Inclusion for All: A Canadian Roadmap to Social Cohesion Insights from Structured Conversations



Social cohesion is frequently referred to and discussed, but it is rarely the focus of a structured conversation among leading authorities from different sectors. This report reflects the results of such a dialogue. The path that led to this report began when the Social Cohesion Network (SCN) of the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) engaged federal policy researchers in conversation about social cohesion in 1997. The Department of Justice Canada and Canadian Heritage have co-led the Network since that time.

In the winter of 2001-02, PRI asked Morris Rosenberg, the Deputy Minister of Justice Canada and Deputy Attorney General of Canada, to take on the role of Champion. Hélène Gosselin, the Assistant Deputy Minister of International and Intergovernmental Affairs at Canadian Heritage was asked to assume the role of lead Assistant Deputy Minister. They agreed to launch a renewal of policy research in the area of social cohesion. In response to this challenge, they decided to take stock and also to bring fresh insights to the task of setting the direction for future policy research in this area. To achieve these goals they developed a consultative process based on the Delphi approach to learning and information gathering. Other key objectives were to better link the research into the policy process, broaden the horizontal network, and enhance capacity and understanding.

The process entailed a series of consultations to help clarify what people meant by social cohesion in Canada, the social conditions and issues that raise policy research questions, and some directions for future policy research efforts. If the consultations revealed widespread agreement about the elements of social cohesion and the issues, this would provide a strong basis for improving the links between the research and policy and front-line practices. Identifying concrete measurable elements of social cohesion would allow policy researchers to measure or assess changes in the state of social cohesion in Canada. This, in turn, could provide a more clear evidence basis for policy.

The consultations were also designed to enhance the project’s horizontality and engage new partners across government, academia and community organizations. By identifying how community-based and front-line agencies are building social cohesion from the ground up, policy makers can better understand how to promote that work and link it with government initiatives to enhance capacity.

Organizations such as the World Bank as well as many countries and the Council of Europe are employing the concept of social cohesion to frame policies related to jobs, homelessness, and other issues. However, not surprisingly, the concept is understood differently in different countries and organizations. It was hoped that this exercise would help identify a distinctively Canadian approach that could be widely supported.

Why the interest in social cohesion at this time?

The rapid expansion of science and technology in recent decades has been accompanied by a dizzying set of social changes. These include new health challenges, increased population mobility and changes in the structure of the global economy. Related to the pressures of globalization are new “haves” and “have nots,” while many older forms of disparity continue. High population mobility and diversity create wealth and opportunity. However, they can contribute to social pressures given the difficulty of ensuring inclusion for new and mobile members of society. As people in society increasingly follow diverse paths in terms of belief, perspective, and culture, analysts wonder if forging collective social projects may become more difficult in the future. It may be necessary to modernize governance models and social policy approaches in order to hear all voices. We will need to continue to develop ways of bridging different views and achieving widespread inclusion. These multi-faceted changes have often been cited as reasons for the recent widespread interest in social cohesion.

Who participated?

Approximately 130 experts and acknowledged leaders participated in the consultative process. They brought to the conversation the benefits of their extensive experience from four communities:

  • senior policy makers in the federal government;
  • senior federal government researchers and research directors;
  • front-line and community agency practitioners and researchers; and
  • non-governmental research organizations and academic researchers.

Participants from umbrella organizations with broad representation engaged in workshops and plenary discussion with theorists and empirical researchers who study issues such as the role of rights in promoting the inclusion of the disabled or economic development projects in Cape Breton.

How were the sessions organized?

The consultative process, based on the Delphi model of qualitative research, entailed a structured conversation conducted in five cross-sectoral sessions held between May 2001 and February 2002. After each session, reports were sent to participants so that they could comment or add to what had been said. This document then fed into the next session. The process was iterative and interactive.

Each participant was asked for their thoughts on:

  • the key factors which make for social cohesion,
  • key issues or challenges, and
  • the research and collaboration that may be needed.

This report synthesizes the advice received in the course of that conversation and received in written materials from the participants. It does not reflect the views of the Government of Canada or participating departments.

Each session made a unique contribution:

  • A full-day retreat with the Social Cohesion Network produced an excellent summary of key elements of social cohesion in Canada, social conditions that should be monitored and recommendations for research.
  • Senior policy makers were then able to respond and identify a short list of key issues from their perspective.
  • Three subsequent sessions with front-line workers, leading voluntary sector and non-governmental organizations, academic experts, and youths confirmed the high level of agreement on the key elements of social cohesion and related social concerns. The rich dialogue at these sessions also added insights from non-government perspectives.

Deputy Minister Rosenberg addressing a session with community organizations and academics, commented:

Experienced policy makers have valuable knowledge of how to get things done in government, while the front-line workers, generally from non-profit organizations, contribute a lot of practical skill and insights into the implications of different approaches for the populations and communities involved. Their experience is vital.

The Process of Dialogue and Distillation

The Social Cohesion Network, representing approximately 20 departments, first generated a list of almost 50 social conditions related to social cohesion and then voted to rank the 10 items they considered the most important. These fell into four areas:

  • the nature of connections and participation, as well as issues related to social engagement, volunteering, individualism, high rates of mobility, changes in family and work, and time pressures;
  • communities at risk of exclusion, especially increased need for integration services given continuing high rates of immigration, as well as the needs of Aboriginal communities, victims of crime and other vulnerable groups;
  • increased economic disparity, persistent poverty, and changes in
    social supports; and
  • globalization, information technology, cyber-communities, international agreements and trade agreements, and possible subsequent changes in connections, multiple identities, environmental degradation, resource depletion, exclusion, and strains in regional relationships.

This list was further refined through subsequent dialogues with senior policy makers across the federal government and then with three multi-sector groups of practitioners and researchers. It is noteworthy that there are substantial similarities between this initial input and the final synthesis of all the discussions. This is evidence of strong agreement across sectors in terms of the issues related to social cohesion.

Social Cohesion in Canada

Social Cohesion Defined

The consultations provided a vision of a socially cohesive Canada based on broad participation and inclusion. This is an equitable and democratic cohesive society—one in which diversity is understood as a strength and in which an infrastructure of accessible institutions supports the quality of life of all citizens.

There is no one description of a Canadian. Being unsure about what is a Canadian is a good thing. It leaves more space to be who we are.Footnote *

Social cohesion requires economic and social equity, peace, security, inclusion and access. Diversity and differences are conducive to social cohesion because they contribute to a vibrant political and social life.

Consultation participants identified the following four key elements as necessary and interactive parts of social cohesion.

The Elements of Social Cohesion


Widespread participation in community and social life is fundamental to social cohesion. Full participation requires access to economic, political, and cultural opportunities and involves active engagement with other members of the community and society. Being involved must be a free choice. Society and its members benefit when more citizens are involved in setting and working toward collective and community projects.

There needs to be a dual focus on the national level and on communities.


Trust, connections, networks, and bonds with others (elements of social capital) may be necessary for participation and engagement. However, they are also created and strengthened through participatory activities of various kinds.

Bridges and institutions

Institutions and policies such as official languages policy, multiculturalism and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms mediate differences and encourage understanding and mutual respect. Infrastructure such as transportation and communications provide necessary public support for involvement.

Income distribution, equity, inclusion, and access

These are key to a Canadian understanding of social cohesion. As the Prime Minister has stated, central to “the Canadian way” is a thriving new economy that provides benefits for all Canadians and leaves out none.

These four elements are components of social cohesion that can be measured, researched, and promoted. They provide a lens for assessing research, policy, and programs. Several social conditions and changes were identified as important to maintaining social cohesion in the future. Each is described in the next section of this report.

We need to understand three things:

  • the objective, concrete connections that bind us;
  • the equity, justice, or access those connections or activities reveal; and
  • the adequacy of our social institutions in understanding those social conditions and promoting the kind of social cohesion we want.

Social Conditions and Social Changes that Warrant Policy Research


Several social conditions were identified as central to understanding Canada’s future social cohesion challenges. These are rapidly evolving areas that need to be researched and better understood because they are likely to raise future policy questions. Most of the issues raised fit within the following six areas:

  • participation, citizenship, and governance;
  • income distribution, equity, inclusion, and access;
  • immigration, integration, and respect for all forms of diversity;
  • capacity building in Aboriginal communities;
  • peace, safety, and security; and
  • information technology, the new economy, globalization and integration.

These broad domains can be thought of as “umbrellas” or thematic clusters that encompass many other elements of social change. For example, the importance of key institutions, such as health and education, for inclusion and participation was raised repeatedly. Concerns were expressed about the condition of participation and inclusion in major cities and other communities in the face of rising levels of disparity, high mobility, restructuring and cuts to services. Are people in remote communities experiencing inadequate access to services or to economic opportunities? Are particular demographic communities or groups such as the homeless, people with disabilities, or those in remote areas, prone to being excluded from social development?

There was overwhelming agreement that both the local and national levels are involved in social cohesion, and considerable interest in better understanding how these two levels interact. Communities were identified as forming the backbone of social cohesion where most connections, bonds and bridges are built. At the same time, participants recognized that social, global, and technological changes are changing the nature of “community” and of connecting.

Relationships across borders are more common and, to varying extents, Canadians identify with the continent, with their country or countries of origin, or with the world as a whole. As well, global pressures on trade, competition and security may influence the quality of life of Canadians. Some participants expressed concern that economic and trade pressures could unduly influence domestic policies or jeopardize the sustainability of some of the institutions and programs that have traditionally connected Canadians.

Assistant deputy ministers and senior executives put a strong focus on participation as the following quotations from their lively discussion indicate:

People need the capacity to participate in their community; this requires institutions—but the institutions may need to adapt to changes. An emerging issue is how to facilitate participation for all in an increasingly diverse society. Beyond formal institutions, we need to understand positive new forms of participation. Who participates? Who are leaders in engaging others? What encourages participation?

We need to go to the grass-roots level and see how citizens get together; policy research should focus on the social and civic and the nature of community and community participation.

Key questions are: “Are communities cohering?” and “Are there vehicles for mediating between communities?”

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