Review - Social Inclusion as Policy Challenges and Opportunities

Ted Richmond, Laidlaw Foundation

Ted Richmond is the Program Co-ordinator of the Inclusive Communities for Children, Youth and Families Pilot Program at the Laidlaw Foundation.

How is the concept of social inclusion evolving in policy terms? Are we working from a common understanding or “definition” of the notion? What does social inclusion mean for issues like poverty, and the growing racialization of poverty? What theories and practices are most relevant in developing a made-in-Canada version of social inclusion that is policy relevant? These issues provide both challenges and opportunities for our Advisory Committee (Inclusive Communities for Children, Youth and Families) as Laidlaw Foundation further develops its work on social inclusion.1

The Children’s Agenda Initiative of the Laidlaw Foundation started several years ago, with a focus on social inclusion as a tool for developing and testing social policy. It promoted the development of inclusive communities in the cities and neighbourhoods where children and their families experience various forms of exclusion, and was rooted in the Laidlaw commitment to promoting the well-being of children and families. The long-range goal was to promote improvements in child and family social policy in Canada.

It has been a few years since the Laidlaw Board took the courageous step of endorsing funding for what was basically an idea – social inclusion. Since then, our social inclusion work has not only developed and expanded, it has received a significant amount of attention and support. Laidlawsponsored activities included seminars and conferences as well as a series of working papers exploring different areas and aspects of social inclusion as theory and applied policy. Funding was also provided for partner organizations involved in projects, such as the development of inclusive indicators as well as research and public education on the welfare of Canada’s children.

In the last year, we have expanded and renewed the program’s advisory committee, renamed our program, and begun addressing new challenges.

Issues and Challenges

First and foremost, we must recognize that the “definition” of social inclusion is in development; it is not fixed as a concept or theory. A progressive and policy-relevant version of social inclusion will be rooted in practice, and it will recognize and respect different interpretations.

The social inclusion work we want to develop must combine theory and practice. As well, it must exhibit three essential features: It must deal with the structural roots of exclusion, be rooted in community (self-) organization and mobilization, and be transformative. It must lead to real, applied policy changes transforming the structures that promote exclusion and limit inclusion.

To deal with these issues, we need to appreciate fully the social and economic impact of rapid demographic and economic changes in Canada. Immigrants – those born outside of Canada – form a growing percentage of the population in our major urban centres, and are increasingly from non-European countries. There is an increasing degree of coincidence therefore between “newcomer” and “visible minority” status, precisely at a time when these newcomers face systemic barriers to the recognition of internationally acquired education and skills.2 The alarming process of the racialization of poverty in Canada is, in fact, a product of these trends.

Poverty is not just an issue for newcomers. There has been a general deterioration of labour market opportunities for vulnerable groups, such as newcomers, those with a disability, young families, lone parents, and urban Aboriginal people. The world of work in Canada is becoming more precarious; the low-paid segment of the labour force is growing as a portion of the total employed; and long-term poverty is becoming more associated with paid employment. From a social inclusion perspective, we need to ask why certain groups identified more by social or cultural characteristics rather than economic features are at such risk of long-term poverty. The answers should lead us away from neo-liberal economic policies, emphasizing the universal benefits of general economic growth, and into a deeper understanding of the social supports and policy reforms needed by specific excluded communities.3

Since poverty is not just an issue for newcomers, we must realize that diversity issues go well beyond the labour market or even general economic well-being. Increasing ethnoracial diversity in our major urban centres poses challenges from a social inclusion perspective, because both the process and the end result of this inclusion must be re-negotiated. Ethno-racial communities, as with other excluded groups, will no longer accept the paternalism of being invited, one by one, to enter existing institutions. Rather, they are demanding their rightful voice and role in reshaping these institutions to combat exclusion and promote a truly inclusive form of Canadian diversity.4

The notion of social capital is also important to our work on social inclusion. We believe that both “bonding” and “bridging” networks and linkages are vital for combatting exclusion with vulnerable groups; and while government cannot create social capital, government policies can facilitate its development. The role of non-governmental service and umbrella organizations in public education and advocacy – increasingly threatened by funding restrictions – is, in this regard, an issue of great concern.5

In his Laidlaw-sponsored working paper, Anver Saloojee emphasized that the development of social inclusion is a political process that depends on locating and transforming specific forms of exclusion.6 In other words, an inclusive society identifies the historical and material basis of various forms of exclusion and works actively to overcome them. This leads to a process involving social citizenship, mobilization and community organizing, and transformation (resource sharing, institutional changes).

Examples from Our Work

Due to the various factors outlined above, our program is moving toward a focus on support for pilot projects as a means to further develop the theory of social inclusion through dialogue with our partners based on practice. We recognize that the social inclusion application projects we support will have an experimental nature (new theories lead to new practices, and further debates on specific issues).

One example of a project we currently support (along with the Ontario Trillium Foundation) is Closing the Distance for Children in Sudbury.

The Social Planning Council of Sudbury has been engaged, in the last 18 months, in a project designed to create more inclusive school and recreation environments from the perspective of Greater Sudbury’s children. The project is being extended to neighbourhood schools and community recreation programs over the next two years to introduce the voices of children into how learning and recreation occurs in these two important social environments. The initiative addresses all children, but will also pay particular attention to the inclusion and participation of children at higher risk of being left out or unheard (e.g., children dealing with linguistic and cultural barriers in Sudbury, such as Francophone and Aboriginal children). We think this is a good example of a project with grass-roots mobilization that deals with the non-economic forms of exclusion for vulnerable communities. We believe, as well, that the emphasis on listening to the voices of children provides a good demonstration of inclusion in practice.7

Part of our work involves supporting the activities of partner organizations, whether financially or through publicity and networking. Campaign 2000, which receives financial support from Laidlaw, has been working very actively across Canada on public education and mobilization, which links child poverty to broader issues including housing and labour market problems, child care and early childhood education. Another example is St. Christopher House, which is developing a truly grass-roots policy initiative with its project Income Security for Working-age Adults in Ontario.8

The development of inclusive indicators is another aspect of our work, essential to bridging social inclusion theory with social inclusion practice. We provided funding (along with Health Canada) to the inclusive indicators project carried out by the Ontario Prevention Clearinghouse, and we played an advisory role in the Health Canada funded Alternative Social Audit carried out by the Social Planning Council of Toronto and the Alternative Planning Group.9 We are working to structure a useful dialogue among the various groups involved in developing alternative social indicators.

We also consider it vital to work with both community organizations and various concerned funders to halt the destructive trends in financing of the non-governmental organization sector. The transition to narrowly defined service contract funding as the dominant form of government support to the community sector cannot be allowed to destroy the social capital represented by these organizations.10

We also work to build community capacity (or social capital) by promoting healthy research partnerships between the community and the academic sector. Currently, we are partners in a Ryerson University proposal to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Community-University Research Alliances, on the situation of newcomers with less than full status. We are also hosting networking meetings of researchers concerned with immigrant women’s issues, and participating in a Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded research project, Racialized Communities and Health Status, led by the Access Alliance Community Multicultural Health Centre.

Finally, we continue to contribute to the conceptual work in exploring, debating, and refining the meaning of social inclusion in Canada. We are preparing an edited publication of some of the best of the working papers commissioned by Laidlaw and are working with various partners to develop seminars and forums that will link the issues of inclusion to current public policy options.

All this leads to lots of experimentation and public discussion. We don’t expect our work to go smoothly; the issues are too complex, and the challenges are too great! But we do expect that with the help of our many partners, supporters, and friends, we can make small but real progress in advancing the inclusion agenda in Canada over the next few years.


  1. I want to acknowledge the contributions of Uzma Shakir to this update on our social inclusion work at Laidlaw. Uzma is Executive Director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), and President of the Board at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). Uzma is also a member of our program Advisory Committee.

  2. For a discussion of these issues as well as extensive references, see the Laidlaw Working Paper Immigrant Settlement and Social Inclusion in Canada (Ratna Omidvar and Ted Richmond, 2003), <>.

  3. For recent reflections on these issues, see Cynthia Williams, “Policy Responses for Groups at Risk of Long-Term Poverty” <>.

  4. See, for example, the paper “Social Inclusion and the City” by the Alternative Planning Group <>.

  5. See, for example, Ted Richmond’s paper presented to the Metropolis immigration research conference in Montréal in March 2004 “Promoting Newcomer Civic Engagement: The Role of Umbrella Organizations in Social Citizenship.” <>.

  6. “Social Inclusion, Anti-Racism and Democratic Citizenship” (2003), <>.

  7. More information about this project, and others funded by our pilot program, can be found on the Laidlaw web site.

  8. More information is available on the organizations’ respective web sites.

  9. For further information, see the web sites of the respective organizations.

  10. See, for example, Ted Richmond and John Shields, Third Sector Restructuring and the New Contracting Regime: The Case of Immigrant Serving Agencies in Ontario, in the CERIS series, Policy Matters. <>.