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Bill C-344 (Community Benefits) - Second Reading

Honourable colleagues, I follow Senator Omidvar and Senator Francis in rising to support Bill C-344, An Act to amend the Department of Public Works and Government Services Act (community benefit). This is a modest bill that sets out to leverage federal infrastructure investments by requiring bidders to partner with communities in order to ensure that everyone wins, including people in communities, and public and private project participants. We should refer this short and simple piece of legislation to committee as quickly as possible.

I have struck out some sections of my statement; I’m not going to repeat things that other colleagues have said. I will add that one of things that community benefit initiatives do is contribute to the public health and social fabric of communities. In particular, they are responsive to the particular needs of local areas in ways that one-size-fits-all programs sometimes miss.

Senator Omidvar has spoken to specific Canadian examples. We, both being in Toronto, are aware of the Metrolinx project, which incorporates community benefits on the Crosstown and Finch light rail projects. I think she has mentioned the British Columbia announcement last month of $1.377 billion Pattullo Bridge replacement in Vancouver. We know that here in Ottawa, section 37 of the city’s planning act has carved out the opportunity to ask for benefits to construct, fund or improve facilities when a development requires a zoning bylaw amendment.

Colleagues, here is what I particularly want to focus on in relation to this bill. Community benefits also help in growing Canada’s emerging social sectors and it’s social economy, which, of course, occupies the space between the traditional private sector on the one hand and the public sector on the other. This is the space between in which we find social enterprises and other not-for-profit enterprises, and the charitable sector, which is often a key player in community benefit arrangements.

Social enterprises can be community groups, regional or national charities or businesses, and they engage in a wide range of community and social services that contribute significantly to personal and community development.

While we know — and certainly our colleagues in Quebec know — that Quebec has been a champion historically for decades in building a social economy and the establishment of social enterprises, we have seen in the last decade the rest of Canada starting to catch up.

A 2016 survey showed there are now more than 1,300 social enterprises in Canada. They employ 254,000 people and provide services to an additional 5.5 million people. Encouraging more community benefit agreements will build on this success and again, this is the space in between the traditional public and private sectors.

Why do I keep coming back to the link between community benefits and the broader development of a social economy? Colleagues, having worked as a public service adviser to a New Democratic Party government, to a Liberal government and to a Conservative government in Ontario, one can dwell sometimes on the differences between them. But as a public servant working in a non-partisan capacity, the things that really struck me were the success stories in the public sector and in public policy that actually lived from one government to another despite the different nature of its political stripe. Those are true success stories where governments of all political stripes recognize something that adds public value when they see it.

The social economy initiatives are a terrific example of this. I have observed this in my academic work in both the U.K. and in Canada. In this case, it’s important to note that a current government has continued to build on the work done by its predecessors, including the Steven Harper government and, before that, the Paul Martin government. Prime Minister Harper’s government was engaged with and actively supported in social enterprise and social finance initiatives, and my colleagues on the other side of the chamber will recall these things. Both social enterprise and social finance initiatives are connected to Bill C-344 because they contribute to social value outcomes. Social enterprises are often suppliers of social and other services so they have the potential to gain market share through social procurement initiatives.

In 2013, the previous government is to be applauded for having initiated funding for social enterprise development across Canada through the Enterprising Non-profits Program, ENP Canada. It also launched the Department of Employment and Social Development’s Harnessing the Power of Social Finance initiative.

I will also add the work done in the report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities study on social finance also initiated by the previous government, which includes social procurement initiatives in the very style of community benefit programs. The committee also heard witnesses describe the role of social finance in supporting innovative approaches to persistent and complex social problems that neither the private sector alone nor the public sector alone has been able to wrestle to the ground.

And here is an interesting one: At the Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary — and indeed there are social enterprise world forums that travel around the globe — then federal Minister of Employment and Social Development, a person who joined us in this place this morning, Jason Kenney, spoke of the government’s unwavering support for social enterprise. In early 2015, the previous government issued a call for social enterprise support models and launched a social enterprise ecosystem project, which included social procurement.

This was interrupted by the October 19 election in the same year, so its implementation came after the election through the efforts of the current government, which today sees that cycle closing with the bill before us.

Honourable senators, supporting the development of a broader social economy is a win-win situation for all of us. That has been recognized by governments of every stripe in this country. It’s important that both construction companies and communities leverage money already spent on these large projects. The return on those investments can be significant.

The Welsh government recently measured the benefit to the economy following 35 projects worth approximately 465 million pounds and found that communities saw 1 pound 80 pence worth of benefit for every pound spent, an 80 per cent return on the dollar that has additional social benefits that cannot be as tangibly measured.

From a corporate perspective, engaging in community benefits agreements could help to boost public image and employee engagement. It can also help to attract and retain potential investors by demonstrating commitment to local communities. They also benefit from unlocking the economic potential of local workers and businesses who may be uniquely skilled and knowledgeable about the particular region of an infrastructure project. More community benefit initiatives will see more social enterprises and the broader small business sector gaining market share, which I think is a desired outcome on which we can all agree.

Honourable senators, I close by saying that I encourage you to think about what Bill C-344 can do for your communities, especially in places with large populations of vulnerable people in communities that have experienced major job shortages or in places where training opportunities are scarce. It makes sense to leverage existing investments to ensure that everyone wins. I encourage you all to vote in favour of moving this bill to committee now and to seize the opportunity to improve social and economic conditions for the people in your communities who could benefit from our support.