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


According to a 2018 survey on volunteerism in Canada, a volunteer is defined as a person aged 15 and over who did any activities without pay on behalf of a group or organization at least once in the past 12 months. This includes any unpaid help provided to schools, religious organizations, sports, or community associations (Hahmann, 2021).

In 2018, over 12.7 million people (41% of Canadians aged 15 and over) devoted over 1.6 billion hours to their volunteer activities, a volume of work that is equivalent to more than 863,000 full-time jobs (Volunteer Canada, 2020). Closer to home, the numbers paint an even more interesting picture. According to the Government of Alberta, 1.9 million Albertans volunteer for registered charities and non-profit organizations and the sector as a whole contributes almost $5.5 billion dollars to the Alberta economy (Government of Alberta, n.d.).

In addition, the rate of participation in volunteerism in Alberta is higher than the national average, with 45.7% of Albertans donating 227 million hours of their time annually (Imagine Canada, 2022). If we were to multiply this number by $22/hour (the 2022 living wage for Alberta) and divide it by $61,045 (the average annual wage for a full-time worker in Alberta as of 2022), volunteers would perform the equivalent work of 81,809 full-time jobs in the province.

The primary reasons for volunteering included contributing to the overall well-being of the community, supporting a political, environmental, or social cause, religious or spiritual obligations, and, particularly for younger volunteers, improving one’s job opportunities (Volunteer Canada, 2020). The rationale for volunteerism provided by volunteers themselves seems to suggest that millions of people across Canada recognize the link between their well-being and the overall health of their communities. That this vital connection is continually made annually across the country further suggests that many people have, to a large degree, accepted a more cooperative view regarding the evolution of human societies, a central tenet of Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid.

(NOTE: It is important to recognize that volunteerism has a long and fascinating history in Alberta. To learn more, you can read about the history and evolution of volunteerism in Alberta.)

Community Development in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (2023) defines community development as a process in which community members take collective action on issues that are important to them. This process is holistic and is grounded in empowerment, human rights, inclusion, social justice, and self-determination. The parallels between principles of community development and mutual aid become more apparent when one examines the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and communities worldwide and the often-inspiring response from ordinary people that emerged.

Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the world as we knew it when it emerged in early 2020. This once-in-a-century pandemic was unlike anything else experienced in living memory, forcing people everywhere to drastically change the way they led their lives. From forced lockdowns to more stringent public health protocols around masking and social distancing, the world encountered a terrifying and uncertain new reality. One of the more interesting developments as a result of this uncertainty was a dramatic increase in individuals interested in participating in mutual aid networks (Izlar, 2020).

Interestingly, although most contemporary discussions of mutual aid curiously omit any mention of Kropotkin or his contributions (Raghavan, 2021), there is still a distinction between mutual aid and charity or philanthropy. Whereas more traditional forms of charity rely on professionals working for organizations that provide supports to less fortunate individuals, such professionals often have greater amounts of social and economic power than the people they serve. In addition, organizations that serve underprivileged communities often have to balance the needs of different stakeholders, many of whom may have demands that are distinct (if not contradictory) to those of service users (Peterson et al., 2021).

In contrast, mutual aid is more about the notion of solidarity (which is discussed in Chapter 2 of this book as the willingness of different individuals and communities to work together to achieve common goals). A key distinction between mutual aid and charity is that whereas charity reinforces a divide between individuals with more power or privilege and those with less, mutual aid systems recognize the likelihood that everybody will likely need help overcoming an obstacle in life at some point or other and that it is thus a collective responsibility to ensure that appropriate supports are available for everyone who needs them. In other words, mutual aid networks provide a window through which to view the potential nucleus of a new society, one where individuals fully contribute according to their ability and are fully supported according to their unique needs (Marx, 1875).

This sense of solidarity and reciprocity is at the heart of the recent upsurge in mutual aid networks that have emerged in different corners of the world and speaks to the desire for different communities to join forces in a common struggle (Arnold, 2020). These networks build more sustainable connections between individuals who may live in close proximity to one another but lead largely separated, isolated lives (Fernandez-Jesus et al., 2021).

In addition, the purpose of mutual aid networks is to respond more to the root causes of inequity in human societies rather than the symptoms of them, as is often the case with charity. In other words, the core guiding principles of modern mutual aid networks are direct actions undertaken by community members to meet the basic material needs of community members (Sen, 2020). This desire for direction stems from a feeling that people had been largely abandoned by political leadership and established social institutions, leaving people to fend for themselves in times of crisis (Zhang, 2021).

But how do mutual aid networks “work?” In short, they operate under the idea that every community member has something they can contribute to the greater good while recognizing that every member also has a need. Though each member’s contributions and needs may differ, the underlying assumption is that through this pooling of collective resources, most of the needs encountered by individual community members can be met by the community itself (Arnold, 2020).

Mutual aid networks are entirely volunteer-run and led by individuals who take a leading role in responding to community needs brought to their attention. Solnit (2020) contends that the kinds of activities undertaken by contemporary examples of mutual aid networks include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Rebuilding and facilitating food distribution networks
  • Collecting and distributing funds to help individuals pay for rent and/or obtain needed health care
  • Providing logistical support to protests for social and/or economic justice
  • Organizing community events to bring neighbours together
  • Teaching music, painting/drawing, and dance classes for free
  • Collecting and distributing masks to populations more vulnerable to experiencing more severe cases of COVID-19

Furthermore, it is important to reiterate that many individuals who play leading roles in mutual aid networks do not get paid for the work they do, and the leadership structures of many mutual aid networks are horizontal (by consensus), not vertical (by a person or group in an established, formal position of authority). By extension, all members of a community are seen as equals and there are no eligibility criteria to determine who should receive help from mutual aid networks (Willow, 2021).

In the aftermath of the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people lost their jobs and engaged in the voluntary work because of a personal need (such as one for food) that was linked to a broader social need (the potential for widespread community hunger that would occur for many community members who suddenly found themselves unable to purchase food for themselves and their families). Mutual aid networks thus allowed individuals who encountered these more precarious realities to feel less isolated and more supported as they navigated the challenges of a new pandemic-altered world and facilitated the mobilization and distribution of resources to community members who were in the greatest need (Carstensen et al., 2021).


Learning Example 4: Mutual Aid as a Response to COVID-19

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity would be optimal as a small group activity in a synchronous learning environment but could also work as an individual reflective exercise for different modalities.

Watch the video Hundreds of Mutual Aid Groups Formed in Response to COVID-19. What Comes Next for Them? (LX News, 2021) and take notes on key points.

Once you have finished watching the video, take five to 10 minutes to reflect on what you learned. Discuss how your understanding of how to engage in effective and meaningful settlement work practice can be enhanced by the principles of mutual aid demonstrated in the video.


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

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