Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Social Enterprises in Canada: An Introduction

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Social Enterprises in Canada: An Introduction

Article excerpt


This special edition of ANSERJ is the result of two years of labour by researchers across Canada as part of the "International Comparative Social Enterprise Models" (ICSEM) project. The objective of this special edition is twofold: First, to provide researchers access to this cutting edge research, which examines social enterprises as they emerge amongst regional and cultural groups within Canada and, second, to provide a theoretical and practical "snapshot" of social enterprise at this important historical juncture. We hope that by taking and sharing such a snapshot, research on social enterprise in Canada and globally can be advanced. Therefore these articles focus on outlining the practice of social enterprises in various regions as it is emerging and not on final conclusions or singular interpretations. We believe however that on balance, given the surge in interest in social enterprise amongst practitioners, policy makers, academics and the public at large, the risks of publishing emergent research are outweighed by the benefits of moving the conversation on social enterprise forward.

The articles that follow in this special edition are organized around geographical and cultural groups, outlining regional differences in the historical development and conceptual understanding of social enterprises across Canada. This introduction has been constructed to provide an overview of these articles, providing a high level analysis of the national characteristics of social enterprises in the regionally and culturally diverse country of Canada. For those interested in a more fully articulated version of this overview of the Canadian social enterprise landscape, they can look towards the Canadian report in forthcoming ICSEM working paper series, from which significant components of this introduction have been drawn. (Please see the ICSEM Canada website for further information on this project or to read the Canadian or Quebec reports: .)

The main findings of the Canadian ICSEM report are that there are five main types of social enterprise practice in Canada, which cut across the cultural and policy regimes: cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, community development/interest organizations, Indigenous businesses, and business with a social mission. Further, the report argues that social enterprises are not simply the result of the activities of entrepreneurs, either collective or individual, but also provincial government legislation and major enabling institutions (e.g., university institutions, social networks and movements, entrepreneurial spaces, and funding agencies) that have a major influence on how we can understand the context and emergence of social enterprise models.

This introduction will therefore outline the legislative, conceptual, and social enterprise models that frame the emergence of social enterprise in Canada. It is our hope that by so doing, we will provide a context within which the more focused regional articles that make up this special edition can be more broadly understood.


Most readers will know that Canada is divided geographically into ten provinces and three territories and five main regions (Atlantic Canada, Québec, Ontario, Western Canada and the territories of the North). These geographical and regional contexts are important because they form in significant ways the legislative frameworks within which social enterprises emerge. Legislatively, Canada is governed at four levels: the federal, provincial/territorial, local/municipal levels and by Indigenous governments. Legislative responsibilities are divided between the different levels of government based on a long history of colonization and decolonization, which has created significant overlap and tensions between the various levels' governments around policy jurisdiction. This ambiguity, and sometimes outright conflict, at the legislative level creates numerous problems for emerging sectors and institutions, such as social enterprise, because it is not entirely clear which level of governmental jurisdiction they fall under, whose responsibility it is to promote these kinds of activity, how to harmonize these policies, and how to facilitate and formalize activity that emerges from the activity of practitioners as opposed to politicians. …

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