Interview: Andrew Chunilall, Chief Executive Officer of Community Foundations Canada, on their work with the SDGs

Par Manuel Litalien , Co-directeur du Centre Régional de l'Ontario
10 juillet 2020

Andrew Chunilall Community Foundations CanadaAndrew Chunilall joined Community Foundations Canada in 2013 and became CEO in 2017, following a six-year tenure as Vice-President of Finance for the London Community Foundation and his long-standing service as a finance and regulatory expert for Canada’s philanthropic milieu. Now at the head of the community foundation movement, Andrew is working closely with the Community Foundations of Canada Leadership team, Board and foundations in Canada and abroad to help the philanthropic sector transform, innovate and meet the new challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. An increasingly active public speaker, Andrew is helping raise awareness for how the philanthropic sector’s convening power, leadership and action around targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals can help Canadian communities reach their full potential.


Interview led by Manuel Litalien, Co-director of the Ontario Hub

Manuel Litalien (ML): How did you get involved with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and why are they important at a time like this?

Andrew Chunilall (AC): I first learned about SDGs during the consultation process that led to the establishment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs. I attended a meeting held by the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the Aga Khan Foundation in 2014 or 2015. My understanding of the SDG framework at the time was that it was more centred around the global South and poorer countries. I later saw how this orientation developed into a divisive dynamic – a North versus South, rich versus poor, developed versus developing nations paradigm –   one which was intensified in Canada under Harper’s Conservative government. Harper was not very enthusiastic about adopting a robust foreign agenda, and worried about foreign perceptions of Canada in the context of emerging global risks and dynamics around climate change, and how the country was stepping up to the task. 

Growing up in a privileged society like Canada, we tend to develop biases and misconceptions about the rest of the world. We would greatly benefit from getting out of Canada and seeing the world and we do ourselves a disservice when we consider travel a luxury. Yes, it is a privilege to be able to do so, but it is also a necessity. As it stands, we show up with our perceived sense of power and our embedded biases, and think we know what is best for others. We even do so within our own country, which has created many impediments for philanthropy. In contrast, in a community foundation I work with, we pride ourselves in local knowledge and the depth of connection we have with our communities. These are valuable attributes that serve us well. And yet, as we delve deeper into the importance of local knowledge in philanthropy, the world around us has become evermore globalized, a phenomenon that has been greatly highlighted by the current pandemic. Canadians have tended to blame globalization for the problems they face, such as changing industries and communities, and yet continue to look for solutions locally, misalining the problems and solutions in doing so. We cannot solve massive global challenges by only acting locally, a broader action framework is required. 

When looking at SDG 17, regarding partnerships, they have to be quite expansive and global. For example, take the housing affordability crisis on the West Coast. Many people have blamed foreign wealth entering the country as the problem, and yet many Canadians have benefitted from that wealth as well. What we’re witnessing is a contradiction in people’s stance on housing: they are satisfied with the incredible increased value of their homes, and yet are frustrated that their children cannot afford that same house. We cannot have it both ways. It is a much more complex issue than many want to believe. Canada is not creating wealth at a high enough pace within its own borders and has heavily relied on oil as the sole creator of wealth. For Canada to prosper, the wealth being generated cannot come solely from our resource industry, which is now facing competition from foreign elements. We must instead engage in economic innovation when striving for self-sustainability and stop depending on Canada being a safe harbour for foreign wealth. That is the systemic issue at the heart of the housing crisis. 

Another example is General Dynamics, a military vehicle manufacturer whose biggest contract is with Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, the company is creating employment for the middle class and fostering economic prosperity for their community through the production of military vehicles. On the other hand, they are selling to a country with a diverging view on gender equality which creates a dissonance within the company regarding SDGs. When we factor in globalization, the SDGs are sometimes in contradiction, such as with economic prosperity and gender equality in this case, and choices need to be made. Another case that demonstrates the intersectionality of SDGs is when the community foundation movement was asked to help Prime Minister Trudeau welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. The community sector’s initial hesitation stemmed from the view that Canada already had its own problems, and that accepting such a massive number of refugees would add more stress on the system. Previously, Canada had been able to protect itself against mass migration mainly due to its geography, but with globalization, we are directly impacted by what is happening around the world, and cannot escape it. When faced with these difficult situations, the SDGs provide a framework to better understand such complex issues as globalization and intersectionality.

ML: Would you say the SDG framework is a move in the right direction in acknowledging the importance of local expertise?

AC: I wasn’t a student of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as I was with the SDGs, and did not follow the evolution from one to the other firsthand. However, from my understanding, the key aspect that makes the SDG framework more compelling is its universality. When talking about gender equality for example, we have to realize that the culture around gender is different around the world. This makes the local component vital in deciding on how to deal with different situations. We have to realize that our solutions work for our questions. When looking at other communities, they might have different questions and different contexts. SDGs have addressed the main criticism of the MDGs: that it is not about the poor, it is about everyone. When Harper was Canada’s Prime Minister, he led us to believe that the challenges the SDGs were trying to solve were not Canada’s problems, including gender. In stark contrast, when Trudeau came into office, he proclaimed himself a feminist and filled his cabinet with an equal number women and men. By recognizing that gender was indeed an issue in Canada, Trudeau created the platform necessary for a dialogue to take place, allowing people to voice their experiences and opinions and launch the movement around gender equality. This showcases how certain power dynamics can lead to an entire group of vulnerable people feeling as if they can’t speak up about issues that are not publicly recognized.

ML: In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, how important is keeping our focus on the SDGs?

AC: People view the SDGs as a brand that represents the United Nations and globalization. Now, with a global pandemic shaking up the entire world, people are blaming others, China in particular. Countries are experiencing economic shutdowns and high unemployment rates, are dealing with mental health issues, addiction and poverty because of wet markets in places with which they had no relationships. How did this come to be? The current mindset is that it could have been avoided in part if there had been more control of our borders and commerce. However, having that discussion publicly will become increasingly difficult. The economic case for globalization is easy: job creation, ingenuity, innovation, creativity, etc. Unfortunately, with any shift or change, people are going to be left behind, which leads to populism. The crisis we find ourselves in now is providing us with an opportunity to be vested in the betterment of others, especially those beyond our borders. If we take the human rights agenda for instance, how do we influence basic human rights across the globe? How can Canada become champions for that? These are the questions I ask myself.

ML: What is the role of Community Foundations Canada (CFC) regarding SDGs?

AC: We see our role as facilitating what is already naturally occurring. Every culture has a hegemonic aspect; we see a heavy influence of an Anglophone/Francophone culture on how people live in Canada. Today, we have one of the oldest populations in the world, with a replacement rate of only 2.1, meaning we are not even replacing ourselves. At the same time, Canada’s immigration is predominantly from non-European countries: Asia, Central and South America and the Middle East. When we combine these two factors, an aging Canadian population that is not replacing itself and heavy immigration from areas of the world that do not share the same cultural heritage, Canada will eventually have a population with little or no affiliation to Anglophone, Francophone or “Canadian” roots. People move to Canada because they like the country, such as how it is governed, its human rights agenda, so there are aspects that will remain. However, a transformation of Canadian culture will inevitably take place over time, be it at the policy or judicial level. It is not that anyone is advocating for that change to happen necessarily, it is more a process of facilitating the natural occurrence of cultural evolution.

ML: Do you think the relevance of the SDGs has eroded during the pandemic?

AC: Though I might be biased, I don’t think the relevance of the SDGs is lesser because of the pandemic. On the contrary, I feel their importance has increased. Nonetheless, I remain tuned in to the manifestations of nationalism, populism, and protectionism that are being played out in many countries across the globe. This radical run to protectionism and focus on the past by strengthening borders, saving culture, entrenchment, status quo and unilateralism is very much a reality of the current crisis and my goal is not to dismiss its existence. However, it is not a point of view that I share. In addition, some people share the view that the SDG framework does not serve its purpose, that it is just smoke and mirrors. Their own individual experiences with the different issues lead them to question if the issues are even real. For many of the people who had this belief, the pandemic has shed light on just how prevalent the issues covered by the SDGs actually are. 

ML: Do you feel CFC’S work has been influenced by the SDGs?

AC: In the Canadian context, philanthropy is trying to better align itself with its stakeholders. There is a generation of Canadians who have only known a globalized world. They have grown up in mixed-race families or with parents who immigrated to Canada and have more of a global connection. This will influence how they are informed about philanthropy. They also have a different way of thinking of problems because of technology; their phones allow them to experience the world in what is nearly real-time. To remain relevant and credible in the eyes of this generation, philanthropy has to create the infrastructure to facilitate global answers to global problems. If we come back to the Vancouver housing affordability crisis, implementing a vacancy tax is a demonstration of finding a local answer to a global problem, a solution that has yet to be proven successful. People are becoming more critical of the larger system, and philanthropy is part of that system. The SDG framework is a way for philanthropy, including CFC, to tackle these global issues. 

ML: How can philanthropy act at the global level while the United Nations receives criticism by one of its key players, the United States?

AC: A problem can be viewed from many different angles. It can be seen as either technical or cultural, and most of society’s problems are both. When looking at any country with universal healthcare for instance, where it is valued as a fundamental right, healthcare professionals are paid less. In comparison, in the US, with its two-tiered system, professionals who work in the private tier, which is only accessible to a specific class of people, are paid more. Canada has made the cultural decision to value healthcare for everyone, and to do so, those who work in healthcare will be paid less than those working in the US. A doctor in Canada will not choose to move to the US for a higher income because the Canadian values surrounding healthcare are more meaningful to them than money. This is a demonstration of a cultural value, universal healthcare, pairing up well with a cultural solution, paying healthcare professionals less. On the other hand, if we were to adopt a technical solution to the healthcare problem in the US, such as capping doctors’ salaries, there would be a misalignment between the technical solution and their cultural values. The US has socialized people to be capitalist through the neoliberal economic policies in place, which has fostered a certain set of values, and this technical solution does not marry well with them. 

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our social contract, which starts at the cultural level. We can use the issue of a universal income as an example, an issue has never had a strong echo in Canada up until now. With the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) introduced by the pandemic, the question now is if this form of universal income should continue after the crisis. This option will be evaluated and will lead to a cultural-based decision. The technical solutions will come from that decision, and it must happen in that order for it to be effective. A perfect example of why is the US civil rights movement. The Proclamation of Emancipation states that all Americans are free from discrimination and should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. While this may be true technically, culturally it is not the reality. We have not dealt with the cultural side of racism, and until people’s behaviour changes, until there is a cultural shift, who cares what the law says?  There is no “one size fits all” way of implementing the SDGs and each country must find the solutions that fit their cultural values. This does not mean they cannot work on the global level. 

ML: From what I’m hearing, the COVID-19 crisis is highlighting the need to re-evaluate our culture, which will have a ripple effect throughout the philanthropic sector. Do you believe this will lead to a systemic paradigm shift?

AC: Definitely. Culture is behaviour, it is a system of values. If we look at the current situation, everyone is sitting at their computers, communicating with each other. Our behaviours have drastically changed: people are not taking airplanes anymore, they are lining up to do their groceries, and are respecting social distancing when they go outside. Our behaviours have changed dramatically over the last eight weeks, and we are not going back.

ML: Have you noticed a different rapport being established among CFC staff during the crisis?

AC: Many different behaviours have emerged from the crisis. I believe the younger generation is better equipped to deal with the many behavioural adaptations the pandemic has required. In contrast, the older generation might intellectually understand how the world and their communities have changed, but are coping with more than confronting the disruptions they are experiencing. They seem to be in denial, rationalizing the status quo and trying to hold on to the past and to what they know. Most, or at least many, Canadians had good lives before the pandemic but this was definitely not the case for everyone. The quality of many of people’s lives has drastically declined because of the pandemic. It is these people, those who have nothing to lose, who will advocate for change, specifically cultural change. They will ask how we plan on building up resiliency and bringing back life to the remote, rural parts of Canada. They will point to how urbanization has not served us well during the pandemic, and ask how we will adapt to the new reality. The pandemic has brought on many new challenges and faced people with an existential threat, which can become a great catalyst for large-scale behavioural change.

ML: Thank you for taking the time to share your insight on the role of SDGs in our changing world Andrew.