The Life, Death and Re-birth of Social Policy Research and Advisory Institutions in Canada

Social policy used to be a big focus of the federal government. It was the Liberals who built the Canadian welfare state after the Second World War, using constitutional amendments to enable Ottawa to take on responsibility for unemployment insurance and pensions. Then they used the federal spending power to encourage provinces to expand and improve their health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services programs.

When the Liberals reclaimed power from the Conservatives in 1993, they had every intention of continuing to exert federal influence over social policy, as evidenced in their ‘Red Book’ election promises and their broadly scoped 1994 Social Security Review. However, this plan was seriously derailed in 1995 when fiscal restraint trumped social security expansion and cutbacks were made to federal program spending as well as provincial transfers.

Another way to exert influence over policy is by creating institutions that play an advisory, agenda-setting, knowledge generation, research, reflection, monitoring, networking or connecting role. These types of organizations provide a place for politicians and civil servants to come together to engage with business, labour, educators, academics, think tanks, scientific experts and other civil society groups to develop and transmit ideas.

Institutions of the Past

To enhance this policy tool after the 1995 cuts, the Liberals tweaked or expanded existing social policy institutions or set up new ones. Almost all of these Liberal institutions were defunded after the Harper Conservatives assumed power in 2006. Conservative politicians did not believe that the Government of Canada should play a dominant role in social policy, that this was an issue for the provinces.

Table 1 provides a listing of key federally-funded social policy institutions that have disappeared or been substantially diminished in the past twenty-five years.

Table 1: The Beginning and End of Federal Funding for Research/advisory Institutions Concerned with Social Policy[1]


Institution or funding arrangement Purpose Start End
De-funded by the Liberals      
National Welfare Grants To promote community based research on welfare n/a 1995
Aboriginal Labour Market Management Board To advise government on training 1991 1996
Canadian Labour Force Development Board To advise government on training 1991 1998
Canadian Labour and Business Centre To provide a national forum on labour market and skills 1984 2006
De-funded by the Conservatives
Canadian Council on Social Development To advance solutions to social challenges 1920 2005[2]
Canadian Millennium Scholarships Research To undertake research into post-secondary access 1998 2008
Canadian Policy Research Networks To engage citizens and undertake policy analysis 1994 2009
Canadian Council on Learning To link all facets of lifelong learning 2002 2010
National Council of Welfare To advise government on social development matters 1962 2012
Up to 30 Sector Councils To facilitate labour market supply and demand 1992 2013[3]
Canadian Literacy & Learning Network To provide a national literacy hub 1975 2015

More information on the role and history of many of these institutions can be found here and here

These papers detail the ‘hollowing out’ that has occurred at the federal level in our social policy institutions, especially during the Harper decade. As a result, there is very limited evidence-based, cross-Canada, or international comparative research being undertaken to improve the performance of our publicly funded social programs, with the exception of health care. There are also no established processes for program stakeholders to advise governments on what the parameters of our social programs should be. Today this is left to chance or to the whim of the government of the day.

Institutions of the Present

With the demise of most federally-funded pan-Canadian institutions, provinces have stepped up to develop their own social policy institutions. Table 2 below provides a list of institutions that I am aware of that provinces have agreed to fund since the 1990s. Some of these costs can be charged to Ottawa under the Labour Market Development Agreements.

Table 2: Provincially-funded Research/advisory Institutions Concerned with Social Policy[4]


Institution Purpose Start
Ontario Workforce Planning Boards To develop solutions to local labour market needs 1990s
Québec Commission des partenaires du marche du travail To advise on workforce policies and manage the training fund 1990s
Québec regional labour market councils To advise regional offices on employment and workforce policies 1990s
Québec sectoral workforce committees To encourage human resource planning within industry sectors 1990s
Manitoba sector councils To encourage human resource planning within industry sectors 1990s
Québec Centre d’étude sur la pauvreté et l’exclusion sociale To conduct research on poverty and social exclusion 2005
Québec Observatoire competences-emplois To examine best practices in workforce development 2010
Manitoba Minister’s Advisory Committee on Workforce Development To advise on workforce policies 2009
New Brunswick Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation To develop plans to reduce poverty 2008
The Mowat Centre To act as Ontario’s voice on public policy 2009
New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network To support evidence-based public policy 2010
BC Centre for Employment Excellence To coordinate research on employment & training 2012[5]
The Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation To undertake research on workforce development 2016
Nova Scotia Centre for Employment Innovation To coordinate research in employment service delivery 2017

There is also Quebec’s Comite consultative de lute control la pauvrete et l’exclusion socials created in 2006.

Provinces are to be commended for taking on responsibility for supporting their social policy programming. However, there is a lack of connectedness between institutions doing basically the same thing in different parts of the country. Many provinces have chosen to do nothing.

 Institutions of the Future?

The key question is what ─ if anything ─ will the Trudeau Liberals do now that they have regained power. We have seen a few hints so far. First, they have agreed to proceed with the plans started under the Harper Conservatives to establish a Labour Market Information Council and a stakeholder advisory committee under the auspices of the federal-provincial-territorial Forum of Labour Market Ministers (FLMM).

A pan-Canadian body responsible for improving the timeliness, reliability, and accessibility of labour market information has been sorely needed for many years. However, it has taken way too long to get underway, having been recommended by an advisory committee eight years ago, in 2009. We can only hope that it will finally be launched this fall.

In early 2017 the Finance Minister’s Advisory Council on Future Growth recommended that Ottawa establish a FutureSkills Lab to “explore new approaches to skills development, collect information about the skills needed in the labour market, and share information about what types of programs are the best bets for future investments in skills development”.[6]

In response the Liberals committed in the March 2017 budget to spend $75 million a year to establish ─ with willing provinces, territories, the private sector, educational institutions and not-for-profit organizations ─ “a new organization to support skills development and measurement in Canada”. As of August 2017 no information is available on what this Skills Lab might look like.

In June 2017 the Mowat Centre produced a detailed paper[7] on how federal-provincial-territorial ‘co-ownership’ of the Skills Lab was central to its success. Their proposed governance model needs to be seriously considered, to avoid the problems experienced with the lack of provincial support seen with the Canadian Council on Learning and the sector councils.

While a Skills Lab might address the shortfall in research on workforce development issues, it would not focus on other social policy issues like poverty reduction, pensions, child benefits, social assistance, child care and child protection. In July 2017 Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy called for a renewed voice for Social Canada through the establishment of a new Canadian Council on Inclusion and Wellbeing.[8]  

 A pan-Canadian organization such as this is needed more than ever now that the Caledon Institute of Social Policy has announced that it is closing its doors in November of 2017. It is a disgrace that a developed country like Canada has had to rely on a philanthropic organization to supply credible cross-Canada information on last resort social assistance, a critical public program. The provision of pan-Canadian data, research and analysis is a core responsibility of our governments, either federal or provincial/territorial collectively.

I have also weighed in on the issue of institutional gaps in our social policy institutions with a recent recommendation to establish a National Labour Market’s Partner’s Council.[9] As proprietors of the federally-run Employment Insurance program, structured ways need to be put in place to ensure that business and labour views are heard and considered, otherwise the 75 year dominance of government will continue unabated.


Government-funded social policy institutions are just one part of our social policy landscape that is also populated by foundation or self-organized and funded organizations and initiatives such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Conference Board of Canada, the CD Howe Institute, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Canadian Review of Social Policy, Canadian Social Research Links, the Progressive Economics Forum and the Queen’s Annual Social Policy Conference to name just a few. There are also a plethora of advocacy and special interest groups operating at both the provincial and pan-Canadian level.

But there are some areas where government funding and support is essential if we hope to ensure that our public social programs remain robust in meeting citizen needs. Hopefully this blog posting will alert people to the various strands of our welfare state institutions, the connections between them, where we have been in the past, and where we might go in the future.

[1] This table excludes health care or justice institutions of which there are many. It also excludes SSHRC funded university-based initiatives.

[2] The CCSD lost its core federal funding in the early 1990s; however this was partially replaced by contract work. I have entered 2005 as the end of federal funding as that was the date of its last biannual social policy conference. Mendelson (2017) suggests that today the CCSD “barely exists, limping along with little national presence”.

[3] Federal core funding ended in 2013; however, some sector councils continue to exist with business and labour support, as well as a small amount of federal funding under a much diminished ‘sectoral initiatives’ program.

[4] This table excludes health care or justice institutions. It also excludes SSHRC funded university-based initiatives.

[5] In August 2017 it was announced that the BCCfEE had lost its BC government funding.

[6] See

[7] See

[8] See

[9] See

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3 Responses to The Life, Death and Re-birth of Social Policy Research and Advisory Institutions in Canada

  1. Alain Noël says:

    Donna, this is extremely useful and clear-sighted. In Table 2, you could add Quebec’s Comité consultatif de lutte contre la pauvreté et l’exclusion sociale ( ), created in 2006.


  2. John Myles says:

    I agree with Alain. This is great “data” on a trend hard to monitor.


  3. Pingback: Tribute to the Caledon Institute of Social Policy | The Welfare State Matters….

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