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Governments in Canada began funding large numbers of SMOs in the 1960s. The federal Secretary of State was providing more than $50 million to 3000 SMOs by 1987. Despite cutbacks in the late 1980s, and again in recent years, the social movement sector in Canada still relies heavily on state funding even while receiving support from law foundations, lotteries, corporations, private foundations and individual donors. Through funding, the state has facilitated the emergence of SMOs across the country and, in some cases, helped create entire networks of organizations.These movements, in turn, have enabled the state’s expansion into new spheres of life such as child rearing (e.g., autism organizations) and personal health (e.g., AIDS groups).

Social movement theory has long emphasized the need to document the relationship between the resources available to social movements and the emergence of collective action. This has led several scholars to examine the effect of state funding for a set of movements. Most of this research has been concerned with whether or not state funding leads to activists being coopted and, in the Canadian context, how federal funding for SMOs has contributed to democratic politics or national unity debates. Within activist communities, the role of state funding has been vigorously debated: many have embraced state funding as necessary to the existence of a vibrant social movement sector whereas others are convinced it leads to cooption.The scholarship on state funding for social movements, with few exceptions, has been based on thin empirical evidence. The claim that state funding coopts SMOs, for example, depends largely on anecdotal evidence within specific movement contexts.

The more recent scholarship in Canada and the United States has focused on SMOs’ role in the delivery of public services and the impact of state funding on SMOs’ governance structures and organizational practices. Some scholars theorize that funding policy reflects changing state forms: the welfare state emphasizes social rights and situates SMOs as intermediaries between civil society and the state; neoliberalism, in contrast, resists “social investment” and SMOs have been resituated as service providers (rather than as advocates). Political scientists, who have written most of the literature on this topic in Canada, have focused on the state (rather than SMOs) and have been primarily concerned with the federal or Quebec government and more institutional forms of advocacy. Because past studies have concentrated on individual case studies or federal and Quebec policy, we still know very little about the extent of state funding; how it compares among jurisdictions and movements; and how it facilitates social and political change. There is no systematic evidence of if, or in what contexts, state funding helps with the growth of social movements or inhibits activism. And yet this is a critical issue given the essential role that social movements play in a healthy democracy.

Canadian scholars are ideally situated to contribute to this field of study given social movements’ unusual dependence on state funding in this country. Our project builds upon the existing scholarship in at least three ways. First, drawing on studies in sociology, history, law and political science, we will document how state funding affects the broader social movement sector in Canada. This interdisciplinary approach has led us to focus on both external (political opportunity; organizational structures; policy networks) and internal (collective identity; resource base; historical memory) determinants of social movement funding and activism.

Second, we seek to move beyond past debates surrounding cooption to examine the myriad ways state funding influences collective action. This includes drawing on social movement theory to understand how political opportunity, which is the product of a specific historical context, provides incentives for certain types of collective action and, inversely, how social movements shape these opportunities. How does state funding, for instance, legitimize the claims of some social actors to the detriment of others? How do resources influence movement mobilization or shape SMOs’ frames, identities and tactics? State funding might also encourage SMOs that depend on that funding to rely on paid staff, engage in traditional political lobbying, and rarely mobilize their constituents. These tactics have benefits, such as facilitating access to political insiders. However, these more conservative strategies for change may also influence their messages and issues. The recent disappearance of prominent SMOs such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women has drawn attention to the danger of depending on state funding.The issue is further complicated by SMOs that have adapted and developed successful organizational strategies in response to funding cuts (Scott and Pike 2005). Community fundraising has the benefit of raising public awareness, albeit at the cost of draining SMOs’ limited resources.

Third, our project contributes to the scholarship on state policy: we seek to better understand how political discourse has shifted from citizenship, social rights and national unity to the current focus on using SMOs to reach a diverse array of people through service delivery. We are especially interested in how state funding has fluctuated over time and under what conditions, as well as what government discourses frame these policies and how the state shapes the social movement landscape.

There are numerous logistical challenges for any single scholar to examine public funding for social movements in a national context because it varies dramatically between regions and across movements. Our project, which is based on a collaboration among several scholars, is unique in that it incorporates historical and contemporary research; considers regional variations and both provincial and federal funding models; compares local and national SMOs; and examines state funding for movements in English and French Canada. It addresses all levels of government, which reflects not only the nature of Canadian federalism, but also the interdependent and diverse nature of state funding for social movements. Furthermore, we embrace a broad definition of the term “social movement organization”. Social movements, in the context of this study, are any form of sustained political or cultural conflict organized around a shared identity. SMOs (social movement organization) are organizations that provide representation or engage in activism on behalf of a constituency. This may include transition houses for battered women or women’s music festivals, which are equally constitutive of the women’s movement as an advocacy group.A great deal of state funding has been directed towards service delivery or single initiatives in remote communities. Our work captures a broad range of movement activism and is not restricted to advocacy groups.

Readings lists on the topic of state funding for social movements