I am based in Toronto, Canada and over the last couple years I’ve had the privilege of visiting clients in NYC, LA, DC, the Bay Area, and Vancouver. Of these places, Vancouver is the one I’ve visited the most often and have spent the most time in, and where I inevitably find myself thinking about a very common point of conversation: Why does Vancouver have a digital campaigns culture and not Toronto? Or, more broadly, why has Vancouver developed a digital campaigns culture similar to those commonly found in American cities?
For folks who aren’t familiar, Toronto is roughly the size in population and geography as Chicago, making it about 5 times larger than Vancouver - so we know that population isn’t a factor. As I’ve considered this question in the back of my mind over the years I have slowly identified three ingredients that exist in those other cities but not in Toronto. So here they are:
Digital-First NGOs that act like incubators for staff and strategy
I’m more familiar with Vancouver's landscape than the US cities mentioned, but Vancouver is relatively well stocked with digital-first and digital-centric NGOs. Groups like OpenMedia, Leadnow, and SumofUS who pioneer digital campaigns and whose staff then go on to work at other NGOs and bring pieces of the culture and strategy with them. This distribution of staff and strategy allows institutional knowledge to percolate more broadly within the change movement. While these style of digital-first orgs are basically non-existent in Toronto, we've got the privilege of having Leadnow's Toronto team as our office mates.
Large scale training opportunities like NOI RootsCamp
This one is a bit tough since there was no NOI last year, but for anyone who has been to RootsCamp in the past, they know the that low-barrier to entry unconferences is a critical piece of infrastructure at leveling up entry-level campaigns and enhancing their skills. There are almost weekly events happening in these cities, from organizing conferences, spaces for frank exchanges of ideas, and social change meetups. Also, Rootscamp is back this year and is now a part of the Wellstone and thier robust training program for digital campaigners. If there's hope for Toronto it's coming from our clients at the Broadbent Institute and their training programs.
Large scale opportunities for involvement in digital, like presidential cycles & plebiscite
This is the big difference between the Canadian and American political cycles and their impact on digital campaigns culture. In a Canadian election, resources, jobs, and scale skew in the extreme towards centralized control in the central parties, leaving local campaigns as relatively bare-bones operations. While there are a number of structural factors for this, one of the outcomes is that it’s extremely difficult to find digital work (entry-level and above) in the political world.
British Columbia, uniquely among the Canadian provinces but similarly to California and other American jurisdictions, has power of citizen initiative (also known as a ballot initiative, referendum, or plebiscites). Since being introduced, BC has had four large-scale voting opportunities: two on electoral reform, and two plebiscites on tax measures. There have also been additional referendum attempts on marijuana decriminalization and preparations are currently underway for a province-wide campaign on the question of pipelines and tankers. These types of large scale electoral mobilizations are nearly unheard of Ontario.
Implementing these three very diverse sets of circumstances clearly isn’t something that is possible overnight. But recreating these conditions in our own communities could be the key to fostering a robust digital campaigning culture in your city.