Loving Strangers – A Vital Source of Social Innovation

65,000 Vietnamese boat people were welcomed to Canada in 1979. More than half of them were privately sponsored by community groups.In fact, so strong was the outpouring of caring that the Canadian government had to invent a system for private refugee sponsorship that was and is unique in the world. Private refugee sponsorship is yet another example of a major source of social innovation – citizens who experience the necessity and do something about it. I describe this ‘class’ of people as passionate amateurs. Passionate amateurs advance social, health, safety, economic and democratic well-being long before government involvement. They thrive at the intersection of love and necessity.

Private sponsors cover the bulk of the costs ($27,000 for a family of four for at least a year) plus donations of furniture, clothing, and other supplies. Research indicates privately sponsored refugees fare much better than those sponsored by government because they have a support network from the moment they arrive.

275,000 refugees have come to Canada under private sponsorship since then. The conflict in Syria is prompting another resurgence of caring.

Of the 26,000 Syrian refugees recently welcomed to Canada 11,000 were welcomed by private groups of Canadians.


Once again the hospitality of Canadians is outstripping the capacity of their government.

As many as 9000 groups of caring citizens are waiting to sponsor more Syrian families. Many of these families have already been matched to a “Citizen Sponsor Group”. Apartments have been rented and furnished and money has been raised but the process has slowed almost to a halt because of cutbacks to the government staff processing the refugees.

Minister John McCallum said last week that he is “probably the only immigration minister in the world whose major challenge is not being able to deliver enough refugees quickly enough to satisfy the amazing generosity of Canadian households, Canadian families who want to sponsor them.”

Okay, he gets it. It’s time to fast-track current Syrian refugee applications. And while he is at it, he can stop making it difficult for Canadians to sponsor non-Syrian refugees – there is a backlog of 25,000 of those applications. Here is a link to the website of a group of citizens, Canada 4 Refugees, that is mobilizing to make sure the fast-tracking occurs. Support them if you can.

Teachable Moment for Governments in Pursuit of Social Innovation

I’m not convinced there is a need to stimulate more social innovation. This may be true of the tech and manufacturing sectors in Canada but it is not true of the citizen sector. We have more than enough social innovations already proven and working. The bigger challenge is not more invention. It’s spreading the benefits of those already in play. That requires a receptive government infrastructure. I know it can be done. I witnessed federal, provincial and territorial governments upgrading their welfare apparatus to accommodate the world’s first Registered Disability Savings Plan. Here’s to governments getting their groove back not just for Syrian refugees but also for all the innovations emerging from the hearts of passionate amateurs.

Note: Proud to see Vickie’s creation Tyze, being used to support the work of the Refugee Response Group in Edmonton.


It’s a wonder that so many people are good, not that so many people are evil.

     – Carol Shields

Musical selection this post is “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” by Kathleen Edwards. Purchase here.


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