A short history of voluntary sector–government relations in Canada (revisited)

Posted on April 13, 2022 in Inclusion History

April 13, 2022.   Peter Elson and Peyton Carmichael

The purpose of this article is to revisit an overview of the history of voluntary sector–government relations1 in Canada that was initially written for The Philanthropist Journal (then called The Philanthropist) in 2007. The original article has been revised and updated. In order to accommodate the necessary revisions and updates, original segments that addressed noblesse oblige, tethered advocacy, and a timeline on the key dates in the tax relationship between the federal government and charities have been deleted. These sections are still significant to the history of the voluntary sector and are available in the original article.

The original version of this story, published in 2007, is one of The Philanthropist Journal’s most popular pieces of all time. In this updated version, Peter Elson and Peyton Carmichael expand on that detailed (and not so short) history.

Statistics have been updated, charts revised, and the theme of Indigenous–settler relations and key developments since the end of the Voluntary Sector Initiative in 2005 have been added. This short history cannot do justice to untold stories, marginalized voices, or the hundreds of years of voluntary sector–government relations. Despite its richness, a historical perspective is often overlooked and chronically underappreciated. History provides an important contextual analysis for understanding current voluntary sector–government issues. A study of history provides a deeper understanding of the building blocks of institutions, in both government and the voluntary sector; building blocks that can make change so challenging yet also reveal opportunities when real change is possible.

This revisited historical overview will cover five dominant themes in the evolution of voluntary sector–government relations in Canada: 1) the federal state and moral charity, 2) Indigenous–settler relations, 3) a political and social reformation, 4) the rise of the welfare state, and 5) three waves, concluding with some lessons from history.


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