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History of volunteering

In the 17th century

Beginning in the 17th century, farmers pooled their efforts to perform the tasks essential to their survival (land clearing, harvesting, building construction). This volunteer action is the first tangible example of mutual aid. In 1688, after the great fire that ravaged the city of Québec, citizens created the Bureau des pauvres, an office for the poor composed of volunteers, who provided money, food and clothing to the destitute. At the time, religious communities like the Hôtel-Dieu (founded in the city of Québec in 1658), the Maison de la Providence (founded in the city of Québec in 1688) and the Hôpital général de Québec (founded in 1693) set up services for the population.

In the 18th and 19th centuries

After the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849 and the typhoid outbreak of 1847, during which volunteers helped the needy, structured organizations developed. Many of the first structured initiatives designed to help communities were the work of organizations run by citizens. This is true of the Société de Saint-Vincent de Paul (founded in the city of Québec in 1846 and in Montréal in 1848) which runs clothing banks, helps people find employment and makes home visits. In 1851, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was created in Montréal. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was created around 1875 in the city of Montréal and Québec. Their goal was to improve the living conditions of men and women in difficulty. To do so, they set up placement offices, training centres, social clubs, summer camps, libraries, etc. In 1884, the Salvation Army began to help unmarried people and alcoholics. Created in 1893, the Conseil des femmes de Montréal dealt with infant mortality.

In the 20th century

Organizations formed in the sectors volunteers worked in. In 1900, the caisses populaires Desjardins (credit unions) were very prosperous, which led many volunteers to sit on committees and boards of directors. During this same period, numerous farming cooperatives were set up.

Volunteers informed the public about milk pasteurization and opened a dispensary. In 1918, during the great Spanish flu epidemic, St. John Ambulance volunteers tended to the sick. During the Stock Market Crash of 1929, World War I and World War II, the contribution of volunteer organizations was very impressive. The Canadian Red Cross Society headed day care centres reserved for the children of women working in the defence industry. Many of the Society’s volunteers worked in emergency blood donor clinics.

In 1937, the first volunteer action centre opened its doors in Montréal. Its mandate was to support and consolidate the volunteer sector by recruiting and training volunteers. In the 1940s and 1950s, vacation camps were created, including Camp Trois-Saumons in 1947.

During the 1960s, Québec launched into the implementation of health and social services. The United Way took root in Montréal and other cities throughout Québec as of the early 1960s.

In the 1980s, new types of volunteer organizations were created: food banks, soup kitchens, emergency shelters, homes for battered women, crisis lines, reception homes, etc. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, AIDS wreaked havoc. Volunteer groups and networks formed, including in 1986, to support and defend the rights of persons suffering from the illness.

In 1995, the Secrétariat à l’action communautaire autonome du Québec was created to advise the government on action to take in this activity sector. In 1997, the Hommage bénévolat-Québec award was created to recognize volunteers’ contribution in Québec.

Be it the Saguenay floods in 1996, the 1998 ice storm or the spectre of the Y2K bug, volunteers mobilize when disaster strikes. They are also ready and willing to help with major events such exhibitions, festivals, carnivals, the Québec Games, telethons, fairs and trade shows.

In this early 21st century...

In 2000, the Gouvernement du Québec helped fund community activities designed to celebrate the International Year of the Volunteer. The national declaration on volunteer action was adopted by the government that same year. In 2001, the government policy adopted the policy “ Community action: A crucial contribution to the exercise of citizenship and the social development of Québec”.

In 2003, the Réseau de l’action bénévole du Québec, a volunteer action network that is something of an umbrella organization for most of Québec’s volunteer bodies, was created. Furthermore, the government adopted guidelines on volunteer action. In 2004, this government portal on volunteer action came on-line.

Last update: 2019-12-12 Top of Page


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