Thirty Years of Declining Influence by Civil Society
My Master’s thesis found, among other things, that the current federal government has abused its power by treating charitable organizations as enemies of Canada and of the government and this threatens the vigor of our democracy.
But it didn’t start with the rhetoric and politicized audits now targeting charities. It didn’t even begin with this government, though it has been escalated into a whole new category, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Here’s how we got here:
- In the post-war years, the federal government began to acknowledge a role for civil-society organizations to help develop new policy initiatives and began tentatively to reach out;
- In the 1970s, the Trudeau government markedly expanded the process, reaching out for policy input to organizations that could claim to represent groups of people without much power or influence, including minority groups. In particular, the Trudeau government welcomed input from women’s organizations, linguistic minorities (particularly Franco-Canadian), aboriginals, and ethno-cultural groups. The government contributed substantial funding to these organizations and invited them to make direct input to social policy;
- This input was rolled back to some extent in the latter years of the Trudeau government, as it chose to pare back social-justice programs in a declining economy and shift its policy focus;
- In the 1980s, with groups opposing multiple policy initiatives of the Mulroney government—a neo-liberal shift, free trade, deregulation, reduced government support for social programs—core funding was pared back, but project funding continued for groups. Groups were still viewed as representative, but the idea was being challenged;
- In the 1990s, the Chretien government moved toward reduced recognition of the role of civil-society in policy-making. Funding of organizations continued to atrophy in the Chretien years, but they were still often consulted, particularly at the final stage of policy formation rather than in the early stages as was more common in the Trudeau years. The government was influenced by the “new-right” Reform Party stance that civil society groups were “vested interests” rather than representative, a distinction it did not make for businesses and their representative organizations. Political scientist David Laycock saw this as “the politics of resentment”;
- Unlike in the United States, national Canadian organizations were not easily retooled from a representative policy-input function to delivering government programs at lower cost than could government employees. This has, however, happened much more at the provincial level;
- When the current government came to power in 2006, they quickly moved to shut down some organizations, defund others, and make other changes that hurt representative groups. A 2012 study of 26 national voluntary organizations by academic Rachel Laforest found six had to shut down operations completely and 14 experienced federal funding cuts. Some highly acclaimed organizations were particularly hard-hit: The Canadian Council for Social Development (CCSD) lost all funding despite its national leadership for 90 years on social policy. The Canadian Council for International Co-Operation lost 70 percent of federal funding despite a 40-year partnership with government; it survives as a shadow of its former self;
- The women’s health and child-care movements have been particularly hard-hit by the government’s fund slashing and policy shifts. The Martin Liberal government was in the process of implementing a new national social program, a comprehensive national child-care strategy, at the time that it called an election that the Conservatives won. The new government killed those plans and the movement pretty much shuttered the shop in Ottawa, laying of paid staff, and returning to grassroots activism. The Martin government’s Kelowna Accord, with provincial buy-in for a major step forward in addressing First Nations self-government and social-justice, was also killed in 2006 by the Harper government. One result of that is an increasingly alienated First Nations grass-roots, especially among youth;
- With sharp funding reductions to many national movement headquarters, provincial and local organizations have had to try to take up the slack, but they have lacked the resources. The result has been devastating to some legitimate and important issues and causes, while others have adapted and are shifting to a provincial focus with some success. Some academics argue that the Harper government is deliberately sacrificing a half-century of increased federal-government involvement in social and health issues due to an ideological bent to leaving these issues to the provinces. Certainly, our Constitution designates these as provincial jurisdiction;
- With the election of the Harper government, many organizations—including charities—that had a history of being invited in to discuss public policy options found themselves shut out. Invitations virtually stopped, requests for meetings got fewer responses, and phone calls were much less often returned;
- My research found that, due to the above trend, some charities have abandoned their lobbying registrations. Others have shifted their communications away from targeting government to motivating members, supporters, and average Canadians through web and social media. Some have shifted from trying to influence federal policy to influencing corporate actions. There are disturbing indications that this government sees itself as the only essential source of input on policy development. It’s drinking its own bathwater rather than consulting widely and deeply about important policy options;
- Laforest and fellow academic Susan D Phillips argue that Canada’s federal government, along with most in the Western world, largely reject claims of “legitimacy” coming from the representative nature of many civil-society organizations. In parallel with this, at least in Canada, many organizations have internalized the democratically dangerous idea that “advocacy” on public policy issues is no longer the valued thing it was in the 1960s to 1980s, but is somehow an unacceptable, indeed “wrong,” activity. I see these shifts as a profound threat to the notion that genuine democracy requires an understanding that elected governments are NOT the only legitimate participants in democratic decision-making (and I will write about this in more detail in an upcoming post);
- We’re now at the stage where the government is treating those with different policy ideas than its own as enemies of the government and of the nation. Witness the shutting down of huge swaths of our scientific community. Witness the rhetoric conflating charities and civil-society organizations with money-launderers, criminal organizations, and terrorist organizations, and listing environmental organizations in our official terrorism plan as potential threats to the nation’s security. Witness the funnel they created to drive Canada Revenue Agency toward political-activity audits of organizations that differ with them on key policies.
My above analysis owes much to the wide and deep journal and book research on civil society and volunteer organizations by professors Rachel Laforest and Susan D. Phillips, and other resources. I apologize to them for any over-generalizations and shifted nuances in interpretations arising from my adapting their research to my research needs and particularly for this blog posting. For those interested in more details on the historical relationship of representative organizations and governments regarding policy formation, I suggest a close reading of the works of professors Laforest and Phillips as did I.
Meanwhile, please check out my Master’s thesis and feel free to forward and tweet it. And you can follow me on Twitter: @garethkirkby
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communications professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing.
Laforest, R. (Ed.). (2009). The new federal policy agenda and the voluntary sector: On the cutting edge. Kingston, ON: School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University.
Laforest, R. (2011). Voluntary sector organizations and the state: Building new relationships. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Laforest, R. (2012). Rerouting political representation: Is Canada’s social infrastructure in crisis? British Journal of Canadian Studies, 25(2), 181–197. doi:10.3828/bjcs.2012.10
Laforest, R. (2013a). Shifting scales of governance and civil society participation in Canada and the European Union. Canadian Public Administration, 56(2), 235–251. doi:10.1111/capa.12016
Laforest, R. (2013b). Digging wells or building fences: Analyzing federal government dynamics. The Philanthropist, 25(1), 33–36. Retrieved from http://thephilanthropist.ca
Laforest, R., & Phillips, S. (2013). Input and output legitimacy in governance regimes. Paper presented at the Canadian Political Science Association Conference, Victoria, Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/past-conference.shtml
Laycock, D. (2002). The new right and democracy in Canada: Understanding Reform and the Canadian Alliance. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, S.D. (2010). Canada: Civic society under neglect. The Philanthropist 23(1), 65–73. Retrieved from http://thephilanthropist.ca
Phillips, S.D. (2013). Shining light on charities or looking in the wrong place? Regulation-by-transparency in Canada. Voluntas, 24(3), 881–905. doi:10.1007/s11266-013‑9374-5
Phillips, S., Laforest, R., & Graham, A. (2010). From shopping to social innovation: Getting public financing right in Canada. Policy and Society 29(3), 189–199. doi:10.1016/j.polsoc.2010.06.001
Public Safety Canada. (2013). Building resilience against terrorism: Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy. Government of Canada Queen’s Printer. Retrieved from http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/rslnc-gnst-trrrsm/index-eng.aspx