We asked Hilary Pearson, who frequently reviews books for The Philanthropist Journal, to comment on “A Short History” as a way of providing an entry point for the article.
In the 15 years since Peter Elson wrote his first historical overview of the relationship between the public (government) sector and the voluntary sector in Canada, many things have changed for the better, although some have not. Elson and his colleague Peyton Carmichael have taken a fresh look at it all, and their new reflections, particularly on the history of interactions between the state, Indigenous Peoples, and settler communities, add a broader and deeper perspective. Some of the most salient aspects of this updated history are a new section on the interactions of Indigenous communities and voluntary organizations; an update on the experience of Canadian charities in their relations with their regulator, the federal Canada Revenue Agency (CRA); and a new analysis of sector–government relations in three periods from the early 1970s to 2020.
The addition of a detailed section on the history of the relationship among the state, the charitable sector, and Indigenous communities is itself an indication of the changes that have taken place since 2007 in our awareness and understanding of the complexities of this relationship. As Elson and Carmichael point out, the role of Christian churches and other providers of social services and education in the state-sponsored project of assimilation of Indigenous Peoples is a shameful part of our history that we are beginning to acknowledge and understand more fully. They note that it is only in the last decade that “non-Indigenous society in general, and the non-profit and voluntary sector in particular, are haltingly beginning the search for change in this founding relationship.” They are right to point to the elements of our history that have led to systemic racism and exclusion; parts of the community and philanthropic sector have been complicit in past state efforts to eradicate or assimilate Indigenous cultures. They note some of the signs of the sector’s much-delayed effort at reconciliation, but there is no doubt that much more needs to be done.
The addition of a detailed section on the history of the relationship among the state, the charitable sector, and Indigenous communities is itself an indication of the changes that have taken place since 2007.
One of the changes since the early 2000s that Elson and Carmichael do not comment on in any detail is the evolution in the usage of the description of the sector as “voluntary.” What we call ourselves as a sector is a subject of ongoing debate. The words “community,” “non-profit,” “charitable,” and “social” have all been suggested, and all have been found inadequate. But “voluntary” as a term has dropped out of use since the period of 2000 to 2005, when the Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI) between the federal government and the sector was underway. This is important because the use of language reflects a way of thinking about the sector. Highlighting the term “volunteer” creates a one-dimensional and possibly less serious way of thinking about the organizations in our sector. This is in no way to diminish the role of volunteers (including, crucially, the role of volunteer boards of directors). But we are a sector that is professionally organized, with a paid workforce, data strategies, and business models that require diversified financing. This is not fully reflected in the regulatory policy and sector policy thinking of the federal government even though there has been enormous change since 2000.
Elson and Carmichael touch on the improvements in the approach of the CRA as regulator, and specifically the Charities Directorate, which interacts with and supervises more than 75,000 registered charities in Canada. It is true that the CRA has made efforts to consult more regularly, be more transparent about its activities, use plainer language in its guidance, and keep up with the evolution in public thinking about what activities are for public benefit. But the CRA and the sector continue to be hamstrung by an outdated legal framework in the Income Tax Act. The narrow concept of charity and what is charitable limits the relationship between the state and the part of the sector that is regulated as charities. And government policy thinking remains constrained by an out-of-date conception of charities, volunteers, and the role of the sector in our economy and society, as the authors point out.
Elson and Carmichael describe the ebb and flow of sector–government relations well. With the benefit of hindsight, they trace some of the important repercussions of the VSI period, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, including, perhaps most importantly, the growing strength of relationships between sector networks and provincial governments. This is one of the most important if unexpected impacts of what was an exclusively federal process. They give shorter shrift in their history to the period 2005 to 2015, when the Conservative government of Stephen Harper was in power. The political philosophy of this government arguably set the sector back a decade to the pre-VSI period. Sector organizations were treated as important community vehicles by the Conservative government, it is true, but also were assumed to be primarily supported by community rather than government. In Conservative ideology, the role of the state is to promote community self-help through philanthropy and voluntary action. There was no interest by the federal government in changing the definition of charity or recognizing the rise of social enterprise (except in the sense that social enterprises could be self-financing to a greater degree). The advocacy work of charities was not viewed as legitimately charitable activity. The federal public service did not invest in a continuation of the dedicated policy frameworks, data collection, and consultation that the VSI had hoped to entrench.
Elson and Carmichael describe the ebb and flow of sector–government relations well.
When a Liberal government was elected in 2015, there was renewed interest in using sector channels to distribute federal funds regionally and into communities directly. There was also a continuation of the previous government’s interest in developing new financing for social enterprises. But there has been little interest from either officials or politicians in restructuring the relationship around the role of the sector as an economic driver and generator of employment and productivity. The perception of the sector as a service provider predominates and excludes a more complex appreciation of the sector as source of innovation, policy advocacy, and co-creation of new approaches to public benefit (with some exceptions in the areas of housing, childcare, and possibly climate change). Since 2015, as Elson and Carmichael put it, there is more willingness to talk but not on mutual terms. The sector has not succeeded in its most recent efforts to persuade the federal government of the need for a “home in government,” to bring a horizontal perspective to the government–sector relationship and to lift it out of the realm of the purely voluntary and charitable. As Elson and Carmichael note, this relationship still suffers from disunity and lack of resourced infrastructure within the sector itself. They conclude that we need “a unified network structure (a.k.a. policy protocols) that have the capacity to consolidate support around key issues and thus hold both the confidence of the sector and the attention of government when key policy priorities arise.” This is what we see happening at the provincial level today. The development of a more productive relationship at the federal level has been disappointingly slow since the heady days of the VSI. The onus is on us as a sector to build that unified policy capacity and to maintain our focus on the building blocks of a healthier and more sustainable sector: finance, data, technology, and human capital (including volunteers). The federal government can do much to help develop those blocks, including more flexible and more up-to-date regulatory policy. It is in the public interest to do so. But we must learn from our history, as Elson and Carmichael counsel, and articulate our sector’s priorities as a step to remaking the federal–sector relationship for the 2020s.