Chapter 10: Mutual Aid: A Factor in the Evolution of Settlement Work in Canada


Alexandru Caldararu

This chapter proposes to explore the concept of mutual aid and how its contention that human evolution can be explained through a cooperative lens compares and contrasts with Social Darwinist explanations. This discussion is highly pertinent to the field of settlement work because of the interconnected nature of the work performed in our sector.

In contrast to fields of professional practice such as accounting or engineering, where professionals are well paid for the work they do, settlement workers and other front-line human service professionals often engage in their chosen line of work because they believe that the work they do provides them intrinsic value that transcends financial compensation (Masterson, 2022).

(Note: Although beyond the scope of this paper, an increasing body of academic literature has emerged suggesting that the proliferation of mandatory unpaid practicums reinforces existing class and gender divides in the workforce. The article “Class” is in Session: Activism and Adult Learning in Unpaid Student Practicums (Caldararu, 2019) discusses this phenomenon in greater detail.)

That value is tied to the idea that the building of communities enhances the well-being of the individuals who reside in them and is related to the goal of building healthy, inclusive communities where people feel like they belong
—an objective that has come to dominate discussions on public policy in Canada (Ross, 2002).

When one considers the community-building aspect of settlement work, which itself is interdisciplinary in scope, intercultural in practice, and most effective when it is centred on the principles of anti-oppression and social justice, and the relationship between settlement work and community volunteerism, a different understanding of human evolution and community development can begin to emerge.

Mutual aid can provide an essential theoretical link between how settlement work is undertaken and why entire professions dedicated to supporting underprivileged individuals and communities have begun to feature prominently in Canada over the past halfcentury.

Although mutual aid allows us to weave together discussions on social justice, strengths-based practice, anti-oppressive practice, and community building, it has yet to be explored in academic literature in great detail at this point (Littman et al., 2022, p. 93).

As such, this chapter proposes to make significant and timely contributions to theoretical discussions on the nature of settlement work in Canada and will weave together threads that link previous chapters of this textbook. 

Specific Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  1. Define the terms advocacy, social Darwinism, and mutual aid
  2. Describe key principles of mutual aid
  3. Identify differences between mutual aid and social Darwinist understandings of human evolution
  4. Discuss the parallels between the principles of mutual aid and discussions on anti-oppressive practice and social justice in settlement work
  5. Identify strategies for incorporating the principles of mutual aid in contemporary settlement work practice


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by Alexandru Caldararu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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