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.


Fur­ther Resources

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

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

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

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

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