Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: Engaging Canadian Newcomers

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Participation Wednesday, June 28, 2017 View Count = 2115

Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: Engaging Canadian Newcomers


“Nation building requires consistent and dedicated effort. Democracy is not inevitable.” 
– Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions, June 9th, 2017         

On Friday, June 9th, 2017, Samara Canada convened thought leaders, frontline organizers, senior public servants and elected leaders to “Think Outside the Ballot Box.” The challenge: how to foster active citizenship and support democratic inclusion for Canadian newcomers. The forum was co-presented by Samara’s community partners Agincourt Community Services Association and North York Community House, both of whom have been playing a leadership role in answering this challenge.

Two clear themes emerged:

1. The health of our democracy depends on our ability to engage Canadian newcomers as active participants in our democracy; and

2. Community-based organizations can play a critical role in supporting this effort.

Our keynote speaker, the Honourable Karina Gould, Minister for Democratic Institutions, drove these points home saying that settlement is not just about finding accommodation, learning a language or getting a job—it’s about enabling newcomers “to engage in public debates and our civic life.” She described how challenging this can be for newcomers not familiar with Canadian democratic institutions or who come from places where political leaders are inaccessible and unresponsive.

She also affirmed the critical role that settlement agencies and other community-based organizations play in this effort. She described how these groups foster a sense of belonging by providing safe spaces to share concerns and connect with other community members. According to the Minister, it is in these community spaces that “nation building” actually takes place.

Participants in the forum then had an opportunity to share their experiences with each other and identify the key challenges they face when supporting this work. Not surprisingly, money and time were flagged as two of the most consistent barriers. For community agencies with mandates to deliver specific programming, this work is particularly challenging. But in addition to these significant challenges, a number of participants identified “soft” barriers, including not seeing the benefit and/or use of engagement and lack of confidence and/or knowledge by participants. Finally, poverty played an important role in suppressing community engagement because it can limits people’s time and ability to attend programs.



Samara’s community partners’ Agincourt Community Services Association (ACSA) and North York Community House (NYCH) spoke about their efforts to overcome these barriers and successfully engage community members.

Anna Kim, at ACSA, reported success in running an in-depth Civic Awareness Project that took community members with limited engagement experience on a ten week hands-on learning “journey.” This journey included three pillars:

1. Education/knowledge (i.e. field trips to Queens Park and city hall);

2. Involvement (i.e. presentations from local community action organizations); and

3. Action projects (i.e. surveying community members).

Knowing that classroom lessons on Canada’s democracy would not be enough, the journey was designed as an experiential learning experience. One community member captured the consequence of this journey perfectly when he said: “I went from being a viewer to a doer.”    

Beatriz Alas, at NYCH, reported on their successful efforts to build a culture of democratic engagement across the agency. This including training 93 staff from senior managers to childcare workers in Samara’s Democracy Talks program facilitation and embedding Democracy Talks activities throughout the agency. Thorough staff training, a clear mandate from senior leadership and a stable support network for staff has allowed for the Democracy Talks program to thrive in North York. By embedding Democracy Talks into existing programs it was able to engage 1,750 community members.


While these programs took different approaches to fostering engagement, both succeeded in reaching participants who have not previously been actively engaged and increased their interest in democratic participation.

ACSA Program By The Numbers


  • 48% high school diploma or less
  • 14 different countries
  • 97% English is second language
  • 58% permanent residents
  • 39% unemployed
  • Average age = 60


Interest in:

  • discussing a current issue with neighbour increased from 37% to 73%
  • attending a public meeting increased from 28% to 48%
  • signing a petition increased from 14% to 53%

The forum concluded with remarks by the CEO and President of United Way Toronto and York Region, Daniele Zanotti, who took a step back to reflect on the challenges of building healthy and vibrant communities. Zanotti spoke about the challenges of community development work when agency funding is being cut, focus is placed exclusively on program delivery and a chill is placed on agencies’ ability to speak about issues that impact them.

As he explained, these challenges have real consequences and according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report, Canada has slipped to the “distruster” category. While trust of NGOs is still higher than any other sector, the basic trust in institutions that has allowed us to work together to solve problems is eroding. One in two Canadians now believe that the “influx of people from other countries is damaging our economy and national culture.”

To address this challenge, United Way is looking to increase resources for community development and help shift agencies’ thinking from a mindset of working “for” the community to working “with” community.

Zanotti concluded his remarks by calling on all member agencies to take a step at the heart of Samara’s Democracy Talks programs – start more conversations with community members.

For more information on Samara’s Democracy Talks program, visit

To learn more about North York Community House’s program, email Zesta Kim at [email protected].

To learn more about Agincourt Community Services’ program, email Anna Kim at [email protected].

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