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The New Agenda Part Three: A Home in Government

January 25, 2021
Hilary Pearson

Twenty years ago, in 2001, the federal government and the social good (then known as the voluntary) sector together negotiated and signed an Accord that set out the values, principles and commitments necessary for a stronger relationship. The objective of formalizing the relationship was to facilitate greater mutual understanding. To quote, the Accord “focuses on what unites the two sectors, honours the contributions of both, and respects their unique strengths and different ways of working. The Accord represents a public commitment to more open, transparent, consistent and collaborative ways of working together.” In a signed foreword, Prime Minister Jean Chretien stated that this Accord was “a blueprint for a strong and vibrant relationship between the Sector and the Government of Canada”.

The Accord remains a valid blueprint in 2021. But we have not been able to build the strong relationship for which this much desired Joint Accord gave us a solid design. Why not? For many reasons…changes in leadership, a loss of focus, a reluctance for advocacy, bureaucratic lack of imagination. But nothing that cannot be overcome.

I suggest that a key part of our sector’s agenda for 2021 must be to create a renewed, reinvigorated design for the 21st century relationship between the social good sector (the charitable and nonprofit sector) and the public (government) sector.

The social good sector is crucial to the achievement of many social and economic goals set by the federal government. We are active partners and contributors to the creation of a stronger and more resilient Canada post-pandemic. And we need recognition of our role as partners from the government.

Charities can be innovators and community builders on key files for the government such as responding to climate change, creating economic opportunity for youth and newcomers, fostering democratic inclusion and reconciling with Indigenous communities. We want to engage with government in building policy frameworks and structures that guide our relationship. But we lack a coherent horizontal policy framework across government to structure investments in service delivery, in talent, in technology and in data. There is no lead Minister with a mandate for the broader sector, no Cabinet-level Committee to develop the relationship with the sector as a whole.

The Senate Special Committee on the Charitable Sector in its 2019 report recommended (Rec.22) that the government create a secretariat on the charitable and nonprofit sector to convene interdepartmental work on issues affecting the regulation and relationship with the sector as well as to coordinate with provinces and territories. Imagine Canada released its case and policy brief for a cross-departmental “home in government” in November 2019.  Most recently, Policy Options featured an excellent piece by Fateema Sayani of the Ottawa Community Foundation calling for the implementation of a centralized coordination body within the federal government. 

The new government of British Columbia recognized the need for a political lead when it appointed a Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Nonprofits at the end of 2020. This was applauded by nonprofit leaders like Kevin McCort of the Vancouver Foundation who agreed that “dire challenges like the overdose crisis, racial injustice, and climate change demand greater collaboration between the province and nonprofits to harness existing know-how and foster innovation. This [appointment] will open up doors to new types of partnerships, mobilize new resources, and maximize our sector's potential to improve economic, social, and environmental outcomes.” Alison Brewin of Vantage Point noted that “the challenges facing our province today demand new solutions and fresh ideas. Charities and not-for-profits are proven innovators, fluent in collaboration with an ability to attract investment from outside government. We hope to see greater alignment with government planning and priorities to leverage these assets for the common good.” Surely what is true at a provincial level should be equally true at a federal level, even if the areas of jurisdiction are different.

Many voices across the sector in 2020 have called for a “home in government”. These calls will be louder in 2021. We may have seen a recognition of the need for cross-government coordination in the recent mandate letters sent to federal Ministers. The letter for Minister Ahmed Hussen, who has the Families, Children and Social Development portfolio, asked him to:

Continue to work across government to ensure that charities and nonprofits have the tools that they need to modernize as they emerge from the pandemic to support the Government’s overall agenda in a manner that responds to the needs of Canadians in every region.

Imagine Canada applauded this statement, noting that this was an “official signal of the Government’s commitment to sector policy needs.” Imagine went on to say that “we are hopeful that this is indicative of a readiness to engage in a strategic relationship with the country’s nonprofits and charities, at a time when partnership between these two key sectors is critical. We look forward to working with the Minister’s Office and Department to advance long-awaited reforms to our regulatory, legislative, and funding environment across government.” Indeed, let us hope that the door to a better relationship has started to crack open again in 2021. But the sector will have to keep its focus, rally its leadership and make this a priority federally if we are not to relive the slow weakening that we experienced post- 2001 Accord.

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