Blog: Civil society in the age of the UCP government

May 25, 2020

The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy recently published a report on the impacts of COVID-19 and the financial relationship between civil society and the provincial government (Alberta’s Civil Society Pre- and Post-COVID-19: What’s Government Got to Do With It?). As a member of Alberta’s civil society, the Edmonton Social Planning Council (ESPC) is dedicated to ensuring that supportive funding for the most vulnerable in our province is sustainable and equitable.

Civil society, generally defined as “individuals, community groups, labour unions, social movements, organizations (registered or unregistered) that, outside of the state or market, pursue a common good” (p.4), has a complex and interconnected relationship with the government. This is becoming more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the provincial government reaches out to this ‘third sector’ as a means of meeting community needs during unprecedented times.

The majority of civil society organizations in Alberta are partially funded by government support, and generate 11% of the total provincial GDP ($35 billion as of 2017) through their activities (p.6). Now may be the time to make meaningful change in the way that civil society is utilized to effectively increase value and impact for all Albertans, starting with establishing sustainable revenue sources beyond government funding—especially in the wake of COVID-19’s economic impact to our province.

Civil society can either function as a counter-voice to government action, keeping it accountable and advocating for change, or work in tandem with government initiatives, implementing programs and services on the ground (e.g. public charities focused on education or health). There is, however, a substantial lack of data available, making it difficult to understand the complexities of civil society or to measure its impact. Considering the various organizations and sectors that are included under this umbrella term, it is a challenge to compile comprehensive data to determine evidence of its impact and value. There is also little clarity around the distinction between ‘charity’ and ‘non-profit’ (which have different CRA requirements)—Alberta claims there are over 25,000 charities and non-profits across the province, but does not distinguish in the same way as the CRA, which again limits access to reliable data. But even so, information on civil society actors that fall outside of these two categories (such as local volunteers or unregistered grassroots associations) would nonetheless remain unaccounted for.  

As of 2017, 11% of all Canadian charities call Alberta home. Of these, 10% are public (schools, hospitals, etc) and 90% are non-public. Public charities received 85% of their funding from the government, whereas non-public charities only receive only 34% of funding from the government (p.6).

Whether civil society can pick up the slack from budgetary changes in the past year, compounded by increased economic hardships due to the current pandemic, depends on what key areas the government continues to invest in. As a member of Keep Alberta Strong, ESPC has taken action to call on the current government to maintain support in six priority areas, such as child care and affordable housing. During this period of economic and social uncertainty, it might benefit civil society actors (and government players) to take a look at the interdependent financial relationships between public and non-public charities and the government, and strategize for future sustainability.

The report makes little mention of austerity measures made by the UCP government in its most recent provincial budgets, where a large portion of cuts were issued within the public and charitable sectors. Rather, the report focuses on economic circumstances in light of COVID-19. It is difficult to consider the current financial stress that many civil society organizations are facing as having two separate and unrelated causes (budget cuts vs. the pandemic), as they have been truly compounded in recent months. ESPC will continue to share details and reports on these issues as they become available. 

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