Civil Society and Government in Canada: rebuilding social cohesion one conversation at a time

4 minute read

By: Rhonda Moore, Senior Advisor of Science and Innovation

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In March, IOG informed you of the launch of a policy project to examine the relationship between civil society and government. At the time, IOG identified a number of challenges facing civil society, and which negatively impact the relationship between civil society and government.

The IOG has now hosted three of four planned dialogue sessions. The process for each session is the same: a group of representatives from civil society and government meet to hear a panel of speakers – also a mix of civil society and government representatives – present perspectives on an aspect of the civil society – government relationship. The panel presentations are followed by a question and answer period. Speakers then join participants in small groups for discussion on three questions prepared by IOG staff which build in the theme of the session.

Collectively, the three dialogues have traversed a wide range of topics and a number of themes have emerged from the conversations. Broadly speaking these themes unpack the context in which Canadians live, the drivers by which the civil society – government relationship is changing, and the impact on social cohesion in Canada. For this purpose, social cohesion is defined as a common clarity of purpose held by both the government and civil society groups that work in partnership with the government to support the needs of citizens. This piece will focus on social media as a driver of change eroding social cohesion.

Social media – for this purpose includes the internet, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – has both enabled people to communicate differently, and to learn more about a broader range of topics at a faster pace than we may have ever thought possible.

The content of social media platforms presents Canadians with a paradigm shift in how we consume information and who provides it to us. Journalists, editors and publishers – the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge – now compete with anyone who has a viewpoint and wants to share it. The latter group are not bound by the same code of ethics or values in their conduct as professional journalists. As information consumers, Canadians have to learn how to sift through these vast amounts of information to discern what is accurate and what is not.

Second, social media platforms operate in a landscape that is largely unregulated and which does not abide by any collective ‘rules of engagement.’ As Sandra Robinson’s research (Carleton University) demonstrates, many social media platforms lack meaningful policies to prevent hate speech, bullying, and other activities that have significant and negative consequences. The legislation that guides our personal and professional face-to-face behaviours does not apply in some realms of the internet and social media.

Without regulation, the internet is akin to the ‘wild west’ where ‘anything goes’. The tension created in this unregulated space plays out in interactions between civil society and government, decreasing public trust and confidence in both parties about the other. These decreases in public trust and confidence create a sense – perceived or otherwise – that social cohesion is eroding.

Indeed, data from Ipsos Reid suggests that 47 percent of Canadians believe a highly digitized society will be one that is less connected. (See Figure 1.)

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Figure 1: Changes that will decrease connection between Canadians
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Figure 2: Canadian views on the future

For example, in embracing the fourth industrial revolution, many private and nonprofit organizations developed online presences, and regularly engage their community via those means. Conversely, all levels of government have moved cautiously into this new realm, and remain latent adopters of social media technologies, creating a perception that they do not operate at the cutting edge of technology, nor are they deftly regulating these disruptive technologies and services.

Is Canada living through the “messy middle” of a period of significant change? Owing to the vast nature of the disruption, is it possible that the current “messy middle” in which we find ourselves is messier and longer than other more recent changes? This theory could explain the data in Figure 2, which suggests many Canadians struggle to see a positive future.

The final session in this four-part series will look to the future and discuss how to rebuild social cohesion through the broad themes of inclusion and diversity.

The last session in the series will take place at the IOG on 26 June, from 8:30 – 12. Spaces are still available. For more information about the upcoming event or to contribute to the discussion paper process, please contact Laura Edgar, Vice President, at ledgar@iog.ca or by phone at 613-562-0090 x EXT.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

(613) 562-0090 or 0092