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The hidden sector: halfway between public and private

As northerners, we often fixate on the types of development we lack in the North.

by Vivian Belik

As northerners, we often fixate on the types of development we lack in the North. But Lakehead University researcher Christ Southcott has found that northerners - and Yukoners in particular - have a wealth of social economy organizations that many southerners don’t have.

Sitting at the crossroads between the private and the public sector, social economic organizations offer services that the government and private sector are either unable or unwilling to provide.

Raven Recycling is the most tangible example. After the Yukon government created a refund system for recyclables in the 1980s, a group of local environmentalists teamed up to build a recycling facility. Today, it’s a successful and growing non-profit society that depends on profits, not donations, to survive.

The social economic sector in Canada is strongest in the North, and it’s the Yukon that has the most thriving social economy amongst the three territories. A research study in 2010 found that the Yukon housed 43 per cent of the total 1,178 social economy organizations in the North.

Southcott points to the Yukon’s history and demographics to explain the imbalance. Seventy five per cent of the Yukon is non-indigenous and education rates in the Yukon are higher. But one of the biggest indicators is the type of social economy organizations that exist in the Yukon.

“The Yukon is unique,” says Southcott. “There’s a much higher percentage of organizations devoted to sports and culture than other parts of the North.” Whereas much of the social economy in the Northwest Territories is dedicated to law, advocacy and politics, an overwhelming 41 per cent of the Yukon’s social economy revolves around sports, recreation, tourism and culture. “There are cultural organizations and literary societies that exist in the Yukon that you can’t find anywhere else in the North,” he says.

Geography and isolation make social economies more attractive and plentiful in the North than in the south. “There’s that idea that you have to rely on each other to provide for services because of geographic isolation,” says Southcott. Rather than wait for government to do something, northerners have formed their own groups to make things happen. And in the past, where the private sector hasn’t been able to operate as effectively, social economies have stepped in.

But the social economy sector is often overlooked as a potential solution to problems such as housing. “It’s not as sexy as a private-sector or government solution,” says Southcott. As a result, social economies may not receive the necessary backing from governments that they should.

A case in point is the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition, which attempted to build a transition home for hard-to-house addicts in Whitehorse two years ago. They had secured land, obtained zoning approval, recruited an architect and even had a builder lined up. The only thing they didn’t have was government funding to support the project. As a result, the coalition dissolved.

And if governments do finance social economic ventures, there’s always a fear they’ll offload responsibility onto these organizations. “Governments can end up looking at social economy as a means of passing the buck,” says Southcott. “That’s fine as long as they provide organizations with the resources to be successful. But often that doesn’t happen.” The social economy sector is heavily reliant on volunteers and people who are overworked, he adds.

There’s been little research about social economy organizations across the North. It’s unfortunate, says Southcott, who just finished wrapping up a five-year study of the social economy sector in the North. “For many of us looking at development issues in the North, we’re always stuck on the limited capacity that exists,” he says. “We continually focus on issues that relate to government and problems in the developing private sector. But there is a lot of potential in the social economic sector. One of the strengths of social economic organizations is the desire for people to work together to solve problems. It’s the essence of social economy.”

Chris Southcott will be in Whitehorse on Thursday, February 28 to present a paper on social economic organizations in the Yukon. The lecture is part of Yukon College’s lunchtime Brown Bag series. For more information go to

This column is coordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at