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“First and foremost, we want to do what we do, better”. So says the opening line of the 2014 strategic plan for Canada’s Centre for Social Innovation. In a world that’s focused on doing things differently, rather than better (cf. Corbyn, Trump), and when politics is arguably being simplified to a case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘in’ or ‘out’, it’s refreshing to see such momentum for improvement and collaboration in Canada.

Canada is often seen as a shining light amongst the increased angst about global democracy and politics. Three Canadian cities were ranked in the top 10 cities to live in the world according to the EIU Liveability Index – and Canada itself is ranked second in the world according to the Social Progress Index. Canada has resettled over 25,000 Syrian refugees, and they can feel confident knowing that the Canadian Multicultural Act (introduced in 1971, ratified in 1988) was established to ensure the “equal celebration of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds”.

 And there’s the mild-mannered Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who is proud to call himself a Feminist, can explain quantum computing, goes on Gay Pride marches and, some might say, looks like a Disney Prince.

 

Start by starting

It’s not hard to find a can-do attitude in Toronto. The Centre for Social Innovation is a co-working hub established by charities who, rather than compete against each other, wanted an opportunity to share resource and ideas. It is a now a hub is bustling with innovators who are committed to a social good. Mass LBP, to whom I am grateful for having been so incredibly kind to me in my first few weeks here, are dedicated to improving democratic participation, working with Provinces and Government bodies to better inform planning and policy decisions – and are busy travelling the country to ensure the widest range of affected voices are heard. The Mowat Centre, based at the University of Toronto, do research into a range of social and economic issues including how non-profits can prioritise and value decent work. And the Everyday Political Citizen award, from Samara, rewards ordinary people who strengthen their community - “the advocates, educators, organizers and politicos whose tireless dedication strengthens our democracy.”

I attended a Fellow meet-up in Toronto in early October, arranged by the excellent Lin Grist FRSA. Fellows described the RSA as a “thought leader”’; an organisation “not afraid to push the envelope” and that encouraged “intellectual curiosity at the extreme” – and I would add that RSA Fellows make the RSA what it is. Those in the room were active do-ers; people from all disciplines who were unified by an ability to think creatively and a drive to solve tricky social issues. We discussed challenges that we wanted to address in Canada – and how to bring the widest number of people along with us. We’re going to be taking action, so watch this space. 

Being mindful that I’m conflating Canada and Toronto, I’ve also had conversations with organisations like Impact Hub Ottawa. Much like the fantastic Impact Hubs elsewhere in the world, they run events and activities geared towards making the world better. Innovation centres in Guelph and Waterloo support businesses and foster community wellbeing. And Hubcap in Vancouver does amazing things to support civic innovation around British Columbia.

 

So, Canada’s great

But I’m keen to find out what we can learn from Canada – and indeed, what around the world can make Canada even better.

The Canadian Government shouldn’t get too complacent. GDP figures in themselves are not telling a whole story. Developing a Social Return on Investment (SRoI) methodology and a Social Policy Index could be a starting point. Universities like New Brunswick and York University (and the afore-mentioned Mowat Centre) are doing research in this area, although the model of the civic university – one that is deeply embedded in its locality – is not widespread, and happens through opportunity rather than design.

 Teething issues that come with devolution remain topical in Canada. There are chasms in the education system, with low performance and chronic underfunding in First Nations schooling. The RSA’s work into Inclusive Growth won’t solve these wicked problems, but may prompt the right questions to ask.

Whilst the Canadian healthcare system ranks above the US in a number of studies, it also comes second-last of wealthy countries, according to The Commonwealth Fund. Projects like Nesta’s Realising the Value (coming out of NHS England’s Five Year Forward View) focus on putting people in the driving seat – focusing on community-centred health may go some way to equalising the disparity of healthcare provision across Canada, particularly in rural communities.

In its 2016 budget, the Government of Ontario committed to conducting a basic income pilot – and while there have been constructive responses from Canadian organisations like The Mowat Centre/Centre for Social Innovation, The RSA’s groundwork – including the publication, Creative Citizen, Creative State – has already addressed a large number of the opportunities and pitfalls. And there are undoubted overlaps between organisations based at the Centre for Social Innovation and both Nesta’s New Radicals award-winners and RSA Fellowship projects.

What next?

It’s Canada’s sesquicentennial year in 2017, and projects are well underway to celebrate its diverse identity. In a period of reflection, Canada has the opportunity to look at its heritage to – as the RSA’s Heritage, Identity and Place programme puts it – understand the present and help develop a better future. 

And even without an anniversary next year, the UK – and other countries – can still take a moment to learn lessons from Canada, particularly striving to always learn and be better.

I’ll be in Canada for a while. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss more (particularly if you work outside Ontario – I’ve been very one-province so far).   

 

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