On the occasion of The Philanthropist Journal’s 50th year of publishing, we look back at 50 notable moments, movements, and trends that have affected the non-profit and charitable sector in Canada.
The history of Canada’s charitable and non-profit sector over the past 50 years has been marked by pivotal moments that have changed the way society views the sector and the way it views itself. We are arguably living through such a moment right now. This period has also seen the sector drive important mindset change and policy action on issues that affect the lives of Canadians.
As we look back on 50 years of publishing, we’ve compiled 50 milestones that together create a snapshot of a fast-growing sector moving into maturity, developing a clearer idea of itself and its role in Canadian society, navigating turbulent and often adversarial relationships with government, fighting for the funds and licence to fully come into its own, and able to fuel progressive shifts in spite of significant obstacles.
This list was developed in consultation with our editorial advisory committee, board of directors, and sector colleagues, and we present it broken out into four broad categories: movements and shifts, advocacy and systems change, funding and giving trends, and government-sector relations.
Of course, these aren’t the only important moments of the past 50 years; lists must inevitably leave things out, and category boundaries are easily blurred. As we publish the list over the next few weeks, we invite you to share the milestones that come to mind when you think back over the past 50 years. You can chime in on social media or send us an email.
Movements & shifts
1. Founding of Greenpeace
In September 1971, Bob Hunter and 12 Vancouver activists calling themselves the Don’t Make a Wave Committee charter the Phyllis Cormack trawler and head north to Alaska to protest U.S. nuclear testing near the Alaskan island of Amchitka. The trip is funded by money raised through a concert by Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and James Taylor.
The action is an important milestone in a growing Canadian environmental movement, and is widely regarded as Greenpeace’s founding moment. Greenpeace now operates in 55 countries worldwide.
In Canada, it has launched actions against whaling, oil drilling, and industrial logging, and has helped win a whaling moratorium from the International Whaling Commission, played a role in the protection of B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest, and supported the Clyde River Inuit’s successful campaign to ban seismic blasting on their territory.
2. The domestic shelter movement
In 1972, 10 women come together around a life-changing idea: creating spaces where victims of domestic violence can seek shelter and plan their escape from abuse. The next year, Toronto’s Interval House, the first women’s shelter in Canada, opens. It’s followed quickly by dozens more across the country.
Many shelter founders are survivors themselves. They encounter resistance from a society uncomfortable with acknowledging the scale of the issue of intimate partner violence. A 1973 Toronto Star story states that shelters are creating a “rising wave of runaway wives” and a “brotherhood of deserted husbands.”
Today, the issue is more visible and no less urgent. In 2020, there were more than 110,000 victims of police-reported intimate partner violence in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. There are 8,000 women and children seeking safety in a shelter on any given night in one of Canada’s 630 shelters. In 2021, a group of women’s organizations including Women’s Shelters Canada delivers A Report to Guide the Implementation of a National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence to the federal government’s Department for Women and Gender Equality to advance action on the issue.
3. The hospice palliative care movement
Driven by expanding cancer treatment programs, and made possible by the establishment of national Medicare, the first hospital palliative care unit opens in Saint-Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg in 1974, followed quickly by a unit at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital.
Palliative care provides an alternative to a medicalized death for terminally ill patients. Delivered in hospital, hospice, or in community, its focus is to deliver compassionate care and support patients, their families, and their communities through the dying process.
Awareness of and requests for palliative care grow. In 1983, the University of Ottawa establishes the first university institute for research and education in palliative care. Two years later, the country’s first hospice opens in Winnipeg. The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association launches in 1991.
In 2000, a Senate report called Quality End-of-Life Care: The Right of Every Canadian states that every person is entitled to access compassionate end-of-life care and die free of distress. In 2018, Health Canada publishes A Framework on Palliative Care in Canada, which sets out a vision for palliative care. While hospice care is now widely established across Canada, access is uneven.
4. Canadians step up for refugees
When refugees flood out of Vietnam in the mid-1970s, Canadians respond. In 1979, the federal government offers to match refugee sponsorship efforts by private citizens, community groups, churches, and settlement agencies. Within six years, 110,000 Vietnamese refugees have settled in Canada.
Fast-forward 30 years and the Syrian civil war drives hundreds of thousands of refugees across the country’s borders. The photo of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on a Mediterranean beach sparks horror and action, turning the plight of Syrian refugees into an election issue in Canada. The Liberals promise to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of 2015 and encourage Canadians to privately sponsor refugees. Again, citizens, community organizations, and non-profits rally together to welcome more than 73,000 refugees.
There are more refugees worldwide now than at any time since the Second World War. Non-profits continue to play a critical role in supporting resettlement and integration and in maintaining pressure on governments to respond to humanitarian crises, including those happening beyond the headlines.
5. The Terry Fox Run
On April 12, 1980, after cancer takes his right leg, 21-year-old Terry Fox sets out from Outer Cove Beach, Newfoundland, heading west toward the Pacific Ocean. His goal is to raise a dollar from every Canadian in support of cancer research. He runs knowing he has only a 50% chance of surviving the cancer and completes a marathon a day for 143 days, crossing six provinces and 5,373 kilometres before osteosarcoma ends his journey.
Since then, Fox’s Marathon of Hope has mobilized millions of Canadians to run their own races. Approximately 600 communities participate in the annual Terry Fox Run. The mass effort has raised more than $850 million for cancer research since 1980. Advancements in treatment and care mean that patients diagnosed with osteosarcoma today have an 80% chance of surviving the disease.
6. The institutionalization of food banks
The recession of the early 1980s pushes many Canadians into poverty. In January 1981, the Edmonton Gleaners Association opens Canada’s first food bank to respond to growing food insecurity in its community – a temporary emergency measure. Other food banks follow. In 1987, the Canadian Association of Food Banks (now Food Banks Canada) launches to represent the growing group.
Today, more than 3,000 food banks, pantries, and community agencies provide food and social support to millions of Canadians each year. During the pandemic, visits to food banks increase by 20%, reaching levels not seen since the 2008 recession.
Food banks have become entrenched in our social fabric, the beneficiaries of massive community fundraising efforts and volunteer engagement. But they’re the first to say that they are a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the root causes of poverty and structural inequality, and that they mask a bigger problem: the lack of political will to enact policies that eliminate poverty and inequality.
7. The push for marriage equality
On October 13, 2000, Egale Canada, an advocacy-focused non-profit that lobbies and works in the courts, initiates legal proceedings in British Columbia to support five same-sex couples denied the right to marry.
The following year, with public opinion divided, Reverend Brent Hawkes performs Canada’s first same-sex marriages at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. He uses religious rites that aren’t legally recognized and wears a bulletproof vest under his vestments.
In September 2003, Canadians for Equal Marriage, a public interest group composed of Egale, PFLAG, and others, forms to advocate for the passage of federal equal-marriage legislation.Non-profit advocacy is crucial in paving the way for marriage equality. In July 2005, the federal Civil Marriage Act comes into force, guaranteeing same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry.
In 2012, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah McLean launch the #IdleNoMore movement as a protest against Bill C-45, the Jobs and Growth Act, an omnibus bill that proposes changes to the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act. They and others fear that the changes will negatively affect the rights of Indigenous communities and make it easier for development projects to move forward without appropriate environmental assessments.
The grassroots movement explodes, coming to life first through round dances in shopping malls and public spaces and growing to encompass rallies, teach-ins, and ongoing actions in support of Indigenous rights and sovereignty in Canada and around the world.
In a 2020 op-ed in Maclean’s magazine, published during the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Miꞌkmaq lawyer and activist Pamela Palmater writes of #IdleNoMore’s legacy: “What we have seen in 2020 is the making of a much larger and more powerful movement – Idle No More 2.0 – led by Black and Indigenous peoples and supported by millions of Canadians.”
9. Black Lives Matter
In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is shot to death in Florida as he walks home from the store. The stranger who killed him is acquitted, and activists launch what will become a global movement inspired by the affirmation that #BlackLivesMatter. Community leaders in Canada begin to organize, and over the next few years, BLM chapters are formed in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, fuelled by racial injustice at home, including the police killings of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby in Ontario.
In 2017, Black Lives Matter-Canada is founded, becoming a resource for Black activism. The national organization supports Black-led groups, launches the Wildseed Centre for Art & Activism, distributes micro-grants through the Black Mutual Aid Fund, and coordinates programs and national campaigns, including Defund the Police.
As part of an international racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter-Canada is a project of M4BJ, a Black-led, not-for-profit charitable organization. Despite the chronic underfunding of Black-led organizations, Black Lives Matter-Canada has thrived and become an important resource for Black communities.
10. The impact of COVID
As the COVID-19 pandemic causes an economic downturn, the non-profit sector is increasingly recognized as an important and distinct part of the economy, representing 8.9% of GDP in Canada, employing 788,000 people, and responding to increasing and changing demands during a public health crisis.
A year into the crisis, about half of charities report higher demand, while a similar percentage report a decline in revenues, averaging 43%. Three-quarters of charities report a decline in at least one kind of donation.
As the economy shrinks, the charitable sector also contracts, spurring the federal government to announce a $400-million Community Services Recovery Fund. The sector applauds the one-time fund to support non-profits, through core funding to adapt and modernize operations, and the recognition as “partners in recovery,” while noting that “some of the sector’s key priorities were omitted from the budget.”
Advocacy & systems change
11. A short history of a long freeze: Advocacy chill takes hold
In 1978, a Department of National Revenue circular, Registered Charities: Political Objects and Activities, reinterprets the political purposes doctrine and declares all political activities off-limits to charities, including writing letters to the editor, encouraging supporters to write to elected representatives, and holding demonstrations. Reaction from the sector is strong, and the issue is raised in the Senate and House of Commons. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau calls for the withdrawal of the circular, but doesn’t request an amendment. The restrictions stand.
In 1986, Brian Mulroney’s government makes legislative amendments that allow charities to engage in limited political activities, so long as “substantially all” their activities are charitable. Revenue Canada interprets this to mean “more than 90%.” The government issues a new circular in 1987 that specifically allows letter-writing. It declines to engage in further discussion or make additional changes.
In the following decades, the sector repeatedly attempts to engage the government on the issue. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada upholds a previous decision that denied the Vancouver Society of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women charitable status on the basis that the organization’s purposes were not exclusively charitable. The case is significant because it sees the court adopt a broader definition of the purpose of “advancement of education.”
In 2003, the CRA issues a new policy statement that expands allowed political activities and allows smaller charities to spend up to 20% of their annual budget on political activities. But in 2012, the Conservative government, angered that environmentalists are tying up pipeline projects in the West, imposes tough penalties on organizations that spend more than 10% of funds on advocacy and launches the Political Activities Audit Program, giving the CRA $13.4 million to conduct special audits of 60 organizations.
12. Founding of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy
In response to a lack of information about Canada’s philanthropic sector, inadequate opportunities for networking and training in the sector, and little public understanding about charities, sector leaders including John Hodgson, Art Bond, Ian Morrison, and Allan Arlett found the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy (CCP) in 1981.
The CCP’s objectives are to collect and disseminate information, generate research and publications, train and develop skills within the sector, and inform the public and the government about philanthropy’s role and importance.
During its 23 years of operation, the CCP takes over publishing the Canadian Directory to Foundations and The Philanthropist, establishes a resource centre, studies giving trends and Canadian attitudes toward charity, and hosts conferences and trainings. In 1983, CCP partners with Humber College to develop a Certificate Program in Fundraising Management. It also pushes for the elimination of the $100 standard charitable tax deduction and, in 1988, launches the first iteration of the Caring Company Certification program, at the time called the Imagine Program.
In 2003, CCP works with the National Voluntary Organizations coalition to create Imagine Canada. Read more history here.
13. Connecting non-profits and the diverse communities they serve
In the 1980s, Canada’s federal multicultural policy is institutionalized and non-profit leaders try to make their operations more equitable by engaging with members of an increasingly diverse “new Canada.”
In 1986, the federal Secretary of State’s Office for Multiculturalism establishes the Social Services Multiculturalism Project. Six agencies are chosen to participate: the United Way of Greater Toronto, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Huntley Youth Services/Big Sisters Association, Ontario March of Dimes, West Scarborough Community Centre, and WoodGreen Community Centre.
Each organization sets up a multicultural committee to evaluate the specific socio-economic, cultural, and linguistic needs of its service area, and the ability of staff and volunteers to recognize and meet these needs. It’s noted that communities may not be represented within the agencies themselves because of barriers to employment and that multicultural training might be required of current staff. Using these assessments, the organizations share resources and findings to ensure their relevance in increasingly diverse communities.
14. Challenging the 10% rule
When the Trudeau Liberals are elected in 2015, they suspend six pending charity audits but don’t immediately cancel the charity audit program established by the Harper government. In 2016, Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier appoints the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities, and the following year, the panel releases a report that “calls for changes to the Income Tax Act to delete any reference to ‘political activities’ with regard to charities.”
In 2017, Ottawa-based charity Canada Without Poverty (CWP) challenges Ontario’s Income Tax Act in Ontario Superior Court, stating that the provisions in the act that restrict political activities of poverty-relief charities violate the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association as defined in the Charter.
In July 2018, the court rules in favour of CWP, an outcome that puts additional pressure on the federal government to amend the federal Income Tax Act. They do so later that year, eliminating the concept of “political activities” by registered charities and allowing charities to engage in unlimited public policy activity, so long as the work is non-partisan and furthers the organization’s charitable purposes.
15. Investigating non-profit influence and funding in Alberta
In 2019, Premier Jason Kenney announces a $3.5-million inquiry into foreign-funded “anti-Alberta” activities. He creates a $30-million “energy war room” mandated to promote the energy sector and refute the claims of groups – foreign and domestic – opposed to oil and gas projects.
Observers worry that if the government positions environmental non-profits as enemies of the state and announces findings based on an opaque and biased investigation, the sector as a whole could lose trust and donor funds – even if the findings are later disproved. A request for an injunction from Ecojustice is dismissed.
The 2021 report finds that only 11% of funding for environmental groups in Canada comes from foreign sources and that there was no wrongdoing. While non-profits may have had a role in the cancellation of energy projects, that can’t be proved conclusively.
16. Promoting diversity in leadership
In June 2020, Senator Ratna Omidvar issues an open letter to non-profit and charity leaders to call attention to the low number of racialized leaders and board members in the voluntary sector. She challenges the sector to increase diversity in leadership and governance and calls on the government to track diversity data through the T1044 and the T3010 forms, as per the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector’s recommendation. Statistics Canada issues a crowdsourced survey developed with sector representatives that provides an initial assessment of the state of board diversity in the sector.
Results show that, of 8,835 survey respondents, only 14% identify as immigrants to Canada, 11% say they belong to a visible minority group, 8% are LGBTQ2+, 6% have a disability, and 3% identify as First Nations, Métis, or Inuit.