David Cameron in the Prime Minister’s Question Box, September 2012 (Photo: U.K. Parliament).

Who can forget the “Big Society”?

Just about everyone, it turns out.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: Justin Trudeau/Flickr).

The Big Society,” cooked up by a senior aide to former British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, was the ridiculous idea neoliberal governments could shuffle off their key responsibility for assuring the welfare of the people they govern by letting charities do it.

This Dickensian notion was the perfect scam for so-called conservatives, for whom the only constituency that ever really mattered in a policy sense was the ultra-rich, but who for political reasons often need to project the impression they care about the poor and vulnerable and that their execrable ideology can somehow serve marginalized citizens too.

In a “big society,” the cost of legitimate social services would be dumped onto underfunded local councils, volunteers would be expected to pick up the slack, public libraries and public transit could close down for lack of funds, and drivers would have to do their own wintertime road sanding. Charities instead of the government could take the blame when this proved unpopular, as it inevitably would.

The Big Society was a key platform in Mr. Cameron’s 2010 election campaign and was a core part of the policies initially delivered by the Conservatives’ coalition with the so-called Liberal-Democratic Party that kept the PM in office after enough voters saw through the scheme to deny him the majority he sought.

That wouldn’t be Mr. Cameron’s only big idea, as it turned out.

He was also the big brain who came up with the plan to hold a referendum on Brexit that would appease the Conservative Party’s many annoying Little Englanders while ensuring the U.K. would continue to benefit from membership in the European Union. We all know how that turned out.

Like Brexit, the Big Society was a risible idea that would find a constituency here in Alberta.

Former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith in 2009 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Danielle Smith, then leader of the Wildrose Party, would champion it for a spell. “What Prime Minister Cameron is challenging Britons to consider, and what we in the Wildrose are challenging Albertans to consider, is perhaps there is a better way to care for the most vulnerable in our society,” Ms. Smith enthusiastically told a Wildrose Party clambake in Edmonton in the spring of 2011.

This idea didn’t appear to go far, though, in Alberta or anywhere else except the U.K., and by 2013 the sophomoric term had died out everywhere. The Globe and Mail called the Big Society “an ideological exercise in dismantling the welfare state, a return to Victorian disequilibrium where the many disadvantaged rely on the goodwill of the obliging few.”

But it’s starting to sound as if the Big Society has been hiding in plain sight all along. And I’m not just talking about food banks.

Consider the brouhaha about the WE Charity that prompted some Conservative attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a few days but will probably peter out now that it’s been revealed such Conservative worthies as Laureen Harper, Peter MacKay and Andrew Scheer also seem to have ties to the organization.

This would explain Mr. Trudeau’s preposterous claim WE was the only organization in the country capable of running a nationwide COVID-19 student volunteer program, or his startling revelation, which is probably true, that the federal Public Service recommended enlisting WE for the job.

WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It’s possible WE was the only charity capable of managing a program of this scale, but it obviously wasn’t the only Canadian organization that could have run an endeavour that properly belonged in the public service itself.

Of course, if the public service had been tasked with this job, Conservatives would now be complaining about there being too many civil servants. This was apparently a prospect Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals feared more than the possibility the PM’s family connections with WE, which were no secret, might seem sketchy.

If they weren’t ordered directly to do so, the top mandarins of the Canadian public service were certainly conditioned to look for charities to do this kind of work because that’s the stealthy way neoliberal governments achieve their goals when voters can’t be persuaded they are sound policy.

And despite its recent layoffs and managerial upheavals, the WE Charity, founded 25 years ago as Free the Children by Marc and Craig Kielburger, has ensured it was well placed to respond to such opportunities. As is now obvious, the organization founded by the brothers in 1995 has assiduously cultivated a great many contacts in Canadian politics and media, and among their families.

So while we were all forgetting about the Big Society, it was apparently beavering away in the background, gnawing at our public services and flooding the swamp to help make our government less accountable and more mysterious.

This is not just bad policy, it’s also an excellent way to marginalize and defund charities whose goals do not fit the neoliberal dogma that prevails in government, as Stephen Harper attempted to do to environmental charities. This is work that his acolyte Jason Kenney continues in Alberta to this day.

There was no press release, but it seems the Big Society is with us after all, operating pretty much as intended.

Join the Conversation


  1. Pretty much sums up the situation we find ourselves in today. Well written indeed.

    Of course, Cameron’s austerity push in Blighty was only possible when piled on the shoulders of the ruination and privatization of Britain started by the dogmatic strict headmistress approach to government of Margaret Thatcher. Her program was unerringly carried forward by successive Tory governments and propped up by the straight-faced WMD liar Blair, a neoliberal Labourite who defined contradiction in terms, much like Notley in my view. And now, having handily disposed of the true socialist Corbyn from Labour by using dogwhistle anti-semitism charges against him, happily piled onto by every major media outlet including the BBC, well now Starmer the neoliberal leads the “Labour” charge into wilful blindness. The country of my birth and residence to age 11 is now a sad little blob of nothingness that nobody cares about, led by a complete bozo who is not much more than the jolly japer schoolboy of his Etonian youth, and without a recognizable neuron between his ears. France is relentlessly being neoliberalized by the charlatan former senior public servant Macron, a typical bureaucrat of the modern era, and probably not unlike the same species inhabiting the upper echelons of the public service in Ottawa, whose foreign policy makes a mockery of the line they feed Canadians at home and who got rid of Dion pretty sharpish when he discovered the quackery going on, among other useless files such as reducing oversight of transportation and meat inspection and weights and measures by farming out the work to the private sector, as if their only sign of success is NOT increasing the size of the public service and letting them do their jobs as required under legislation. The public service brass has been as thoroughly brainwashed as everyone else by the privately-run colossus to our immediate south, as have all our governments’ tax policies. And the obsequious fool Wernick who fronted for Trudeau against Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC-L affair typifies the breed in my view. That man was the actual chief Public Servant. Good god.

    I am quite unable to understand personally whether WE is a real charity or a jolly social spot where bigwigs rub shoulders and pretend they care about the masses. Supporting a charity looks good on the resume, and in my jaundiced view, WE has deliberately exploited that sort of celebrity puffery that has enabled them to grow as if they were effectively a private business, all with glitz aplenty. That charity is not of the sober Heart and Stroke Foundation or ALS folk variety where real volunteers canvass for nothing but from the goodness of their own hearts, that’s for sure.

    Alberta, well, what can one say? Every kind of conservative idiot who can read what other conservatives have done for private gain around the world resides there, propped up by the great individualist unwashed rural plebbery, trained to believe government is bad, and that they are the rocks of freedom. Hoodwinked doesn’t begin to describe them. They actively seem to enjoy inflicting injury on their own self-interest, much like Americans for Trump.

    If anyone thought Covid-19 would somehow bring a bright shiny new day of enlightened governance after its eventual demise, the unfortunately fa-la-la hopes of shallow-thinking young people that a new day is dawning, forget it. The entrenched sociopathic privileged merely laugh at their naivety. The ongoing return to a feudal society continues apace, and the virus has provided such an opportunity for ordering people about and preventing any really organized opposition by isolating people, that the right-wing and neoliberal Liberal governments serving corporate interests can hardly believe their luck. Alberta is at the forefront in this charge. And the NDP there is as complicit in the general ruination as can be, in my view. They have the huge albatross of supporting a useless pipeline(s) and the tarsands to wade through, and show no sign of being an effective opposition to kenney because of it. Too bad. Without the failing oil and gas industry (tarsands) providing jobs and income, the province seems destined to lose population and revert to hayseed status, a modern ghost town writ large, as the wealth of its middle class citizens is relentlessly and continually drained. I don’t know if right wing would-be Caesars prefer to govern as big fishes in small ponds, taking the tip of the hat from passing serfs, or whether they ruin one place at a time, and then move onto the next, as I suspect they feel it necessary to do. None of it bodes well for the common man or woman. Perhaps climate change upheaval will put a end to it all first anyway, a distinct possibility as bugger all is being done to alleviate its effects. Sociopaths only care about the here and now.

    If anyone can provide a sunny reasoned alternative to my despondency for the future, have at it. I’m all ears.

    1. I was just reflecting on the plight of the common man and woman, trying to figure in the pandemic as the possible deus ex machina to ‘Big Society’. Surely the strongholds that the privileged classes occupy, would require a total economic reset. It seems the thrust for economic recovery will likely be met with repeated waves, and might that not ultimately raze the infected ideologies we contend with in government?

      In the murkiness between the have not’s and the Buffet & Gates fair-share-tax-paying ‘movement’ it is the opportunistic policies of upwardly mobile elite wannabes with their paltry millions, who show the least possession of reasoned realistic thinking and could be most impacted in the long term by such an imposed societal reset.

      Not a sunny scenario, and of low probability, but as we know, while the wealthy elite with their abundance of money and comforts arguable control everything except nature and death, it occurred to me that my (our) days are numbered at less than 120. For a moment, while I gazed out my window at the lush greenery, the birds, the utter beauty of nature and my ability to enjoy it today, I realized that in the present pall, limited years of a given life well lived, while a ruin to the elite, may be our distinct advantage.

      Not a solution for the future, but perhaps an effective adaptation.

  2. I recall Presto Manning had an irrefutably good idea that would solve all the problems associated with poverty, inadequate health care, among a host of societies other ills.

    The poor and sick can return to their families, because they are their problem.

    Manning had a tendency to chuck simple solutions onto complicated issues, because it was all he knew what to do. Or, as he once said in regard to the Reeeeefoooooorm Party’s tendency to attract racists and anti-Semites, don’t call him (Presto) a racist or anti-Semite because some of his best friends were black and Jewish. And another problem is easily solved. (Presto could do that all day.)

    The claim that there is no society, and therefore no social problems, is a well-worn bit of nonsense that has been trotted out since the days of Dame Margaret Thatcher. (Yes, she really is still very, very dead.) Social ills that plague many parts of society can be easily willed away, like ignoring pandemics. Of course, I recall being exposed to a kernel of truth that was unintentionally revealed by a self-described ‘very religious’ lady. “What do we do about the homeless? Can we just gas them and toss them into a pit?” I suspect that would put an entirely new spin on WWJD.

    On the matter of the very comical WE Scandal, it should be noted that WE is a virtual cult of personality, dressed up as Selfless Giving inc. It is the perfect Neo-liberal vehicle that has been up to its ears in one questionable act after another. Moreover, the side of WE that was supposed to get and manage this giant chunk of government money is its for-profit charity entity. WE has made no secret that they are a corporate entity and their causes have to fit their branding; they are the Apple of giving, provided that people can handle the more bizarre aspects of this charitable enterprise, and the cause is friendly to its corporate image.

    1. “What do we do about the homeless? Can we just gas them and toss them into a pit?” … what an appalling notion, made more so by the fact that this was actually tried once, in the first half of the 1940s in a certain Western European country … and look how that turned out.

      What can be wrong with some people? (Like your self-described very religious lady … )

  3. David Cameron was to “Big Society” what Pat Boone was to rock and roll. Alberta is Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, still at it despite an insatiable appetite for self-destruction and the moral compass of Caligula.
    Although I have forsaken their increasingly myopic and rigid approach, Alberta Views did a pretty good job of analyzing the degenerate phenomenon back in 2014:
    “According to their latest available financial statements, the Salvation Army in Canada took in more than half a billion dollars in 2013—$571,586,000, and of that, $213,596,000 came from government. The Canada Revenue Agency Charities Directorate lists 29 Alberta Salvation Army organizations including numerous community churches, family service centres, a hospice (Agape) and a seniors’ nursing home (Grace Manor). In Alberta the Salvation Army runs food banks, thrift stores, soup kitchens, addiction treatment facilities, homeless shelters and a corrections program (!). Alberta Sally Anns have total annual revenues in excess of $55-million, about a third of which comes from government.”
    “First of all, in a multicultural, secular country why is a Christian organization with the explicit mission of “salvation” the second-largest provider of social services?”
    “The government of Alberta pays $1,200 a month to a charity to give someone a mat at a Calgary homeless shelter when it would cost from $600 to $800 to provide the same person with an apartment. Managing homelessness costs more than solving it.”

    Although lil’ Magus and Co. only the latest iteration of a band of professional grifters, scarcely distinguishable from Kons in terms their enthusiasm for fleecing the tax-payer, nobody does it better than Alberta.
    Always on the cutting edge of emulating US supserstition and fraud, ere’s a shining example of an Alberta grift in which government responsibility was handed over to a private entity:

    “MRS. MIROSH: Mr. Speaker, many of our young people from Calgary are currently being treated by the program Kids of the Canadian West, a drug treatment centre in various areas throughout the United States.
    MR. NELSON: . Speaker, the U.S. program is operating presently in New Jersey and in Utah….
    I might indicate that with the controversy that has developed in Calgary, prior to making a recommendation to the government for matching funds to assist the development of this very needed program to assist those young people who are somewhat out of control and yet need the type of program that AADAC is not providing, we believe we have put in place the checks and balances that will encourage and offer a program in Alberta that meets with the laws of this land and also the integrity of the people that will utilize this program.”

    So just what was this program?
    “3 Youth Treatment Centers Linked by Abuse Accusations
    Newton left Straight in 1983 and the next year opened his own drug treatment program for adolescents in Hackensack, N.J. He called it KIDS of Bergen County and used techniques similar to those employed by Straight.

    Using a franchise system, Newton later authorized the opening of KIDS treatment centers in El Paso, Orange County and Salt Lake City.
    In addition, Newton has authorized the opening of KIDS of the Canadian West in Calgary this spring. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission has agreed to allocate $600,000 toward setting it up. Private donors are expected to match the government grant. More than 40 Canadian youngsters are currently under treatment at KIDS of Bergen County in Hackensack.”

    But with the oversight of people like Mr. Nelson, it all turned out okay, right?
    “Keeping ‘Cult’ Out of the Case
    How do you convince a jury that your client was a victim of a cult?
    New Jersey Law Journal/July 7, 2003
    Lulu Corter of Wanaque was signed into Kids of North Jersey Inc. in Hackensack by her parents on Oct. 27, 1984, when she was a 13-year-old with learning problems. In August 1997, she bolted from what dozens of teenagers have described as a living hell.

    Like many participants in the program, Corter had no drug or alcohol problem. Today, those who ran Kids of North Jersey cannot say why she was admitted because her records have disappeared. They say only that she had behavior problems, though they cannot recall the specifics.
    Though Elberg has assiduously avoided the “cult” word, three witnesses testified to being brainwashed. He says that even an expert for the defense said in a report that Lulu was brainwashed.

    Testimony was elicited that Miller would routinely require patients to shun their families, or parents to shun their children who left the program before graduating.”

    Sure, mistakes were made, but after all that, the Alberta Government made sure to prevent any such thing from ever occurring again, right?
    “AARC is unlike any program in Canada. It is long-term (averaging about one year), built on a solid foundation of research augmented by clinical expertise. It is open to all, regardless of income level. AARC works because it blends dedication and compassion with no-nonsense, uncompromising, honest confrontation, expecting clients and parents to give as much as they get.”
    “MR. NELSON: Mr. Speaker, AADAC has been involved with
    assistance in developing the program of the Alberta Adolescent
    Recovery Centre since its inception originally as Kids of the
    Canadian West.”

    Well, when all else fails, gag everybody involved with millions of dollars in lawsuits:
    “In addition to the Sensationalism, the Powerless Production contained a number of other defamatory statements, allegations, innuendos and criticisms of AARC, including, without limitation, the following:
    …(d) AARC is connected to the Kids program run by Miller Newton in Bergen County, New Jersey, USA (the “KIDS Program”), which was eventually shut-down due to, inter alia, the abuses that occurred in that program;”

    I mean, it should have worked!
    “Additionally, Mr. Speaker,
    the society that is running this program are people of integrity
    in the city of Calgary, and I’m sure they would not want their
    personal integrity put at risk by running a program that would
    not be in keeping with the well-being of Albertans.”
    March 20, 1990 Alberta Hansard 153
    Legislative Assembly of Alberta

    “Dear CBC,
    I am a former director of AARC. I agreed to be a director in August 1996. …Which Scott am I to believe, the one who spoke on the February 1997 night and was grateful for AARC’s help or the one who was interviewed by the Fifth Estate and complained about AARC. Are his comments to Fifth Estate credible? I think not. Maybe a little honesty and lots of AA meetings would help.
    I earnestly believe that AARC has helped a lot of people and I fully support AARC and Dean Vause.
    J. Gordon Ironside”

    “The Discipline Tribunal found Mr. Ironside guilty of unprofessional conduct in having:
    6) deceived the external auditors by failing to advise the auditors about the options on three
    leases and deliberately concealing relevant documents with respect to these leases”

    “[90] This excerpt demonstrated to us Ironside’s persistent and continuing attempts to
    deny or avoid responsibility for his actions by either manipulating the facts or shifting
    blame to others.
    [92] He will not acknowledge that it was because he lied to and concealed information from Blue
    Range’s auditor that the appropriate accounting treatment was not applied to the Leases,
    with the result that Blue Range’s 1998 Audited Annual Financial Statements and 1999
    Second Interim Financial Statements contained misrepresentations and were not prepared
    in accordance with GAAP.
    [94] Once again Ironside attempted to distort the facts to support his position.
    [95] It also appeared to us that he attempted to marginalize our finding and excuse his
    deception by suggesting that he would have conducted his defence differently had Staff
    specifically alleged in the Notice of Hearing that he had lied to Blue Range’s auditor.
    [105] …This is not the
    behaviour of one who can be trusted to act in the public interest.”


    Alberta, still pushing the boundaries thanks to the pioneering work of the Wayne Gretzky of Finance Ministers:
    “MR. DINNING: We recognize as a government that these are young people who are caught in drastic circumstances that require drastic action. We have supported that, supported the Kids of the Canadian West program, and that program will operate within the laws and rules of this province. I’m very proud of the leadership that our government and, in particular, our Premier have taken in this drive, this fight against drugs and helping kids who’ve got this serious problem to get off being hooked on drugs.”
    Alberta Hansard

    “Education Minister Jim Dinning spent two days in Bergen County last May, and was won over by parents who told him the program was desperately needed here”.

    “Like many participants in the program, Corter had no drug or alcohol problem. Today, those who ran Kids of North Jersey cannot say why she was admitted because her records have disappeared. They say only that she had behavior problems, though they cannot recall the specifics.”

  4. It does seem that Mr. Cameron’s failed idea of “The Big Society” has somehow popped up in Canada. Of course this is not the first time that governments in Canada have tried to offload or download what they should really be doing to not for profit societies, Alberta has done so in the past many times under various previous PC governments. We were after all the first place in Canada to have food banks, which then spread to the rest of Canada.

    Some of this is ideological, but I think there is more to it. Government bureaucracy is not always the most responsive to emerging or chronic problems, for a variety of reasons. A passionate group of people who care about their community can respond more quickly and effectively. If they are reasonably successful, then ironically the need for government to respond diminishes and the not for profit can become an enabler for a government doing less than it really should. Also, like any organization, companies or government bodies, some not for profits are not immune to empire building. Combine an ambitious not for profit organization, that sees a financial opportunity or an opportunity to increase its profile, with a government that wants to offload something and you have the recipe for a disaster like this.

    Conservatives do tend to go for the not for profit approach to deal with societal problems more. I suppose it is an easy solution for them, the government has to do little or nothing and leave it to another organization to deal with the difficult problems. If it works, of course the politicians take the credit for the idea. If not, they try to distance themselves for the outside organization. There is also a long history of religious organizations being involved in social services and health care that perhaps is particularly comfortable to both social conservatives and the fiscal conservative advocates of less government.

    Perhaps a good outcome of the current federal debacle is that future governments in Canada may be less inclined to try this Big Society approach in the future given how spectacularly it has just blown up. At least we have avoided Mr. Cameron’s other big, supposedly bright, but actually disastrous idea so far. Hopefully we will learn from his other mistakes, like Brexit, rather than trying to repeat them.

  5. Yeah, that’s all conservatives, of any stripe, have left to offer. They hope they can convince us plebs that there is something good for us while they steal the Treasury and the Commons blind for their wealthy and foreign corporate masters, and for some reason, an uneducated, ignorant and traditionalist cadre who form the ‘base’.

    Any liberal and democratic party who hopes to govern has to find a way to pacify these belligerents and nutjobs, at least long enough to get anything useful done in a modern society. The courage to adhere to liberal democratic values in the face of these loud-mouth schmucks is in very short supply. The belief in principles and courage of convictions is fodder for derision and contempt in the MSM nightly news.

    It’s been a long, long time since any liberal democratic political act has been celebrated in the broader general public.

  6. People are not charitable enough for this idea to work.

    In essence giving to a charity is agreeing to be voluntarily taxed. The ultra rich who could fund most of it would rather hide their money in offshore tax havens and the government knows where they hide it but won’t go after it.

    The rest of us don’t have enough to fund charities and are often in need of charity.

  7. I should not be required to make my case after all that water under our bridges. Yet here I am. What argument will persuade? What evidence will convince? None are sufficient? Well then, welcome your self ordained result! A song is for you. The I in it. Enjoy the magic of your much whipped hegenomy! https://youtu.be/9vtq9t08ktU

  8. Interesting and in depth blog. If there are Canadian Conservative politicians, with ties to We, how come they didn’t report any suspicious activities sooner? Are they as innocent as people will lead us to believe? Do they have some part of this? People also forget that the CPC also was involved with unethical conduct too. Take for example the SNC Lavalin matter. This goes back nearly 10 years or longer, and has something to do with a CPC cabinet minister, John Baird. Isn’t it strange how John Baird resigned from politics?

  9. Also, recently, there was a big fuss about an Alberta NDP MLA and her comments about Margaret Thatcher. It caused quite an outcry from conservatives in Alberta, and in Canada. What these conservative followers fail to recall, is that Margaret Thatcher’s domestic and foreign policies have harmed many people, in the U.K, and elsewhere. Neoliberalism is a recipe for disaster. In Canada, we only have to look at former PC premiers Ralph Klein, in Alberta, and his best friend, Mike Harris, in Ontario, as well as the UCP in Alberta to see how that played out. In the case of Mike Harris, his former cabinet members, John Baird, Jim Flaherty, and Tony Clement took these failed neoliberal policies to the federal level, in the CPC, and it did not have good outcomes.

  10. You heard it here first. In the federal election of 2035, the LPC will be lead by Craig K., the motivational speaker and showman. The CPC will be lead by Marc K., the consummate bureaucrat.

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