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‘Canada has a lot to learn from the UK’s leadership on social enterprise’
Ontario’s minister of economic development discusses how the province’s government can better support social enterprises
Eric Hoskins might not be as internationally famous – or infamous – as another Ontario politician, the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. But in terms of his role in supporting social enterprise in Ontario, and North America, he’ll probably have a more positive and lasting impact.
A former Rhodes scholar, Hoskins first became aware of social enterprise through founding and running a charity – War Child Canada – and says he was “struck by how effective social enterprises could be in tackling some of the big problems in society”.
Now, a couple of months after launching a social enterprise strategy, and visiting London in his capacity as minister for economic development in Ontario’s provincial government, he’s candid about the work the government still has to do to support social enterprise in one of Canada’s most economically dynamic provinces.
“In the case of Ontario, I think some of the government were in many ways catching up to where the sector is,” he admits, “and making sure that we’re putting in place the structures and the legislative framework that allows them to succeed.”
If his government was slow off the mark, it seems to be doing its best to catch up. In September, alongside its new social enterprise strategy, Ontario launched a Social Venture Exchange, to make it easier for social investors and enterprises to work together. It’s also funding a project called Catapult, a micro-finance budget specific to social enterprise start-ups, and a social enterprise demonstration fund which will fund pilot social enterprise projects.
Hoskins recognises that there is still more to do. He acknowledges that nowhere in Canada has yet implemented a social impact bond, while the sector needs more legislative recognition.
“One of the challenges that social enterprises have faced here in Ontario – and it’s not unlike that in the UK – is that social enterprises fall between the cracks or there isn’t legislation that applies specifically to them so we are looking at the possibility of hybrid legislation in Ontario, which would allow them to have shared equity and to provide them with greater financing opportunities, as well as make it clearer where they fall legislatively.
As befits a man who likens his political party – the Liberals – to Britain’s New Labour – he is keen to emphasise that support can take the form of deregulation as well as legislation:
“Through my ministry for economic development we have a programme called ‘open for business’ which works with different business sectors to cut the red tape and decrease the regulatory burden for businesses. We will be doing an ‘open for business’ specifically for social enterprises.
“So we take the five biggest challenges that they face as a sector when they interact with government or legislation or regulations, and our aim is to work with them to reduce the burden of government they face.”
Like many social enterprise ministers from abroad, Hoskins is generous in his praise for the British government’s social enterprise record, and is keen to take elements of its policies back across the Atlantic.
“All of us need to commend the UK’s leadership both in government and particularly in the not-for-profit and for-profit social enterprise sector itself for pushing the envelope … and the leadership you’ve shown to the rest of the world. It’s paying off and you’re getting a lot of fans, including Ontario. Obviously, there are differences in the social climates between the UK and Canada or Ontario. But I think the ideas that are coming out of the UK are fully transferable to Ontario, into Canada. We are absorbing your good ideas like a sponge.
“Meeting Chris White was very interesting, because I specifically wanted to meet him to talk about the Social Values Act which he introduced as a private members bill and which went all the way through to successful legislation. This is something which we would like to consider introducing in Ontario on the procurement side.”
It’s clear that Hoskins wants Ontario to assume a similar leadership role in North America:
“For the first time, Socap [Social Capital Markets conference] is going to take place outside the US and is coming to Canada; we are calling it Socap North, in Toronto in March … bringing social enterprises together with social capital investors, impact investors.
“Just as I think the UK has provided [social enterprise] leadership to the world, in Ontario we are hoping to position ourselves as a North American hub as well. What I would hope to see is Ontario becoming that focus in North America, the leader in North America for social enterprise and impact investing.”
When he is told that overall responsibility for social enterprises in the UK and the minister with responsibility for social enterprise both sit in the cabinet office, Hoskins smiles:
“In Ontario, having it [social enterprise] in the economic development ministry is right. The sector has appreciated that and it has helped to elevate it to a higher level in terms of the attention that government and businesses give to it. Also, these are entities that see themselves as viable businesses. It goes back to making sure that they acknowledge and understand just how critically important they are.
“Maybe that is the one thing, or one of the things, that we could export to the UK rather than the other way around. It has been a tremendous advantage both in terms of generating interest with the government getting the support of the business community, and that’s appreciated by the sector as well. We are constantly trying to put the economic lens on these different sectors because they have tremendous economic impact.”
Editor’s Note(s): This piece was originally posted in The Guardian. It has been posted here with the author’s permission.
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