Chapter 12 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Interest Groups and Social Movements

Political institutions in the Canadian democracy are not limited to the legislature, executive, federalism, and other constitutionally defined political components that have already been examined. Nor is political participation reduced to voting in elections and referendums, joining political parties, contacting politicians, and interacting with public servants. The fact of the matter is that interest groups and social movements provide ample alternative opportunities for people to be politically active.

Interest groups are usually described in terms of formal organizations that mobilize segments of the public who share a common concern and seek to influence the government’s policy position. Unlike political parties, interest groups do not recruit and offer candidates in elections in order to govern, but seek to influence the government of the day through other means. Group tactics include advertising, letter-writing campaigns, consultation, press conferences and public meetings, research-based policy reports, polling, protests, lobbying, and occasionally judicial litigation. The relative effectiveness of a group depends on factors such as its financial resources, leadership skills, and membership cohesiveness.

It is difficult to place a firm number on how many interest groups are in Canada, but they probably exist in the several thousands. These groups are found in every policy field, in each governmental jurisdiction, and in different sizes and shapes. For the most part, interest groups seek to influence the making of policy decisions, which is why the terms pressure groups and advocacy groups are commonly used as alternative names. If anything, interest groups have been more prevalent and active since the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, which constitutionally enshrouded the freedoms of speech and association, enhancing the public’s sense of empowerment to be politically active.

Lobbying refers usually to the direct communication between leaders of interest groups or their representatives and politicians and other public officials. In the absence of transparency, however, lobbying may be viewed suspiciously as an attempt to exert undue influence. This raises a dilemma, if interest group activities are guarded by the Charter, how can we prevent undue influence? The solution that has emerged is the need for lobbyists to register their lobbying activities, to limit their election spending, to prohibit employment as a lobbyist for a period of time after leaving the public service and elected office, and to be regulated by the Commissioner of Lobbying.

Besides interest groups, other avenues of political activity exist in the Canadian democracy. Think tanks, for example, are composed of policy experts in different policy fields who are often associated with universities. These think tanks are often financed by foundations and by selling their consulting services. Secondly, there are social movements that lack the formal organization and dues-paying membership of interest groups. The aims of a social movement are often more broad-based, calling for a rethinking, and thus capable of attracting support from diverse groups. It may be added that like interest groups—and probably more so—social movements experience what is known as the collective action problem with free riders. That is, there is little incentive to join a movement because the benefits won (like a cleaner environment) will be shared by both those who participated and the free riders who did not participate. In addition, social movements can also contribute to various challenges relating to proper public participation, such as slacktivism and hacktivism.

Professor Mireille Lalanchette is the professor profiled in this chapter on interest groups and social movements. Professor Lalanchette’s research is based on gender mediatization and politicians’ use of social media. She is also the lead director of What’s #Trending in Canadian Politics. One of the main issues relating to interest groups’ accountability and transparency is funding, and this chapter debates the issue of regulated interest group spending.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • identify to the role of interest groups, the different types of interest groups and the nature of group activities;
  • identify and describe social movements and think-tanks; and
  • examine the nature of lobbying as well as its controversial features.
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