September 18, 2017
From the President

2017: The Year We Talk About Listening and Belonging?

By Hilary Pearson

I think it’s fair to say that Canada has been getting some favourable global attention in 2017, not just for the high profile of our Prime Minister, but for our apparent good luck in managing social harmony. This is of course in contrast to the social turbulence experienced in other Western countries facing the pressures of economic disruption, climate change and cross-border migration.

But we do need to ask ourselves as Canadians: is it as harmonious as all that? Is our stability an illusion? These questions challenge philanthropy in Canada this year. We are coming to grips with a very quickly changing social landscape. What is philanthropy’s role in moderating the pressures and, indeed, the conflicts brought about by urbanization and immigration? We must ask ourselves some hard questions: in debates about life in our communities, who is being heard, and who is in danger of being left behind? In the face of rising unease about illegal immigration (for example the number of refugee claimants crossing into Quebec) or as we confront incidents of Islamophobia and religious tension (the incidents in Quebec City), we can’t stay comfortably with the idea that Canadians have found the magic recipe of living together. It is no accident that the two Canadian national networks, Philanthropic Foundations Canada and Community Foundations of Canada, organized our 2017 conferences on the themes of “listening” and “belonging”. If you look at the programs of these gatherings, you see that we are taking up the crucial challenges for philanthropy in the face of diversity: how to hear and how to listen more effectively to different perspectives, and how to create a stronger sense of belonging together.

We know we are mostly an urban country today. The increasing concentration of population in cities is also marked by a continuing increase in diversity. Statistics Canada projects that immigrants and second-generation individuals combined, who represented 38.2% of Canada’s population in 2011, could account for nearly one in two people (between 44.2% and 49.7%) by 2036. More than one-quarter of the Canadian population by 2036 would have a mother tongue other than English or French. If recent trends continue, more than half of immigrants in Canada in 20136 would be of Asian origin. Adding to the diversity of our society, the proportion of people in the Canadian population who are Indigenous is a relatively high 4%, and this population is growing.

Canada is in no way immune to the fears provoked by perceptions of difference or of inequality. We have had in our history many incidents of hate and expressions of prejudice, as we have begun to recognize in facing the history of colonialism and treatment of Indigenous peoples. And we witness daily the tensions that come from discrimination based on race or ethnicity as we watch developments in the United States. Given the tensions that arise among people of different cultures and backgrounds, shouldn’t philanthropy in Canada be taking the long view and planning for what may come?

Canadian foundations are active in two areas that predict our long-term resilience as a society under pressure: education, and family development, particularly support for parents and children. Our public education system is a key mechanism for successful integration of immigrant children, and a predictor of success for rising income. Family investment in early child development is also clearly established as a social determinant of health and wellbeing.

But beyond this, it seems to me that foundations could be usefully be more engaged in the hard work of creating “soft” power – webs of social interaction and reserves of social capital that will support resilience at a community and national level.  We see signs that this is becoming a focus of philanthropic attention. To do better, we know we need to build bridges and relationships of trust directly with people in community. Approaches such as participatory grantmaking, and collective investment in community capacity to voice concerns and solutions will be discussed at our upcoming October Symposium. And the hard issues of building more diversity directly into our practices, including around the foundation board table itself, are also going to be on the agenda. We can hope that these will become areas of new development in Canadian funder practice in the coming year, as we try to do better on supporting reconciliation, accommodation of diversity, and consensus-building.

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