Engage and Empower: Defining and engaging community in Ontario’s community benefits initiatives

The Mowat Centre

Author +
Jordan Thirgood, Kiran Alwani and Erich Hartmann

Year: 2018

Canada’s governments are investing billions of dollars in large infrastructure projects. If done well, this investment can generate significant social, economic and environmental value as well as empower communities to shape their own future – but only if communities are meaningfully engaged in all stages of the process. This is the main finding of Engage and Empower, a new report from the Mowat Centre.

Canadian governments have been increasingly turning to community benefits initiatives to transform the way they purchase, build, employ and think about economic development. The report finds that for such initiatives to be successful, community involvement must begin at the earliest stages. This will ensure that the way community is defined – an unexpectedly difficult task in developing community benefits initiatives – is inclusive and representative of the reality on the ground. Achieving this will require combining place-based and population-based strategies and using a set of guiding engagement principles to overcome potential tensions and challenges.

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Once defined, it is essential to engage that community to understand the types of benefits that are most aligned with its priority needs, and to continue this engagement throughout the project as impacts are being measured and evaluated. This process of defining and engaging the community requires an ongoing relationship built on trust and collaboration, the report finds. It is critical that governments avoid an overly prescriptive approach and recognize, instead, that communities are dynamic and robust ecosystems – with existing networks and capabilities – and desire autonomy in the process of defining, articulating and negotiating the benefits to accrue through an infrastructure project.

As our research makes clear, governments in Ontario and elsewhere can, through their infrastructure investment, play a key role in providing support and building capacity for community participation – creating an enabling environment for existing and new groups and networks. Trusting and empowering communities to be part of this process and building lasting social capital is itself a key benefit of community benefits initiatives.

Table of Contents 

Executive Summary
Background and Context
Community Benefits in Ontario
Research Questions
Defining Community
Why is it important to Define Community?
Key Tensions and Challenges
How Should Community be Defined?
Guiding Principles
Policy Responses
Research Methodology
Works Cited
Additional Resources and Literature Reviewed
Questionnaire Results