Speech delivered at the Philanthropic Foundations Canada Symposium, Toronto, October 28, 2015.
This presentation was originally called Working with a City and a Province, but I’ve modified that so it better represents the work we are doing in the Winnipeg Boldness Project, hence: Working with Cities, Provinces and First Nations – the Winnipeg Boldness Project. The lessons that we’re applying in Winnipeg stem in part from the formative experiences that we gained from two other initiatives.
Vibrant Communities is a partnership that the Foundation embarked upon with the Tamarack and Caledon Institutes, and is a ten-year collective impact initiative to reduce urban poverty. Today, 47 cities and nine provinces are part of Vibrant Communities Canada.
Another initiative, ALLIES, was a successful cooperation between McConnell and Maytree to improve the rate at which professional immigrants find suitable employment. It was the first time that we co-funded significantly with governments and the private sector.
In retrospect, these successes seem clear and concise, but at times they were anything but. Working on complex challenges with cities, provinces and First Nations is, well — complex.
A commitment to positive change
Two years ago, we were looking for a place to support improved outcomes in Indigenous early child development, possibly through the use of a social impact bond. We came to Point Douglas in Winnipeg’s North End, a community of 50,000 people, many of whom live in conditions of toxic stress. 87% of Indigenous babies born here are deemed at risk; 50% of Indigenous children arrive at kindergarten deemed not ready to learn, and 20% of kids born here are removed from their families and placed under care of the state. A completely unacceptable set of circumstances.
But behind the dismal statistics, we also found deep concern and commitment to change, above all in the community of Point Douglas itself, but also in the city of Winnipeg, and the province of Manitoba. Gaining the community’s confidence and commitment took patience and persistence. As project Director Diane Roussin says, there is a fiercely protective “skirt mafia” that had to be negotiated before we could go to work.
The fact that the business-led Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council had taken part in Vibrant Communities made it was easier to engage the private sector.
It helped that the province has a Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet comprised of eight ministers, one of whom was an Indigenous community leader from Point Douglas.
The goals of this project are to create a six-year early child development strategy, a family-centred model for raising children, combining the wisdom of the community and modern best practices, as well as a strength-based narrative that highlights the wisdom and spirit of the Point Douglas community.
Five women — four of them indigenous — were hired to lead the Boldness project. In addition to the Executive Director, there is a Director of Research and a Research Assistant; a Communications Manager and a Project Coordinator.
Four months later, the community had identified four priorities:
- family-centred decision-making by social services
- support programs for dads
- an accessible transportation system
- a community leadership program.
At this point the community decided that they could no longer work with the two project designers who had guided the initiative up to that point. Suddenly, the whole project was at risk.
When we met with the community, they admitted that they didn’t know what to do next.
We invited three members of the local team to attend the CKX in Toronto — the Community Knowledge Exchange — where they met Joeri van den Steenhoven of the MaRS Solutions Lab. Joeri was invited to guide the community from that point forward, and in effect committed to enable the community to run its own labs.
Thirty people participated in the first lab that took place over two days. The Minister of Child and Youth Opportunities was there, as were business leaders, the city health department, single moms, and a stay-at-home dad who looks after six kids. An initially sceptical Ovid Mercredi took part and pronounced it a success.
What have we learned to date?
Let me just share quickly some lessons from this process.
1) Setting a bold goal has a galvanizing effect.
Aiming to ensure that every North End child starts school ready to learn has captured people’s attention. And is a reason that it isn’t called the Winnipeg Let’s Make Things a Little Better Initiative.
2) Pay your respects to the minster but make friends with the deputy.
We’re so fortunate to have in Winnipeg a very talented and committed group of deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers who are committed to this project. In one deputy in particular, Jan Sanderson, we’ve got the champion we need to make sure that we don’t go off track. She’s guided and challenged us throughout this initiative.
3) Don’t fund just grant, fund experiments.
Government?is?resistant to take chances with public funds, especially these days. We put the first dollar down and partly de-risked the government’s involvement. As Diane Roussin says, we can’t make progress if we’re too scared to make mistakes.
We have to be collecting evidence early on to demonstrate the efficacy of this kind of work.?We decided, fairly late in the day, to add the Canada Learning Bond project, managed by the Omega Foundation, to ensure we had some early wins to demonstrate to government. And to give you just a quick snapshot, in Winnipeg’s North End there are 10,000 children?eligible for the $2,000 Canada Learning Bond, but 8,000 of those kids are not receiving it. That means $16 million is not going to the community, not financing social enterprises, not finding funding structure, and so on.
One of the multiple barriers to the Canada Learning Bond is that you need a birth certificate. The province sells those for $25, which is too big a barrier for low-income families. Do the math. Does it make sense to hold up a $16 million investment in?children’s education to collect $200,000 in fees? When we pointed this out to the government, they waived the fee for the community.
5) A reconciliation generation
To conclude, the most important goal of Winnipeg Boldness is to change the very systems that North End children and families depend on. Education, health care, social services, even banking. Impact of this nature at these levels will ensure that positive changes we conceive are enduring, and support the growth of a?reconciliation?generation in this country.