Creating a brighter future: How immigration, environmentalism and the social economy transformed Canada

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Inspired by a generous grant from Heritage Canada and the support of additional sponsors, the Canadian History of Social Change is a multimedia project published by SEE Change Magazine documenting 10 social change movements in Canadian history (with a particular focus on the 20th century) that have impacted how we live today. CharityVillage is pleased to partner with SEE Change Magazine for a three-part series providing an overview of the project. Read the first and second parts in the series.

On November 15 1949, the Aquitania ocean liner made its final journey carrying my seven-year-old mother and her family from the former Czechoslovakia to Halifax en route to her soon-to-be adopted home of Montreal. My father took the same liner and journey only a few months earlier at the age of 10. Escaping painful memories of war, it was at Pier 21 in the Halifax Seaport where they wearily disembarked, along with a million other passengers between 1928 and 1971, searching for a fresh start, and a more hopeful future.

They say Canada is a country of immigrants. That we’re a colourful mix of cultures, religions and nationalities. But how did we get to be such a multi-hued nation? How did the interplay between policy, historical circumstance and grassroots activism enable our approach to immigration over the years?

Newcomers who arrived in Canada have had wide-ranging stories of challenge, survival and courage. No matter their narrative, Canada’s immigration policies and initiatives – and a host of hardworking changemakers — had a tremendous impact on the Canada we live in today.

Here’s the thing: social change is not an easy process. It takes effort, stubbornness and the ability to persevere in spite of all obstacles. Once achieved, any newfound rights and freedoms should never be taken for granted. Yet they - and the changemakers who struggled for them - often are. When that happens, we not only lose our sense of who we are, we lose sight of how we got here, which makes looking forward that much more challenging.

That’s why SEE Change embarked on an ambitious multimedia project, the History of Social Change, traveling across Canada and speaking with key players who played a seminal role in 10 social movements that in many ways define this country. My hope was to infuse historical context into our social change narrative and highlight how different our lives would be if certain changemakers didn’t fight for the freedoms we take for granted today.

For example, in this digital story, Olivia Chow spoke to us about how her personal experience fueled her commitment to help new immigrants in the country. A respected politician, Chow carved an impressive reputation championing the rights of newcomers, a battle partly inspired by her own immigration story, having moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 1970 at the age of 13.

For over 20 years, for example, she led what was ultimately a successful campaign to achieve a national apology and redress for the discriminatory “Chinese Head Tax” (a fixed fee charged to each Chinese person entering Canada). She has also been a vocal proponent for immigration policy reform, believing more needs to be done to fix a broken system, one that makes it hard for entire families to move to the country together.

Protecting the environment

No question, we've come far in this country. Over the last century or so, Canadian changemakers have tackled major social causes head-on, and have accomplished achievements that were unimaginable only a few decades earlier. But what have we learned from our history of social change? And how well do we know the changemakers who’ve fought for those rights, at the forefront of those movements? It seems a most timely question in light of the challenges we face today as a nation looking both inward and out.

Take a look at the environmental movement. Greenpeace co-founder Bill Darnell described in this video how a ragtag team of activists came together in a Vancouver living room to launch what is now one of the largest environmental organizations in the world. Sitting in Vancouver’s (slightly noisy) Greenpeace office, Darnell shared his memories as a member of the 12-man crew that in 1971 sailed to Amchitka Island, Alaska, to protest the underground testing of nuclear warheads. And he traced the history of the environmental organization, from its beginnings to how it’s changed since those early days.

Tzeporah Berman, one of Canada’s most prominent environmental activists, talked to us about coordinating one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canada’s history, the logging blockades in Clayoquot Sound of 1993 (and being the lead negotiator of the Great Bear Rainforest campaign). She also summed up rather eloquently how the environmental movement has evolved to attract a diversity of voices at a most important time.

In this podcast Berman shared what it was that inspired her 20 years of activism, the challenges she and others faced and what continues to motivate her to fight for a cause with far-reaching consequences. “We live at a moment in history that requires us to act and I want to be able to look at my grandchildren and say ‘I did everything I could’ and I’m sure most people do too.”

Keep in mind recycled paper products and energy efficient cars did not always exist. Nor did people scrutinize labels on household and personal products, share automobiles, or go vegetarian to reduce greenhouse gases. These changes have come about because of the environmental movement. Historians trace modern environmentalism – a rally against the exploitation of natural resources and efforts to preserve the health of our ecosystems and ourselves – to the late 1960s, when these issues gained interest and momentum along with other social/protest movements. Over time the struggles evolved and, as the concerns of the 21st century take root, a new generation is setting its focus on change.

The rise of the social economy

Talking about a new generation effecting change, our series also looked at the movement we called “social economy”– a reference to the redefining of economic activity, with social concern at its core. The changemakers we interviewed offered three different perspectives of this overarching movement – impact investing, social innovation and the unique social economy of Quebec. But all share a common goal of humanizing the way we approach business, our economy and our lives.

Joel Solomon is Chairman of Renewal Funds, Canada’s largest social venture capital fund and the board chair of Hollyhock, a lifelong learning and leadership centre located on Cortes Island in British Columbia with a mission to inspire, nourish and support people who are making the world better. When we met up he reminisced about the fascinating path that led to his passion for impact investing, cleaner money and social change.

A leader in the nonprofit sector, Tim Draimin was the founding CEO of Tides Canada Foundation, author of Canada’s first national study of social entrepreneurship and a frequent advisor to government, nonprofit associations and business. Most recently, he’s been executive director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG), which helps Canadians innovate to overcome large-scale complex social and environmental challenges through change or solution-labs and new forms of cross-sectoral partnerships.

In our digital story, Draimin shared what inspired his long-standing, 30-plus-year commitment to the nonprofit sector and talked about the origins of social innovation, its impact in Canada and what he and others working in the field foresee it will accomplish in the future. Finally, we had a chance to speak with Nancy Neamtan, former CEO of the Chantier de l’économie sociale, a Canadian nonprofit organization that brings together networks of social enterprises (cooperatives and nonprofits), local development organizations and social movements. A long-time activist in the nonprofit sector, Neamtan looked back on a career dedicated to social change, the moments that made her most proud and Quebec’s long-standing history with their own unique “Social Economy”.

Through our interviews and exploration for this project, I learned that the words "no" and "impossible" are the most powerful fuels for activism. I've learned that some people are born activists while others adopt the role through circumstance and pain. I've learned that political power is no match for sheer will and smart strategy — though a combination of all three can move mountains. I've learned that we've come very far in this country and have much to be proud of. And I've learned we have much more work to do.

As we look to Canada’s 150th, it’s more important than ever to reflect upon the dreamers, activists and champions whose efforts made social change possible. My goal is to expand the History of Social Change with additional stories and to bring it into schools so that students across Canada have greater context and understanding for their country’s history. It is my hope that this project will offer a valuable examination of the diversity of issues, people and social causes that define our country, remind us of the values we hold dear, allow us to celebrate the successes and illuminate the steps we must take next.

Will you join me?

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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