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

1. Participation, citizenship and governance

Participation was identified as being at the core of social cohesion for Canadians. Both the capacity and the desire to participate and be involved in a network of relationships are necessary foundations for a citizen’s sense of belonging and attachment. As a nation of many cultures, languages, and regions, we have developed practices based on accommodation and mutual respect that allow different groups to retain their identities without being marginalized for being different. Political and economic participation are important, as are volunteering, helping, caring, and the simple “guardianship” neighbours provide for each other. In the course of the dialogue, the values usually associated with participation in Canada were reiterated values such as inclusion, equity, fairness and acceptance. It was suggested that the Canadian model of cohesion is marked by widespread and inclusive participation in establishing and working toward collective and community objectives.

How are Connections, Community and Participation Changing?

Those consulted conveyed the message that policy research should explore the modern nature of participation and not rely upon outdated models of how people connect and participate socially and politically. The national fabric of participation and connection may be changing with modifications in communication technologies, work and other aspects of society.

For example, infrequent contacts may be more prevalent in our fast-paced and digital culture. Long-lasting or face-to-face relationships may be less common.

Families, personal relationships and neighbourhoods, participants said, are the places where individuals learn to coexist, compromise, trust, and share. Childhood was seen as a critical stage of life for building inclusion, self-actualization and social capital. If this does not occur in childhood, opportunities may be lost forever. That is why, participants insisted, we need to ensure that all Canadians share in those opportunities for early social development in the face of transformations in family and community relationships.

How can we build a sense of justice and fairness—that all people are valued?

Social cohesion has to do with many senses of community. One perfectly Canadian example is understanding Aboriginal communities in a multicultural world; the research should address distinctively Canadian issues.

Institutions Provide Vital Infrastructure

At each session, participants stressed the importance of institutions, policies and practices that have long been central to the “Canadian way,” especially health care, education, transportation, communications, housing, protection of rights and freedoms, and the social safety net. These shared institutions come from, and reinforce, a sense of the common good, common expectations, and mutual responsibility. The concern, widely expressed, was that universal and equitable access to these institutions may be under threat. Reduced access to pillars of well-being such as health care in the community was thought to cause great stress and isolation for vulnerable populations and for their informal caregivers. Also, groups that particularly rely on those services may feel that they are not valued. For example, senior Canadians may feel that cuts to health care reveal a lack of concern for their quality of life.

Young participants expressed anxiety about access to affordable education and indicated that many young people view cuts in that area as a sign of disregard. In addition, they argued, reducing access to higher education threatens inclusion since education is an important way to “level the playing field” and increase opportunities for those who are not from affluent backgrounds.

A village can be cohesive but isolated.

The young people consulted supported education on civics and citizenship and the promotion of knowledge of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as programs that encourage civic and community work. They stressed that all young people, including those who are hard to reach and outside the mainstream, should be able to play a role in shaping society.

As members of a very large and diverse nation, we share institutions, values, activities, and connections with people who may live far away geographically or whose experiences have been very different. Participants stressed the importance of bridging activities that recognize and involve people and communities such as Aboriginal and diaspora communities, communities of Francophones living outside Quebec, and disengaged youths. They recommended that research identify good models or best practices that recognize, respect and acknowledge differences and facilitate working together. At the fourth consultation with representatives of Francophone communities, participants referred to issues related to regional fragmentation, alienation and the limits of political representation. They emphasized the need to include and promote minority linguistic communities. Language and culture were identified as critical aspects of social cohesion for Canadians.

We need to think about citizenship and what it means for governance, power and ethics; we also need to understand rights and social responsibility.

Governance

Both government and non-government participants emphasized that much of what governments do affects social cohesion and its constituent elements. Policies or programs that are not directed toward social cohesion may have unintended, perverse consequences on some element of social cohesion due to their structure or implementation. The fairness and humanity with which public services are provided and programs implemented was said to be extremely important. Senior executives stated that programs and service delivery must be credible. Subsequent sessions with civil society representatives clarified that, in their view, the focus should be on building good governance practices of inclusion and participation.

One poverty worker noted that when policy belittles marginalized people and suggests they are a problem, or when it reduces the capacity or number of community organizations, that sends a message that is counter to social cohesion. Social cohesion benefits when actions, policies and programs send the message that all Canadians are valued.

Both government and civil society participants, young and old, expressed concern about a “disconnect” between citizens and governments. Youth participants described themselves as cynics and expressed alienation from judicial, educational, and parliamentary institutions; youths from visible minority groups indicated that they particularly distrusted the police. While trust in government is often taken to be a measure of social cohesion, some participants felt that there are advantages to the fact that a highly educated Canadian public may be reluctant to trust authorities and experts to make decisions for them. Evolving ways of sharing more of the decision making with those outside of government could address this issue in a positive way. More collaborative and inclusive ways of governing may be needed to facilitate partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors. There was support for building understanding of what works in practice through pilot projects and studies of existing efforts. Participants were interested in efforts to identify best practices in Aboriginal governance and capacity building for leadership in Aboriginal communities.

Senior government executives engaged in a discussion about trust in government and the concern about disengagement. They noted the following:

Government should not define values for citizens – we could drive people apart with our interventions. You have raised [ from the first session ] the issue of trust in government. Trust is a problematic indicator. I worry that we gravitate to what we know, we are in government, so we see problems there. Are we defining the problem through our lens? What do citizens think the issues are?

Given what we know about the increase in cynicism, there are things we can do now – without all the research – we can work on connecting with people and encouraging participation. We (in government) need to do what we say we will do.

A Social Cohesion Lens

Many participants believed a social cohesion lens could usefully be applied to all government policies to ensure they do not deplete or diminish social capital, communities, solidarity or equity. A social cohesion lens could be used to consider how to promote participation and inclusion through our existing policies such as multiculturalism and official languages policy. Sometimes, fairness and inclusion do not require new programs but rather full and prompt action on existing legislation, rights, or entitlements. In other cases, new models and policies may be needed.

As well, a social inclusion/cohesion lens may cast a different light on activities such as some forms of political protest. Young people who participated in session five stressed that democracy is enhanced by dissent. They said that criticism of policies should be recognized as participation and concern for the country. Inertia, not criticism, is the greater threat, they said.

A social cohesion lens might also help policy makers consider how best to promote caring, mutual concern and responsibility, as well as connections between communities. Participants suggested that research on how social cohesion is built from the ground up could help ensure that policies and programs support social cohesion rather than threaten it.

A social cohesion lens could usefully be applied to the development and impact analysis of all policies and programs.

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