Volume 38, Number 6: November/December 2004

Shaping Neighbourhoods: Montréal’s Community Organizations and the (Neo)Liberal Agenda

Strong community organizations are an important feature of Montréal that contribute to its social and political fabric. Since their arrival on the scene as oppositional groups in the late 1960s, these organizations have gone through many transitions. In their early days, the organizations’ strategies included protests confronting issues like urban development and the absence of social rights for the poor, and building democratically run institutions like health clinics. Over time, the number of these organizations and their roles in society expanded and became more visible, contributing innovative approaches to social and economic problems and offering a voice for local residents to shape developments. More recently, the relationship between the community sector and the provincial government has been gradually formalized through regional- and provincial-level tables representing the diversity of the community sector.

Democracy, Participation, Funding

The community sector in Montréal is highly organized. In almost all the city’s neighbourhoods there are councils of community organizations (or a “table de concertation”) bringing together most of the local community organizations. Representation is usually by one of the organizations’ paid staff members. In addition, there are sectoral coalitions of organizations that work in the same area, such as youth or mental health.

The direct participation of citizens takes place through the governing structures of community organizations–specifically, their boards of directors and annual general meetings. Attendance and level of participation varies from group to group–from symbolic, in the case of small, self-perpetuating groups, through to large memberships playing an active role in all aspects of the organization.

The provincial government is the most important source of funding, although its policies tend to decrease the autonomy of recipient organizations. For example, until its defeat in 2003, the Parti Québécois government had initiated a policy in which the community sector was to receive greater recognition and systematic support. The policy for the sector was to be decided under the Secretariat de l’action communautaire autonome (SACA) and a related inter-ministerial committee. The sector itself was represented by a committee composed of representatives of 20 sectors and more than 130 provincial, regional and local coalitions or “regroupements.”

This formal representation allows organizations to defend their interests and influence policy on funding and its attached conditions. The push back from the government, however, defines with increasing force a sub-contractual relationship between community organizations and various ministries, particularly those involved in health and social services. For the community sector, this has a contradictory impact: as an explicit recognition of their professionalism, the government link promises greater stability, but it also narrows the functions of the community organizations and reduces their autonomy.

Organizing and Delivering under Neoliberalism

In Québec, the growth of the community sector has taken place in a neoliberal policy environment. Neoliberal policy encourages the promotion of both private and public local entrepreneurial strategies, as well as accommodating investment through private-government partnerships. Because the provincial government has been active in promoting and supporting community organizations, the process is also contradictory. On the one hand, these organizations develop sub-contracting relations with the government to provide a range of services, which increases their power to negotiate.

As well, community organizations have begun to play a prominent role in shaping social life. Some of these have assumed direct control in carrying out workfare and related programs. At the same time, these organizations and their wider structures of networking have continued to explore practices of local democracy. These democratic processes co-exist with policy directives, primarily from the provincial government.

This co-existence of policy-from-above and democracy-from-below creates the central tension in which the sector operates. Individual organizations often find themselves involved in activities that pressure the government on specific issues of concern. However, these activities are considered to lie outside their government-determined mandate.

Under the Parti Québécois, the government used extensive consultation and the involvement of the community sector in adapting Québec to the realities of global capitalism. Unlike some other provinces and at the federal level, the pathway toward neoliberalism in Québec was not through confrontation with unions and the community sector, but rather through a process of collaborative discussion in which the community sector was able to play a major role, gaining legitimization and a greater role in managing the transition. The government needed these organizations to participate in policy discussion. As a consequence, the community organizations were able to negotiate concessions for themselves in terms of recognition, the establishment of the SACA and more stable funding. In other words, the road to domination of the market was marked in Québec by concessions to the community sector and the unions. Many state services were preserved and some new policies brought in, like five-dollar-a-day daycare centres. In addition, many programs linked to labour discipline, like workfare, were softened and humanized because the community sector was able to develop approaches that built on its democratic and innovative traditions–approaches that became accepted and supported by the government.

In contrast to the policies of the PQ, the Liberals have been more direct about subordinating the community sector to the direct control and the needs of government. A policy announcement in August, 2004, by Minister Claude Béchard stated that the government wanted to “clean-up the community sector,” get rid of duplication on a regional basis and make sure it was getting value for its buck. To bring this about, the Liberal government announced that there would be no funds for new groups, no increase in current funding and a greater role for the private sector in service provision. The Liberal policy does not eliminate the possibility of longer-term support for community organizations, but this support will be more closely monitored and must be tied to service provision and become part of a regional plan. This approach clearly sees the community sector as a sub-contractor for services as defined by regional bodies.

Gven these constraints, how effective are community organizations these days as places of participatory democracy? One of the major changes over the past 20 years has been the professionalization of the community sector. There is a big difference between an active membership that participates in organizational decisions and directions and is mobilized on wider social and political questions; and one that comes together annually to vote on final reports and elect a board of directors. Nowadays, the leadership and direction in many community organizations comes from the staff and a small board of directors, with the board formally accountable only to the members at an annual general meeting.

The community sector has achieved a degree of success in establishing democratic practices both internally and in their interactions with various levels of government. Nevertheless, given the context, the agendas have been limited and shaped by a service agenda promoted by the state and by organizational self-interest. This limits citizen participation and shapes the nature of deliberation and exchange. The power of community organizations has come to rest with their legitimacy in the eyes of the state as competent service providers. Without countervailing power based upon a citizen engagement in a broader sense, their agendas thus become limited.

Periodically, some organizations do step out of this narrow role and are able to move beyond this agenda and mobilize membership participation to pressure the government, both locally and provincially, on issues related to social justice. Local democracy makes itself felt in these political and social debates, clear instances where community groups have not been entirely defined by the transformation toward neoliberal policies.

Eric Shraggeʼs latest book, Activism and Social Change: Lessons for Community and Local Organizing, is published by Broadview Press. Eric is with the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montréal. He is a member of CDʼs Editorial Collective.

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