leaders who were affiliated with these two universities. They are Edward Johns Urwick, Carl Dawson, Dorothy Livesay and Charlotte Whitton.

The book is divided into four parts with a brief introduction and a conclusion. Each part provides a biographical sketch of one of the aforementioned. It is a short but pithy book with a full forty pages devoted to footnotes, a bibliography and an index.

Edward Johns Urwick was a religious fanatic who approached social service as a philosopher. In 1928 he became the director of the Department of Social Service at the University of Toronto, which later became the Faculty of Social Work. He remained director of the department until he retired in 1937.

Carl Dawson was hired in 1922 by McGill to develop a sociology department and to maintain the school of social work. Under his direction social work and sociology became permanently linked at McGill and social research became a part of social work.

Dorothy Livesay is best known as a great poet but she was also a student of social work and a social worker during the Depression. She valued personal experience and relationships as much as she valued theory and research. In 1937 Livesay was forced out of her job as a social worker with the British Columbia Welfare Field Service because it was illegal for a married woman to be employed in social work.

Charlotte Whitton lectured in social work at both McGill University and the University of Toronto. In the mid-1930s she acted as a social policy consultant to the Prime Minister. She was critical of social work as it was being defined within an increasingly bureaucratic culture.

It was quite interesting to learn about the influence that these four people have had on social work education, practice and philosophy. Mostly I was struck with the similarity of the issues that were being debated in the 1920s and 1930s and the issues that are still being debated by social work educators and policy makers today.

Fran Cappe, has been a social worker for thirty-one years in Ontario.
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Author:Cappe, Fran
Publication:Community Action
Date:Nov 18, 2002
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