Vital Signs 2016: Exploring connection to community and belonging in Canada

About this article

Text Size: A A

Belonging is not just a feeling, it’s a powerful catalyst for healthier communities and a more inclusive Canada. When we feel a strong sense of connection to people around us we are and when our communities are made up of people who trust each other, good things happen: individuals are healthier, our neighbourhoods are safer, culture and identify flourish, and we’re more likely to volunteer.

We also know that when people feel they belong to a community they are more likely to take action with others for the common good. Understanding that connection is what’s behind a new national Vital Signs report from Community Foundations of Canada, supported in partnership with MFS.

The second volume of Belonging: Exploring connection to community draws on community knowledge and local data to ask: What does it mean to participate? What’s the relationship between social participation and our sense of belonging? How can we help others to feel like they belong?

The short answer: Belonging and social participation influence each other. The more we get involved in the community, the more we feel like we belong. The stronger our sense of belonging, the more willing we are to contribute to the community because we feel responsible for its well-being.

Pathways to participation and belonging

Taking in a music festival, attending a religious service, helping a neighbour - these are all examples of social participation. This year’s national Vital Signs report looked at a number of pathways to belonging - activism, faith, online, sport and the arts - to redefine social participation and better understand how people from all walks of life engage in their communities.

Faith: Whether it’s at a church, mosque, temple or synagogue, people who regularly attend religious services report a greater sense of belonging than those who don’t. People who consider their religion or faith to be very important are 54% more likely to have a strong sense of belonging to Canada and 19% more likely to make charitable donations. Research has shown that it’s the social rather than spiritual aspects of religion that are more important to building a sense of belonging.

Sport: 87% of new citizens say watching their children play sports makes them feel more connected to the community. While we experience the benefits of sport most immediately as individuals, it also plays a major role in strengthening communities by bringing people together, building social capital and fostering greater inclusion of excluded groups. Why? Because sport is inherently social. It brings people together — both on the field and in the stands.

Activism: People involved in activism rate higher on several indicators of well-being: sense of motivation, life satisfaction, autonomy and positive relations with others. It’s more than just agitating for change - it’s also about building stronger connections to community through people and causes. When we are involved in group efforts to make a change in our communities or influence the policies of governments or businesses, we feel a greater sense of control in our lives and in our environment.

Online: The social nature of our online activity is making the internet a high-speed connection to community. People who use social media like Facebook and Twitter are more likely to visit their friends and volunteer. 44% of Canadians involved in community groups use the internet as part of their involvement.

The Arts: Canadians who attended an arts or cultural performance in the last year were 34% more likely to do a favour for a neighbour. The tendency to volunteer increases as the frequency of our participation in cultural activities increases and charitable donations are more common among people who take part in cultural activities.

Barriers to participation and belonging

One third of Canadians report a weak sense of community belonging. That’s more than 11.5 million of us across the country. While we understand the reciprocal relationship between social participation and our sense of belonging—the solution is not as simple as encouraging people to get out and participate. Why? Because for many of us, feelings of discrimination and social isolation persist.

  • A significant number of Canadians of visible minority experience racial discrimination when they try to access work opportunities, government services and housing.
  • 45% of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens and 69% of transgender teens in Canada do not feel a real part of their school community.
  • Indigenous people are less likely than non-Indigenous people to feel a sense of belonging to Canada or to their province.
  • Many Canadians with intellectual disabilities continue to be institutionalized and almost 30% of youth with intellectual disabilities go to school in entirely segregated classrooms.

“Despite evidence that getting involved in community activities benefits us personally, many of us are retreating from civic life. We vote less, give less, volunteer less and join less. This fraying of community leads to indifference, a corrosion of caring and compassion and a retreat from the very things that make our community a better place to live.” - Vancouver Foundation

Participation the key to community vitality

Strengthening belonging to each other and our communities is really a two-way street: Communities need to send signals of acceptance and inclusion; and individuals need to cultivate connection with other people and engagement in the community. Here’s just a few of the many ways we can foster community engagement and a greater sense of belonging for all.

The Vital Signs program aims to inspire civic engagement and provide focus for public dialogue in our communities. First started by Toronto Foundation in 2001, Vital Signs is now a global program that has engaged more than 85 communities in Canada and around the world to mobilize the power of community knowledge for greater local impact. To read community Vital Signs reports and learn more about the program, visit

Go To Top