The best countries to be a social entrepreneur 2019

OPINION: Piecing together Canada's social enterprise puzzle

by David LePage

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

David LePage is managing partner for Buy Social Canada.

Building the social enterprise sector in Canada has been a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces emerging but without the box's cover to show us what the final image should actually look like.

With the recognition that Canada is the best place in the world to be a social entrepreneur, maybe the puzzle pieces are shaping up into a coherent and recognizable picture.

There is no single element we can point to that lead to this moment, and it surely did not happen overnight.

The early progression of social enterprise development was disconnected, rambling, with isolated efforts that were related in some vague way.

There was no specific means to connect the small pieces into some semblance of parts of a full picture, especially given Canada's massive size and six different time zones.

The movement gathered pace in the 1990s as people explored innovative solutions to leverage the marketplace to respond to their problems and needs.

Social enterprises, like caterer Potluck Café and recycling depot United We Can in Vancouver's poorest community of Downtown Eastside, were being established to directly address poverty and employment barriers.

Chantier de l'Economie Sociale, a non-profit supporting the growth of the social economy, launched in 1995 in Quebec.

At the same time, programmes supporting planning and development for nascent social enterprises, like the Toronto Enterprise Fund and Enterprising NonProfits in Vancouver, were emerging.

This momentum continued into the next decade, with the establishment of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet), a members' organization to promote community-led solutions to social problems, in 2000.

The federal government Social Economy initiative in 2005 was an early awareness-building effort, which created pan-Canadian relationships with groups in the social enterprise and social finance space. 

This stimulated government interest in the potential of social enterprise and social finance.

The first Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise (CCSE) was held in 2004 in Toronto, followed by a 2007 CCSE in Vancouver. 

After this a small group of us founded the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, an industry group with the purpose to advocate for and support the creation of a supportive environment for social enterprise in Canada.

At the 2009 the Canadian Social Enterprise Council we identified six essential pillars to build this supportive environment.

These included access to finance, supportive public policy and networks for knowledge transfer and became the foundation for multiple policy developments across the country.

In 2013 Canada hosted the Social Enterprise World Forum and the following year Buy Social Canada launched to work on the market demand side.

In 2016 the puzzle image became clearer with the launch of the federal Social Innovation and Social Finance (SI/SF) initiative to develop a set of recommendations to move this agenda forward.

Recently the SI/SF process was supported by $800 million Canadian dollars (US$600 million) federal government commitment over the next 10 years.

The recognition of Canada's place for social entrepreneurship also has to remind us of why we do social enterprise.

We still face enormous and complex social, economic and environmental problems in our communities, including unacceptable child poverty rates, social isolation, housing access and affordability, and the negative and historic economic and social ramifications of colonization.

Addressing these issues remains the 'why' in social enterprise.

Providing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities or other barriers is becoming a vital role for social enterprises across Canada

Look at BUILD Inc. in Winnipeg and Building Up in Toronto, addressing challenges for youth at risk to enter the labour force.

Causeway in Ottawa and DASC Industries in Halifax offer employment options for persons with disability issues; and EMBERS Staffing Solutions is working with the construction industry in Vancouver.

As we address the geographic, cultural and social challenges of Canada's many local communities, we also continue to connect with international movements. Next year, the Social Enterprise World Forum will be hosted in Halifax.

As we're fitting the puzzle pieces together, the picture portrayed is becoming clearer. It's of a healthy and growing social enterprise ecosystem in Canada.

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