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Politics Ottawa asking business to help fund social programs

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is seen in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, ahead of her announcement about a new funding initiative for social policy in Canada.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is making a bold push to have business play a bigger role in funding government social programs – asking Canada's corporate and charities sector to submit ideas that could ultimately form part of the 2013 budget.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said interest in the emerging field of social finance is "very high," pointing to multimillion-dollar investments from the Royal Bank.

"We need to make sure that we're not only not getting in the way, but we're helping them advance their efforts to improve the outcomes in things like homelessness and literacy and other community challenges," Ms. Finley said.

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Some businesses are stepping up. The boss of Canada's largest bank says it is time for the private sector to do more to help tackle social problems.

"We want to see other banks [get involved], we'd love to see everybody jump on the bandwagon and support this area," Royal Bank president and chief executive Gordon Nixon said in an interview.

A more active role by businesses and foundations would benefit social-service providers on several fronts, he said. It would attract fresh capital that could be re-invested in more projects, and force charities to develop better measures to show their impact. It is time to rethink how social services are delivered, Ms. Finley said on Thursday in a speech peppered with references to the limits of government intervention and the importance of individual initiative.

"As Ronald Reagan once said: 'The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help,'" she told 400 business and charity leaders at a social finance conference in Toronto.

"But folks, here's the straight talk: we can't fund every single, solitary service that people want, without regard for the taxpayers' ability to pay for it. So it's time to shift gears."

Officially, Ms. Finley's announcement is a "call for concepts." But her comments suggest the government is looking at much bigger changes that could start next year. The deadline for proposals is the end of December.

The opposition NDP called the move a "PR stunt to make up for the fact that they are making these reckless cuts."

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The World Wildlife Fund is studying how private investment could help support a sustainable fishery in Newfoundland, while the United Way Toronto has funded 24 social enterprises – businesses that blend a social or environmental goal with generating a financial return.

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