A Federal Government - Voluntary Sector Accord: Implications for Canada's Voluntary Sector

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Learning from Experience, Respecting Differences

The Quebec Experience

The Quebec government has developed a policy that sets out a new framework for its relations with the community sector. In 2000, the Minister of Social Solidarity, André Boisclair, launched a vast public consultation campaign with community organizations to discuss this proposed policy of recognition and support for community action.17 Although a government policy rather than an inter-sectoral accord, the policy was the product of ten years of lobbying and demands for recognition from the sector.

The first version of the policy, released in 1999, was highly criticized by community organizations and then redrafted. Initially, a working group composed of both ministerial and voluntary sector representatives was established to examine the wider issues about partnership that were to be addressed within the policy. The process was not successful, however, because the actors failed to engage in an open dialogue. Representatives of government had a clear idea of the kind of relationship with the sector that they wanted to carry forward - and this centred on service provision. After six months of discussions, the working group was abolished as no progress had been made towards developing a policy framework. Many of the representatives of the community sector who sat on the committee felt that rather than being engaged in a genuine dialogue with ministerial officials, they were there to be convinced and sold a particular vision of partnership. Once the working group stopped meeting, the community sector was not involved in the process until the first draft of the policy was announced. Even the advisory committee created in 1995, comprised of representatives from different subsectors and part of whose mandate was to help push forward the policy of recognition and support, had not seen a version of the policy until its public announcement. Instead of an engagement with the sector, the policy had been based mainly on broad consultation across government ministries.

This first version of the policy was aimed at community organizations in the broadest definition and included all non-profit organizations, even the social economy organizations that had been set up by the state. Community organizations were to: respond to the policies and objectives set out by the provincial government; be accountable for their outcomes; and provide services in accordance with the norms set out by the public service. This proposition specifically targeted service-oriented organizations, mostly in the health and social services sector, because half of the community organizations work in this subsector, employing more than 16,000 people. It was a reflection of the growing demand for services on the margins of the public sector. While these organizations are integrated in the continuum of public services informally, the objective of the policy was to formalize this integration and develop a community action orientation. This came to be referred to as the government's "utilitarian" approach because it emphasized the complementary nature of services provided by the state and the sector, rather than recognizing the distinctiveness of the community organizations.

This initial version of the policy was widely criticized by the sector and failed to gain legitimacy. The policy had to be reworded in the language of the sector, rather than that of government, and a number of issues clarified in order to reflect the reality of the community sector. In the second version of the policy, the document provides a classification and lists criteria for "autonomous community organizations". This measure was seen as particularly important to the representatives of the voluntary and community sector because it recognizes the sector's independence and autonomy: the mission of organizations have to be reflections of community needs, not determined by the priorities of the state. In its view, the sector is not going to act merely as a supplement to government, but has to be a true partner. In addition, the policy includes special provisions for advocacy organizations and reaffirms and maintains separate funding for autonomous community action which is allocated through the Secrétariat à l'action communautaire autonome (SACA).

In the second version, the government also promises to meet and consult with the sector regularly on important policy decisions. From the perspective of government, the goal is to have community organizations actively participate as partners in its local development strategy. Over the years, the community sector in Quebec has consolidated a system of political representation through local, regional, national, and multi-sectoral roundtables and coalitions. Although organizations engage with each other through these various arenas, most of their activities are locally based and thus government is interested in promoting partnership with them because they have a strong presence both locally and regionally across Quebec. This means that a further number of intermediary structures will be created. Even though organizations will gain some management power over local development policies, many are concerned that their presence is merely a way to legitimize governmental initiatives and to share responsibility and accountability given that public management has been fragmented regionally and locally (through the régies régionales de la santé et des services sociaux, conseils régionaux de développement, conseils locaux de développement, etc.).

In comparing the Quebec case, it should be kept in mind that the strength of the community sector in Quebec lies in the way it is organized. The community "movement" is locally based and groups often participate in many coalitions, organized along sectoral lines, geographical areas, clientèles or constituencies, or fields of activity. There are a number of arenas where concertation and collaboration take place which means that local organizations are aware of broader policy debates and the representatives of umbrella organizations are aware of the realities faced by groups at the grass roots level. The difficulty for the sector, however, is that because it is called upon to participate in a multitude of formal and informal fora, the burden of representation has become increasingly heavy. In fact, a number of community organizations are now reassessing their participation in various roundtables and coalitions which may have significant impacts on the strength of the sector in the future.

With respect to financing, the community sector is concerned that the Quebec government had not made any concrete commitments towards allotting new funds to the sector in either versions of its framework policy, but has simply moved existing money around. Although funding of community organizations has not decreased over the past years, and many organizations have even seen their funding go up because government has reinvested money in the community subsector while cutting back in the health and social services subsector, their service loads have increased substantially.

The Quebec case offer two important lessons for the development of an accord. The first is that a sense of openness and responsiveness is crucial. Although there is a strong history of government working with the voluntary and community sector in Quebec, the perception in this instance was that government officials had a clear vision of where they wanted to go with the policy and tried to sell that to the sector. But, the community sector was not prepared to follow this lead without modification. The second is that the formalization of a partnership with government may impose considerable demands on sector representatives to participate in a variety of roundtables and other fora. If these representatives are already part of many such collaborations within the sector, how they will participate and the structures and resources which support their participation may need to be closely evaluated.


17. In English see, Secrétariat à l'action communautaire autonome du Québec, The Community Network: A Key Player in Québec's Development: Summary of the Consultation Document. (Québec: SACA, April 2000). The report of the consultations by Gérard Larose was released in November 2000. See http://www.saca.gouv.qc.ca.

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