This is the fourth piece in a new series about advocacy work in our sector.
Civic discourse and participation are two of the most important indicators of a healthy, vibrant democratic society. In an increasingly polarized political environment, social sector organizations have a critical role to play in fostering social cohesion, facilitating meaningful political dialogue, and mediating citizens’ participation in the democratic process.
In Canada, the size and scale of the social sector demonstrates its critical role in fostering a healthy democracy. As of 2015, Canada had more than 86,000 registered charities that collected more than $251 billion in revenues (Blumberg, 2017). In 2017, the social sector accounted for 8.5% of Canada’s nominal GDP, totaling $169 billion (Statistics Canada, 2019). Volunteers contributed more than one-fifth of that economic value: 22.3% or $42 billion (Statistics Canada, 2019).
However, this role has been highly contested in the last decade. In 2012, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) received political direction to conduct vigorous audits on the political advocacy activities of charities. Environmental charities were disproportionately targeted among the 60 charities that were audited between 2012-2016 (Government of Canada, 2017). Numerous charities engaged in extensive, costly litigation to protect their freedom of expression rights, contributing to subsequent amendments to Canada’s Income Tax Act to allow charities to participate in “public policy dialogue and development activities” (Government of Canada, 2019).
The Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector recently released a report examining parallel issues, including the definition of “charity” and the existing regulatory process (Senate of Canada, 2019). Despite these important legislative changes and policy recommendations, charities in Canada remain hesitant to fully embrace their important role in civic discourse.
The role of Canada’s social sector in civic discourse has also changed significantly throughout history. In the 1940s, non-profit and charitable organizations were perceived as an extension of the post-WWII welfare state, promoting volunteerism, citizenship, and participation in the policy development process (Laforest, 2013). In the 1970s and 1980s, the sector’s role became increasingly institutionalized, and federal and provincial umbrella organizations emerged to advocate for the sector’s collective interests (Ibid.). In the 1990s, a significant retrenchment in government funding for policy activities — and the downloading of social service provision from federal to provincial governments — further isolated the sector’s role in promoting civic discourse (Ibid.).
While larger, well-resourced social sector organizations maintain a strong public presence in policy discussions in Canada, the reduction in funding for policy engagement largely eroded the sector’s role as a mediator in civic discourse. Instead, most provincial and federal government departments now perceive the sector’s primary role as a service provider and source of data/evidence about community needs rather than a core participant in civic discourse (Laforest, 2013). Social sector organizations largely operate at the level of policy implementation rather than policy design.
These historic and modern examples shape how social sector organizations in Canada will participate in civic discourse in the future. This article will trace these developments and identify emerging issues that may threaten the sector’s capacity to engage fully in the democratic process.
Canada’s social sector often acts as an “institutional channel” for connecting citizens and governments on key issues (Laforest, 2012, p. 193). This role can take several forms, including coordinating advocacy campaigns (particularly during elections), contributing to government policy consultations, collecting data, conducting research, and collaborating with like-minded organizations (Shier & Handy, 2014). By doing so, social sector organizations provide the structure, legitimacy, and organizational infrastructure for Canadians to advance their political ideas and interests.
Canadians are participating in social sector organizations and associations in increasing numbers. In 2013, almost two-thirds (65%) reported participating in a group, organization, and association (Statistics Canada, 2015). Samara Canada reported that, in 2019, 77% of Canadians surveyed had participated in at least one civic engagement activity in the last year, such as donating money, volunteering for a charitable cause, or working with others to solve a community problem (Samara Canada, 2019).
Effective engagement: the example of Dying with Dignity Canada
Dying with Dignity Canada is a national non-profit organization that advocates for the end-of-life rights of Canadians and it was at the forefront of the recent legal and political debate about legalizing medical assistance in dying (MAID) (Dying with Dignity Canada, 2019). Dying with Dignity Canada operates local chapters in major cities across the country, providing Canadians with a venue to support families with end-of-life decision-making, raise local awareness about MAID, and advocate for legislative changes. It acted as an intervener in the recent groundbreaking Supreme Court of Canada case Carter v Canada and has been actively involved in provincial- and national-level policy advocacy.
Dying with Dignity Canada presents a compelling example of how social sector organizations in Canada have adapted to the changing landscape. In 2015, the organization lost its charitable status due to a CRA political activity audit. The loss of charitable status allowed the organization to engage in unrestricted advocacy activities but prevented it from receipting tax-deductible donations. In 2018, the CRA reinstated its charitable status and the organization continues to engage in advocacy activities in a manner that is compliant with the new requirements of the Income Tax Act (Dying with Dignity Canada, 2019).
The lasting impact of the “advocacy chill”
Despite the high levels of citizen engagement, significant reductions in funding for policy work in the last several decades and the “advocacy chill” created by the CRA political activity audits has significantly reduced the sector’s capacity and willingness to contribute to civic discourse. While citizens may participate in social sector organizations, they are increasingly relying on more decentralized avenues to participate in civic discourse (e.g. social media, crowdfunding campaigns, and informal network-based community organizing initiatives) (Longo, 2017).
There are also significant differences in the sector’s role in civic discourse in Quebec, which has a vibrant sector of cooperatives and community economic development organizations that are collectively described as the “social economy.” This emerged from a long history of community mobilization and collective action in Quebec and remains a significant driver of economic development and job creation (Mendell & Neamtan, 2008). As a result, the Government of Quebec has regarded the social economy as a valued stakeholder in the co-design and development of public policy. Quebec’s Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Solidarity earmarks proportions of grant funding for advocacy purposes — a commitment to strengthening the sector’s advocacy capacity that is unique in Canada.
While Canadians have changed the ways they participate in civic discourse, the social sector remains an important avenue for meaningful engagement. Citizens organizing independently often have difficulty addressing the larger structural, systemic issues within a political system (Laforest, 2012). Social sector organizations often provide a more strategic, systems-level perspective to achieve meaningful policy change. This section explores some of the key barriers that limit the sector’s capacity to engage fully in the democratic process.
Lack of institutionalization of the sector’s role in civic discourse
In the early 2000s, the Government of Canada launched the Voluntary Sector Initiative, a $95 million national policy reform program for the social sector. While it provided a strong framework for subsequent policy reform efforts, it failed to clearly institutionalize the sector’s role in civic discourse and policymaking. The Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue was developed as a principles-based document to guide government-sector collaboration, but it remains non-binding (Government of Canada, 2002).
A high degree of institutional fragmentation exists across provincial and federal governments due to Canada’s federalist system. This has created confusion and uncertainty, as social sector organizations are challenged to find meaningful ways to engage with government officials in the policy process (Cave & Lalande, 2019).
Shifting norms around policy advocacy
The sector’s role in policy advocacy is a highly politicized issue. After nearly a decade of “advocacy chill,” Canadian organizations are only now beginning to adapt to a more open, transparent environment for this work, due to the recent Income Tax Act amendments. However, there is a significant amount of misinformation about the scope of “public policy dialogue and development activities” articulated by the CRA — particularly during election periods, when advocacy activities may resemble more partisan activities. Some sector leaders have expressed concerns that the Income Tax Act amendments are overbroad and may create confusion for organizations that engage in both lobbying and advocacy activities (Senate of Canada, 2019).
Growing funding constraints and challenges
Canadian social sector organizations face significant funding challenges, in terms of availability of funding and the types of restrictions that are placed on it. Charitable giving is on the decline and core funding for administrative and operational expenditures is difficult to acquire. Instead, government and philanthropic funders have demonstrated a growing preference for time-limited, program, and project-based grants (Lalande & Cave, 2020). Some provinces are showing greater interest in commissioning and individualized funding models. These types of funding models place limits on the amount of funding organizations can use for administrative expenses.
Notably, policy advocacy is an ongoing administrative expenditure for organizations because they must monitor policy developments, conduct research, and engage volunteers and members in their work. Thus, the changing funding models and erosion of core funding have had an important unintended consequence for civic discourse: they reduce the capacity for organizations to participate in the policy development process and engage in meaningful dialogue.
As an example, in 2019 the Government of Ontario announced budget reductions of approximately $185 million across several ministries that work with the social sector (Ontario Nonprofit Network, 2019). These resulted in deep cuts to social sector organizations, and specifically the cancellation of core funding to non-profit public policy thinktanks in the province. There are very few philanthropic sources of funding in Canada for social policy research. At least three Ontario non-partisan thinktanks, including one with a specific focus on the social sector, have since closed. These closures come during the rise of populist movements, and at a time when political rhetoric – rather than evidence – is increasingly influencing the policymaking process. Decreasing or eliminating support for this work can weaken the policymaking process in Canada.
Declining rates of volunteerism and charitable giving
The volunteer rate as a proportion of the population appears to be declining, with only 44% of Canadians volunteering in 2013 (Conference Board of Canada, 2018). The number of Canadians giving to charity, based on receiptable donations filed with annual income taxes, has also been declining. This may be due to the rise of informal charitable giving opportunities such as crowdfunding platforms (Rideau Hall Foundation and Imagine Canada, 2018). These trends suggest that Canadians may be shifting their civic participation to more non-traditional avenues. However, social sector organizations continue to rely on volunteers and charitable donations to respond to increasing demands for programs and services, as well as to advocate for meaningful, systems-level policy change to address growing inequality.
What next? The future of civic discourse in Canada
These emerging issues demonstrate that Canadians are not reaping the full benefits of a vibrant, engaged social sector that is an active participant in civic discourse. In contrast, policy advocacy and civic engagement has been embraced as a core function of the social sector in the United Kingdom, Australia, and throughout the European Union (Phillips & Rathgeb Smith, 2014). Unfortunately, the Government of Canada still adopts a regulatory — and sometimes punitive — approach to monitoring the sector’s advocacy role, rather than recognizing and enabling the sector as a key contributor to the policy development process.
The Government of Quebec’s approach to co-producing public policy with the sector is a promising model that the rest of Canada could emulate at the provincial/territorial and federal levels. Social sector organizations have valuable, untapped expertise to contribute to the process of identifying social and economic issues, setting priorities, allocating budgetary resources, and testing potential policy responses. Democratizing these processes and strengthening the sector’s capacity to participate would allow the policy development process to be more inclusive, grassroots, and citizen-led — a win for all Canadians.
A modified version of this piece was originally published with the Maecenata Foundation, a German policy thinktank on civil society issues. The original version can be found here.
Blumberg, M. (2017). “Blumberg’s Snapshot of the Canadian Charity Sector 2015”. https://www.globalphilanthropy.ca/images/uploads/Blumbergs_Canadian_Charity_Sector_Snapshot_2015.pdf.
Cave J., Lalande, L. (2019). “Breaking the Inertia: Repositioning the Government-Sector Partnership”. Toronto: Mowat Centre. https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/mowatcentre/wp-content/uploads/publications/181_EE_breaking_the_inertia.pdf.
Conference Board of Canada (2018). The Value of Volunteering in Canada. https://volunteer.ca/vdemo/Campaigns_DOCS/Value%20of%20Volunteering%20in%20Canada%20Conf%20Board%20Final%20Report%20EN.pdf.
Dying with Dignity Canada (2019). “About”. https://www.dyingwithdignity.ca/about.
Government of Canada (2002). Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue. http://www.vsi-isbc.org/eng/policy/pdf/codes_policy.pdf.
Government of Canada (2017). “Report of the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities”. https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/about-charities-directorate/political-activities-consultation/consultation-panel-report-2016-2017.html.
Government of Canada (2019). “Public policy dialogue and development activities by charities”. https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/policies-guidance/public-policy-dialogue-development-activities.html.
Laforest, R. (2012). “Rerouting political representation: is Canada’s social infrastructure in crisis?”. British Journal of Canadian Studies 25(2): 181-197.
Laforest, R. (2013). “Shifting scales of governance and civil society participation in Canada and the European Union”. Canadian Public Administration 56(2): 235-251.
Lalande, L. & Cave, J. (2020). “Weathering the Storm: Building Financial Health and Resilience in Canada’s Nonprofit and Charitable Sector”. Ottawa: Public Policy Forum.
Longo, J. (2017). “The evolution of citizen and stakeholder engagement in Canada, from Spicer to #Hashtags” Canadian Public Administration 60(4): 517-537.
Mendell, M. & Neamtan, N. (2008). “The Social Economy in Quebec: Towards a New Political Economy”. University of Toronto Social Economy Centre.
Ontario Nonprofit Network (2019). “Provincial Budget 2019”. https://theonn.ca/our-work/our-financing/provincial-budget-2019/.
Phillips, S.D. & Rathgeb Smith, S. (2014). “A Dawn of convergence? Third sector policy regimes in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cluster”. Public Management Review 16(8): 1141-1163.
Rideau Hall Foundation and Imagine Canada (2018). 30 Years of Giving in Canada. http://www.imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/30years_report_en.pdf?pdf=30-Years-Main-Report.
Samara Canada (2019). “2019 Democracy 360: The Third Report Card on How Canadians Communicate, Participate and Lead in Politics”. https://www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/2019-democracy-360-by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=81a072f_6.
Senate of Canada (2019). A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector. https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/committee/421/CSSB/Reports/CSSB_Report_Final_e.pdf.
Shier, M. L. & Handy, F. (2014). “Nonprofits and the Promotion of Civic Engagement: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the ‘Civic Footprint’ of Nonprofits Within Local Communities”. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research 5(1): 57-75.
Statistics Canada (2015). “Civic engagement and political participation in Canada”. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/89-652-x/89-652-x2015006-eng.pdf?st=WQTztKTm.
Statistics Canada (2019). “Non-profit institutions and volunteering: economic contribution, 2007-2017”. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/190305/dq190305a-eng.htm.
 Note that this figure is pulled from 2013 data (the most recent available data on volunteer contributions).
 Quebec’s Social Economy Act defines “social economy” as “all the economic activities with a social purpose carried out by enterprises whose activities consist, in particular, in the sale of goods and services” (Social Economy Act, CQLR c E-1.1.1, s 3). For more information, see Chantier de l’economie sociale’s website: https://chantier.qc.ca/discover-social-economy/definition/?lang=en.
 A process of decision-making that begins with the robust definitions of needs and desired outcomes; governments engage third parties in solution design and delivery, seeking to optimize outcomes by making the best use of all available resources.
 A portable package of funds allocated for a particular person that facilitates control over how they purchase services to support their needs; the funds can be administered by the service user, a service provider or an intermediary organization that assists in the management of the funds. Individualized funding is often described as “passport,” “voucher”, or “direct” funding.
 These organizations were the Mowat Centre, the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity and the Martin Prosperity Institute.