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Canadian society needs silent partners

There are important lessons to be learned from Canada’s prompt and widely commended response to the January catastrophe in Haiti.

Within hours of the tragedy, Canada’s recently purchased CF-17 heavy lift aircraft were airborne carrying two helicopters with ground crew and equipment. This stood in stark contrast to Canada’s response to the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. Canada’s military transport capacity had not yet been updated and it took several days before the Canadian Forces could lease cargo space from a civilian charter company in order to get aid to where it was needed.

The infrastructure of delivering help to those who need it is not only relevant when it comes to airplanes and responding to disasters. Every day Canadians rely on an extensive foundation provided by the charitable and not-for-profit sector to deliver the sorts of everyday social services that are often taken for granted.

In October 2009, a study by the Cardus think-tank, titled A Canadian Culture of Generosity, pondered the implications of Canada’s impending “social deficit”: how our institutions are going to suffer from the steady decline in charitable giving, volunteering and civic engagement. The study showed how a relatively small proportion of the population — the “civic core” — provides the vast majority of the needed resources in the charitable sector. A major concern is that this core is declining by 1% to 2% per year, raising obvious concerns about what this social infrastructure will look like a decade from now.

A February 2010 Cardus research paper, Shifting Demand for Social Services (both papers are available at, has crunched the numbers from Statistics Canada to identify the segments of our population most at risk from this gap. While the data are complex and not given to simple summary, the conclusion is clear. Demographics, immigration and urbanization will combine to put upward pressure on what is expected from charitable organizations.

Canada’s demographic mix is in the midst of a radical shift. In 2001, one in eight Canadians was over the age of 65. By 2026, it will be one in five; by 2030, one in four. The impact of this change for programs that assist the elderly with independent daily living is obvious. Less often considered is the impact on the elderly’s extended family members. An increasing proportion of the population will be asked to care for their own older relatives, decreasing the time, resources and energy they are likely to provide to the charitable sector.

Canada will also continue to rely on significant immigration levels to maintain its population. Programs to assist with integration, settlement and language training — delivered largely by communities and the non-profit sector — are becoming more important in our social infrastructure. It is projected that the immigrant populations in Canada’s major cities will increase by about 10% between 2001 and 2017. Mostly because of their countries of origin, fewer and fewer immigrants are arriving with a working knowledge of English or French. Data suggest that for the first five years after immigration, 19% of immigrants are persistently poor and almost 60% remain in low income categories.

Finally, the impacts of urbanization and changing family structures (particularly growing lone-parent families and unattached individuals) also suggest population segments likely to need more social services.

Some factors will mitigate the growing gap, including better private pension support and rising education levels. But the net effect will probably be more demand for help.

It does not take a degree in economics to understand the impact of decreasing supply and increasing demand. But given that the subject involves social services, the price that will be paid is more than a future increased tax bill.

The current economic challenges have already impacted the charitable sector in a significant way. In the federal government’s 2008 tax expenditure estimates, the charitable donation credit was projected to cost the federal treasury $2.79-billion and the 2010 projection was $2.95-billion. The 2009 estimates reduced these to $2.3-billion for 2009 and did not make a projection for 2010. We know that 2008 charitable donations declined by 5.3% and while 2009 numbers are not yet available, it is widely expected that there will be a further decrease of at least that proportion.

In 2004, the federal government paid a premium in order to secure airlift capacity and the support offered to the tsunami victims was less than optimal. An investment in transport infrastructure provided the opportunity to make a more efficient and timely response in 2010. A similar investment is presently needed in Canada’s social infrastructure.

There is no single solution. However, Cardus’s recommendation that the upcoming federal budget increase the charitable tax credit from 29% to 42% for donations over $200 is a place to start. This strategic change would not only provide short-term stimulus to Canada’s silent partners, but would also clearly recognize the long-term importance of this sector to our social fabric.

Linked to Cardus' research project.

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