The difficulties of current approaches to participation

Principles of new approaches

Current nodes of decision making

Solutions - Efficiency



What do we achieve with these changes?

The difficulties of current approaches to participation

The fundamental idea of public participation is that it could improve the quality of decisions through diverse actors having various knowledge streams and also be a voice for public concerns and values. It helps address a fundamental critique of modern democracy, that voting for a representative is not enough, that the gap between a voting decision and executive action is now too wide, with limited capacity for voters to feel that their vote has  meaning on the issues that concern them (cf. Roman-Alcala, 2013). We all eat, but that doesn't mean we can all participate in how the food system functions, nor will everyone want to, but there is certainly a higher demand to participate in food system decision making than is currently afforded by the dominant institutions. One sign of this was the high level of participation in national food policy discussions, and the degree to which the federal government was surprised by the level of online engagement (see What We Heard Report, Blog posts).

Although the market place permits eaters some influence, inequitably since higher income earners have more ability to influence the system than low income ones (see Goal 1, Consumer Information Systems), decision making has historically been the domain of a limited number of agricultural actors in conversation with governments (Fowkes, 1946; Britnell and Fowkes, 1962;  Skogstad, 1987; Ostry, 2006).  The dominance of this traditional policy community has been periodically challenged, more consistently so through the 1990s as a wider range of actors expressed interest in the food system and governments decided a broader approach to public consultation was needed to maintain legitimacy.  By this time, government was experiencing broader resistance across a range of themes to limited opportunities to public participate in decision making, a phenomenon that likely started in the 1980s (Woodford and Preston, 2011; see Frameworks, Food Justice).

Public participation can be defined as a continuous, two-way communication process which involves promoting full public understanding of the processes and mechanisms through which environmental problems and needs are investigated and solved by the responsible agency; keeping the public fully informed about the status and progress of studies and implications of project, plan, program and policy formulation and evaluation activities; and actively soliciting from all concerned citizens their opinions and perceptions of objectives and needs and their preferences regarding resource use and alternatives to development of management strategies and any other information and assistance relative to the decision. (Canter, 1996)

The Cabinet Directive on Regulations was adopted in 2007  to establish the government of Canada’s “expectations and requirements in the development, management, and review of federal regulations" (section 1.0), including public participation in the decision making process. Departments and agencies are responsible for meaningful consultations and engagement with stakeholders (including Indigenous Peoples) throughout the development, management, and review of regulations. Departments and agencies must responsibly identify any public policy issues that arise and must work with affected stakeholders to assess and choose the appropriate regulatory and non-regulatory instruments to achieve policy objectives.

There is evidence, however, that although public participation legislation and directives are in place, they are not used effectively or seriously in decision-making (Booth and Halseth, 2011).  The result is a limited form of ineffective public engagement that essentially sustains the current mode of contestation among certain elites and traditional policy actors :

  • Often episodic engagement around high profile processes, instead of continuous interaction that builds knowledge, capacity and trust
  • Discussion papers that are vague and general and consequently generate vague and general responses
  • On-line formats that generate voluminous amounts of disaggregated data that are hard to process and reconcile
  • Large format meetings out of which no consensus emerges, usually because it is evident no consensus is desired by the organizers
  • What we heard reports that catalogue and sort comments but with no indication how they might influence decision making (the National Food Policy consultation what we heard report was well done and something of an exception, and may have significantly influenced the construction of the policy, but not its implementation, see Blog Posts)
  • Decisions that can claim to be a product of discussions because no one can link the consultation data to the ultimate outcomes (for more, see Pham, 2019).

NGO policy participation is often compromised by a lack of staff/time for policy work \, lack of funding, unsure about organization contribution, lack of expertise/knowledge (13%), lack of access to government, and issues with bureaucracy. The challenge is more acute for voluntary organizations with less resources than larger NGOs (EKOS, 2008).

Compounding this problem is a history of administrative governance consistent with narrow and reductionist  framing of  economic issues. In other words, many governments have limited capacity to deal with the complexities of food system governance (cf. De Schutter et al., 2019).  Problems and procedures are divided into discretely manageable chunks, and addressed within a relatively rigid hierarchy. This hierarchy, in theory, unifies the discrete bits of information as they rise through the system. In practice, however, such a structure is unsuccessful and its failures have spawned discussions of “post-modern” governance. Responsibilities within and between government departments are fragmented, so the negative consequences of an intervention for other policy areas and jurisdictions  are not necessarily well thought through. Agricultural departments generally allow the market place to determine overall direction and to define what is valuable and desirable for society, and only intervene to mitigate the negative impacts of the market.

Canada has existing nodes of decision making that are based on constitutional authorities, historical precedence and Westminster-style accountability mechanisms, but also on organizational mandates, on commonly accepted business practices, and on individual behaviours. All these forces constrain participation by non-governmental actors.

Although provinces generally take comparable approaches to the federal government, Québec is somewhat of an exception.  The province has evolved a type of partner state following waves of popular mobilization starting in the 1960s and to some extent a social and solidarity economy, to some extent compromised by the reforms of the 2000s.  A wider range of collective and corporatist structures and processes afford more opportunities for non-state actor participation, resulting in historical advances around social welfare, public health and environmental sustainability that do not necessarily exist in  other regions of the country (cf. Martorell, 2017 for a brief history related to food system issues).

Although AAFC officials claimed the recent food policy consultations would involve new methods of engagement, what transpired was largely consistent with what is described above, with the exception that a 2 - day public consultation in Ottawa was well facilitated compared to many other sessions involving food NGOs and participants could be funded for expenses (though not their time).  However, from the national food policy that was announced (see blog posts), while these consultations may have shifted some of the broad elements of the policy (cf. Coulas, 2021), they  did not significantly influence its implementation provisions.

Non-governmental actors are often equally unrealistic in what they think consultations can achieve, but in a different way.  The entirely appropriate rallying cry is all voices must be heard, especially those of the marginalized. This is entirely understandable given systemic racism and exclusion characterizing Canada's food system history and institutional structures and processes (see Frameworks, Food Justice; and Robin et al., 2023). But rarely do groups propose a comprehensive and detailed series of mechanisms to make such comprehensive participation happen, especially one that connects people to the discussions at levels that reflect their experiences and potential to helpfully participate. Given widespread citizen deskilling in our culture, NGOs rarely provide supports to effective participation and governments equally are unlikely to fund such efforts, despite numerous calls to do so.  Invariably, direct participation by all is unachievable, so layered approaches with knowledgeable NGOs and community actors as intermediaries are required, but many organizations are reluctant to play this role, viewing it somehow as undemocratic.

The positive news is that in June 2019, the federal government announced as a component of a national food policy that they will create a National Food Policy Advisory Council, a multistakeholder group with a mandate to advise on food policy change (see Blog posts, right hand column and Policy Actors, Prime Minister's Office).  Inclusion and diversity are supposed to be guiding principles of the new policy and these principles are to be expressed in the Council. The government originally said it would move forward with the creation of the council in a transparent manner starting summer 2019. This did not happened, with COVID-19 a factor. However, the members of the new Council were announced in Feb. 2021 and the first meeting occurred in early March (see Blog Posts). There are many unknowns regarding the  processes and influence of the Council.  Additionally significant, the government has not announced any alterations to existing processes, important because a national food policy advisory councils is only one piece of new approaches to food system governance.  The longer-term challenge is to make sure participation reflects the ideas presented here.

Principles of new approaches

All parties must improve their capacity to manage in complex environments, and participate in complex decision making.  Institutions and businesses in Canada are very weak in this regard.  Complexity is not taught in schools or universities for the most part.  Many institutions, faced with both internal and external complexity, attempt to bring order to their structures and processes, clamping down on diversity of functions and actors in an effort to control what happens.  Many public institutions, lacking the skills to manage as complex social purpose organizations, succumb to neo-liberal approaches to organizational management, and essentially revert to managing themselves primarily as workplaces, but disguise this reversion as  a way to better respect their  mission. For example, universities caught in labour disputes dress up their decisions to suspend classes as meeting the academic integrity needs of students.  Hospitals, primarily organized for the benefit of health care workers, come up with innovative ways to claim that their new processes are for the benefit of patients. These circumstances are really just confirmations of our inability to manage complexity. The failure to embrace complexity creates more problems and requires even greater expenditure of energy and resources in a futile attempt to exert control over discussion and decisions.

Our management needs run entirely in the opposite direction.  New approaches must be guided by concepts of organizational ecology and adaptive management. Policy makers and organizational design theorists  recognize the need for institutional forms and processes that match or mimic the diversity and complexity of the ecosystem problems (including those related to humans) they are attempting to solve (Walters and Holling, 1984).  Organizations have their own ecology (Plumptre, 1988; Morley and Wright, 1989); one that can potentially mimic the  systems and processes with which the organization is concerned (Walters and Holling, 1984; Solway, 1988; Morgan, 1989). In this approach, the organization is a miniature ecosystem, with symbiotic and competitive relationships, internal consistency and integrity, and of complex webs of relationships, processes, systems, and structures.  All this requires an adaptive management style that can fluidly respond to the signals received from its internal processes and external dynamics.

An organization pursuing adaptive management has:

Current nodes of decision making

Parliament, and provincial and territorial legislatures, and associated agencies responsible to them

Pertinent federal parliamentary committees include:

Agriculture and Agri-food
Environment and Sustainable Development
Fisheries and Oceans
Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities
Indigenous and Northern Affairs
International Trade
Transport, Infrastructure and Communities

The Senate also conducts studies on important themes and its pertinent committees include:

Aboriginal Peoples
Agriculture and Forestry
Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources
Fisheries and Oceans
oreign Affairs and International Trade
Human Rights
Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Provincial and territorial legislatures also have committees, many of which parallel the federal committees.

Cabinets and cabinet committees

In the current government, the following could have roles to play in constructing and implementation a national food policy.

Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications
Cabinet Committee on Growing the Middle Class
Cabinet Committee on Diversity and Inclusion
Cabinet Committee on Climate Change, Environment and Energy
Cabinet Committee on Canada - US Relations
Cabinet Committee on Intelligence and Emergency Management

Provincial and territorial cabinets also have committees with different constructions, some of which address matters of food.

Departments / ministries (at least a dozen have some responsibilities that impact food system function) and agencies

The following departments / agencies are involved in national food policy development:

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Chair)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency
Employment and Social Development CanadaEnvironment and Climate Change Canada
Finance Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Global Affairs Canada
Health Canada
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
Innovation, Science and Economic Development
Public Health Agency of Canada
Statistics Canada
Transport Canada

Provincial and territorial departments address food, including departments of agriculture, health, municipal affairs, environment and social affairs (see mapping of this food policy landscape at

Central coordinating agencies and committees (PMO and premier’s offices, civil service agencies, interdepartmental committees)

The Privy Council Office (PCO) is a central coordinating agency and the current government has integrated a "deliverology" approach to generating success (Barber, 2008).  Officials have stated informally that the development of a national food policy would be informed by this approach, though not likely a central focus of a deliverology unit within the PCO. Presumably the delivery unit is working closely with the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications.

Provincial and territorial governments also have central agencies

FPT bodies (Councils of ministers, councils of civil servants, bilateral and multilateral agreements)

Ministers of Agriculture
Ministers of Health
Ministers of Environment
Ministers of Social Development
Committee on nutrition (civil servants)
Committee on food safety (civil servants)
Committee on agriculture (civil servants)
Committee on pest management and pesticides (civil servants)

Ongoing FPT working groups relating to the FPT aspects of business risk management, performance measurement, and other program areas to monitor and review aspects of the agricultural policy framework (civil servants).

Task Group on the Provisions of Nutrition Information in Restaurants and Foodservices (civil servants)
Nutrition Working Group on Improving the Consistency of School Food and Beveragage (civil servants)
Municipal councils and departments

Although municipalities have the least jurisdiction over the food system, many of their functions have significant direct or indirect influence on food system behaviour. Municipal involvement depends largely on the location of the municipality, and its province or territory.  Urban municipalities generally have little direct role in food production and supply but because many have responsibilities for public health, do engage in food inspection activities and nutritional health promotion.  Urban municipalities also affect food distribution through zoning policies that may determine food store and food company locations and their associated economic activity.  Rural municipalities can have more direct impacts on agriculture through zoning, and property and education tax decisions.  Municipalities often have a lead responsibility for household and commercial waste management.  Since a large part of the waste stream is food and food packaging, their policies and programs (or lack thereof) may indirectly impact food system behaviour.  As a result, many municipalities across Canada have food policy organizations that provide various services to municipalities on food system improvements (see MacRae and Donahue, 2013).  Buchan et al. (2019) have analyzed how such entities have arisen and had influence in the BC context.

First nations, Inuit and Metis

There are 60-80 traditional indigenous governance clusters encompassing over 600 distinct nations. Food issues are commonly addressed by: Local Councils and food security / policy organizations, Regional bodies such as First Nations Food Security Networks or Indigenous Food Circles, National organizations, and through existing nation to nation relations (legislation, treaties and agreements, co-management arrangements).

Approximately 65000 Inuit peoples are organized mostly in 51 communities across  the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). This  region is known as Inuit Nunangat.  Key organizations include Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Pauktuutit (Inuit Women's Association of Canada), Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) and many regional associations.

The  Métis comprise almost 400,000, 90% of whom reside in Ontario and the Prairies.  The Métis Nation is represented through democratically-elected, province-wide governance structures:, the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Manitoba Métis Federation, the Métis Nation – Saskatchewan, the Métis Nation of Alberta and the Métis Nation British Columbia. These governments meet in a National Council. Metis Nations of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario signed self-government agreements with the federal government in early 2023, providing for equal constitutional standing with First Nations.

Private businesses and farms (hundreds of thousands), business associations, farm and commodity groups

There is an extensive array of firms and organizations in the node, really a complex multimodal assemblage of private decision makers, sometimes aligned, sometimes in opposition.  There are a number of value chain organizations, such as the Canola Council,  Pulse Canada, Cereals Canada, and others that integrate within their respective commodity value chain quite well, as do the value chain roundtables. There is, however, a tendency to focus on common issues and as a result, some of the more challenging and controversial issues don’t get on the radar to the same extent. Many of the value chain organizations operate within export-oriented commodity sectors.

Non-governmental organizations and networks

Many Canadian municipalities have multisectoral roundtables working on food policy and programming (see MacRae and Donahue, 2013).  Most provinces and territories also have a provincial network that connects municipal to wider regional actions (see FLEDGE, 2017).  Examples include:

The British Columbia Food Systems Network,  Alberta Food Matters, Food Secure Saskatchewan, Food Matters Manitoba, Sustain Ontario, FoodNet Ontario, Le Regroupement des cuisines collectives du Québec, Le Regroupement des jardins collectifs du Québec,  La Coalition pour la souveraineté alimentaire, New Brunswick Food Security Action Network,  Nova Scotia Food Security Network. PEI Food Security Network, Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, Growers of Organic Food Yukon, Feeding My Family (Nunavut).

Some of the listed food networks have significant capacity (budget; staff) to support communication and collaboration among civil society organizations and between civil society and federal/provincial/territorial governments; however, others rely on volunteer labour. Further, given the significant staff and resources required to support this work, many of these organizations have begun to require membership fees for participation from civil society organizations, many of which do not have the budget to pay.

Roundtables and associated strategies

In part to address the absence of joined up food policy approaches, many roundtables have been created in recent years with diverse membership, including Value chain roundtables, many stewardship councils (e.g., MSC, FSC, ASC) and the recent Public Trust Steering Committee and Network. For the latter, there’s a small hub structured to represent the value chain, followed by a much larger  (somewhat nebulous) network of interested parties that spans the entire value chain. They follow the steering committee work and also inform it with issue identification.

AAFC recently (Dec. 2020) shifted their roundtable approach, from sectoral value chain roundtables, which included one on organic, to thematic Sector Engagement Tables, including:

  • agile regulations
  • sustainability
  • consumer demand and market trends
  • skills development

There is also a Canadian agricultural youth council. What influence these bodies will have on policy and programming is unclear.