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

6. Information technology, the new economy, globalization and integration

A prevailing theme of the dialogue was the significance of economic transformations on the social sphere. Social impacts, it was noted, result from the increasing globalization of business and growing North American linkages, as well as changes in industrial structures, investments and global markets. Domestic impacts mentioned were changes in the structure of work and social welfare as well as influences on social, cultural and political policies and institutions.

It was noted that impacts were divergent in different regions and urban centres across the country. While some places saw more benefits, others were experiencing a loss of jobs or economic development and associated loss of the working-age population.

Cities, as well as other jurisdictions, were reported to be experiencing increasing pressures to reduce, or at least not raise taxes, which was leading to cuts in social programs and community spaces that provide much of the glue for social cohesion. The flip side of the pressure on cities is rural depopulation with its negative effect on the quality of rural life.

I am heartened to hear so much about the federal government supporting, not replacing or overburdening, the community. The federal government has a strong leadership role to play in social cohesion.

Participants identified the need for constant communication and mobility in a knowledge-based economy and society. High rates of migration and mobility within cities, provinces, the country and internationally are an integral element of globalization and more porous boundaries. People move between jobs, schools and even families more frequently than in the past. Economic and mobility pressures on families should be seen in the context of an ageing population and the mounting pressure for social support from private households and the informal sector.

The Internet

New information and communications technologies, and in particular, the pervasive influence of the Internet, was said to be having a multitude of effects on social relations and equity. On the positive side, it provides new means for participating and connecting with others. New research raises questions about whether people substitute interaction in “cyberspace communities” for face-to-face contact with their neighbours and family or whether virtual contacts augment previous social relations. Concerns were raised about the emergence of a “digital divide” between those who have access and those who do not. Participants also spoke of new questions about who has a voice in the digital age. On the Internet, public safety, e-government, e-commerce, e-politics, and networks all depend on trust and co-operation among people who are strangers. The internet world of virtual reality also raises policy challenges such as how to deal with inappropriate content and contacts made with children as well as other harms and cyber-crimes.

Concerns about International Economic Changes

Participants voiced concern that global competition and integrated markets placed pressures on national, sub-national and civic institutions. They mentioned the growing influence of international bodies and agreements, such as the G8, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as multinational corporations and transnational crime. There was concern that putting the economy first could lead to policies that unintentionally hurt our communities or equity. Further, non-governmental organizations and civil society could be left to address social needs without the required infrastructure and resources. Civil society participants urged governments to strive for both economic productivity and social inclusion. Young participants called for government to focus its social cohesion efforts on reducing poverty, homelessness and hunger by investing in affordable housing and ensuring basic needs are met.

Young people, in particular, noted the high level of cynicism among their peers about the effect of globalization on both society and the environment. Young Canadians, they said, are deeply concerned that international trade practices and agreements may threaten the health of the environment and the inclusiveness and well-being of communities.

Youths and and front-line workers also felt strongly that the principle of participation means that protest should be met with listening. People should be allowed to empower themselves, and activism and dissent should be permitted. Policy research in this area should pay attention to emerging forms of non-traditional political participation and community, including virtual communities and communities of interest. Participants urged the federal government to work with other levels of government, as well as with community and non-profit organiations, to develop an understanding of the new mechanisms of social cohesion and how to promote them.

New scientific and technological activities, such as genetically modified food and genetic treatments, also raised the fear that some concerns were not being heard. Such social changes could provide opportunities to include citizens and promote participation. However, they also present potential fault lines if public principles and anxieties receive short shrift.

Research Issues

Participants contributed their expertise on policy research and analysis, translating research into policy, and enhancing collaboration with frontline practitioners, community agencies and scholars.

Research Strengths

The research strengths identified during the consultations include high and increasing availability of data as a result of excellent national surveys and many community-based projects. In addition, coordination, as well as horizontal and cross-sectoral work is increasing. This enhances efficiency by reducing the amount of research being done in a vacuum.

Relevant policy research is under way at Statistics Canada, federal social policy departments, universities, centres of excellence, horizontal research projects such as Metropolis, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Connections could be improved with the ongoing community-based research of organizations such as social planning councils, community and nonprofit foundations. Other important sources identified are program-based research and that of front-line organizations such as police or community health departments, shelters for the homeless, women’s shelters, and food banks.

There is a very good body of knowledge on several of the issues identified, including economic disparity and the causes of moving into and out of poverty. There is community-based as well as national research on the condition of Aboriginal communities, the integration needs of immigrants, and public health needs. Consistent with the recommendations in these consultations, there are studies that allow analysts to understand the connections among different factors such as being a member of a visible minority group and unemployment or the factors contributing to the likelihood of experiencing violent victimization. Synthesis and identification of key findings might be helpful.

In addition, knowledge of the links among community supports, capacity and social objectives, such as early childhood development and resilience for poor families, has been recently acquired. Good longitudinal studies are increasing researchers’ confidence in determining the causes of marginalization.

At the same time, studies and evaluations of demonstration projects and community projects are helping to identify what works in building community cohesion, leadership and capacity.

Enhancing the effectiveness of horizontal policy research

Participants underlined the need to build research capacity within government and in communities, identify the policy implications of research findings, better connect results found in different sectors, and undertake demonstration projects and synthesizing studies to identify major findings and lessons learned.

Tightening the links between research and policy is crucial…. Often the lack of time means that studies are not known or taken into account [ in policy making ]. Brokers are needed to monitor developments in research and produce useable products [ for policy makers ].

We are data rich and analysis poor.

Link Research, Policy and Implementation

Senior executives stressed the need to better communicate the policy implications of research findings to policy makers. This would require developing clear, agreed-upon terms and consistency in defining key concepts and linking them to indicators. Another need was to connect concepts and indicators, to ensure that what is measured is meaningful and operational. In this area, we are “data rich and analysis poor.”

Funding from Treasury Board is “vertically oriented,” with few points and no resources given for collaboration.

Address Resource and Skill Limitations

Senior executives and researchers in government emphasized the need to increase the capacity of policy departments to use research to develop policy options. In their opinion, the greatest need is for careful analysis of existing data. Too often policy is based upon correlations between factors rather than a clear indication that one factor causes another. Longitudinal studies are particularly important for untangling the causes and effects among interconnected conditions. Analytical skills, they said, were in short supply because of earlier cuts to federal government research and a lack of statistical and analytical expertise and experience among university graduates.

Resource limitations in the community and non-governmental sector were perceived as a weakness. Civil society experts noted there were few research institutes in Canada and their government funding was inconsistent from one budget to the next, making it difficult to commit to projects.

The government already conducts so many studies— you should use what has already been done and synthesize the results.

Partner with Community and Front-Line Organizations

The federal government was urged to work with other levels of government and community and non-profit organizations to develop an understanding of the mechanisms of social cohesion and how to promote it. Attention should be given to building capacity, identifying best practices, and disseminating results. Participants from civil society said they should be at the table when priorities are set. They asked the government to acts as a facilitator, supporter and knowledge broker. Senior executives in the federal government also cautioned against a top-down approach and said that government should support community and citizen initiatives.

Share Knowledge and Link Research with Action

Experts from non-government sectors asked that governments facilitate community capacity building. Accordingly, there should be more efficient partnering with grass-roots organizations. Knowledge sharing and dissemination were seen as important ways to reduce waste by ensuring that agencies build on a base of knowledge rather than “reinvent the wheel.” Cocreation, providing spaces for dialogue, and seconding personnel across sectors were identified as valuable approaches. Priority was placed on using existing knowledge and acting now to help those in need.

Senior executives said:

There is an important continuum between research, policy and delivery. It is not enough to come upwith the right research questions and the right policy levers. We too often ignore the element of delivery and implementation; we need to think about the links to delivery. Implementation is important. Do demonstration initiatives; work on involving communities in finding solutions.

Participants strongly favoured action-oriented research approaches that help build community and organizational capacity. They recommended inclusive and participatory processes such as participatory action research. In this way, researchers could both learn from, and help, front-line organizations, such as settlement agencies, which want to be more involved in research but do not have the resources to do so.

We need practices that promote a sense of belonging, usefulness and capacity for everyone.

Youth participants suggested that representation was key to inclusion. They recommended a consultative, holistic approach to empowering marginalized people through engagement and connecting clients with issues. They thought government research and policies should be aligned with the needs and priorities of the people they serve, and the people most affected by the issues should establish the priorities and be part of the solution.

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