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Evolution of CICan

Becoming the voice of Canada’s colleges and institutes

Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan or the Association of Canadian Community Colleges – ACCC, as it was called until 2014), was founded in 1972 at a time of significant change in the landscape of post-secondary education in Canada. The university system was already fully established but, because of increased demand for skilled workers following the Second World War, the community college system dramatically expanded across the entire country between the 1950s and early 1970s. Today, more than 95% of all Canadians live within 50km of a college or institute. As that network grew, so did CICan.

Our evolution through the years

Recognizing the rapidly expanding college and institute system, a nation-wide survey was conducted within that network in the late 1960s indicating 91% of respondents were in favour of establishing a national association.1 As a result, representatives from community colleges and other associations gathered in Ottawa in November 1970 and voted for the creation of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. A Constitution Conference was organized in October 1972, during which the Association’s by-laws were formally approved and the ACCC (hereafter referred to as CICan) became an official legal organization. Our National Secretariat office was initially set up in Montreal (briefly at Cégep du Vieux Montréal and then at Vanier College), before relocating to Centennial College in Toronto in 1973. We received an initial operating grant from the Kellogg Foundation in 1976 and, with that funding, we immediately launched our Canadian Studies Office, an international program, and a publication house to more easily reach our members. To ensure that we visibly represented all colleges and institutes, we moved our Secretariat offices off campus, to commercial accommodation in 1979.

As our advocacy efforts intensified throughout the 1980s, our Secretariat staff was frequently commuting to Ottawa. This led to promising partnerships and new funding opportunities. For example, in 1985, we received $134 000 in funding from Employment and Immigration Canada to lead a multi-year human resource study, “Making Canada Productive”, and we began to form strong links with Industry Canada through our work with the federal Sector Councils. To capitalize on our momentum and continue to build fruitful relationships with the federal government and other national organizations, we rebranded our Canadian Studies Office as the National Services Bureau in 1987-1988 and relocated our Secretariat offices to Ottawa in 1992. The move to Ottawa both facilitated the work of the Secretariat and represented our commitment to serve as the national voice of our members when interacting with senior federal decision makers and other national organizations.

Following our move to Ottawa, we continued to prioritize our members’ advocacy priorities such as applied research, the environment, Indigenous education, skills development, infrastructure and supporting internationalization. This helped us establish ongoing partnerships with federal ministries and organization, including Human Resource and Skills Development Canada (now Employment and Social Development Canada), Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada), Health Canada, Industry Canada (now Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (now Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada), and the Canadian International Development Agency (now Global Affairs).

We have always ensured that our Board of Directors both reflects our members and regional diversity as well as providing skills-based leadership. Our Board was originally comprised of member presidents, deans, faculty, support services, and even students. With a strong endorsement from our members, we restructured to a 12-member board in 2005 and were thus better prepared for strategic leadership. Since then, in order to ensure the strength and growth of our organization, we have continued to pursue and maintain a balanced approach of skill- and competency-based leadership to complement regional representation institutional diversity.

The growth of CICan

CICan started as a dedicated staff of three who launched three departments in 1976 – the Canadian Studies Bureau, the International Program, and our Publication department. By 1979, we grew to 19 staff members and increased further to 30 staff members by 1983. In that same year, we were involved in delivering projects in 40 different countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. We topped 100 members by 1985. Since then, we have only continued to grow, with many of our conferences gathering over 1000 members annually and our reach rapidly expanding. By 1993, we were in partnership with Industry, Science and Technology Canada, the World Congress on the Environment and Communication for Education and Development, Environment Canada, CIDA, Employment and Immigration Canada, the National Educational Organizations Committee, Health and Welfare Canada, and Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada. Between 1991 and 2007, we worked with our members on 631 projects with 734 overseas partners in 105 countries.2

Since then, the association has continued to grow at a rapid pace, both in terms of staff and the number of programs it delivers. In 2020-2021 alone we recruited an impressive 35 new employees. Despite the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a period of tremendous growth, during which our association was able to showcase its essential role as the voice of colleges and institutes in Ottawa at a critical time.

It was also an opportunity to rethink some of our services to members, and how to facilitate the sharing of best practices at a time where we couldn’t meet in person. This included the launch of Perspectives Live, a brand-new online show that allows us to dig into a different topic each month. This was also a way to complement our more traditional offering of networking and professional development opportunities.

We have always been at the forefront of delivering leadership development opportunities for our members. In 1991 we hosted our inaugural President’s Academy to support the development of a strong cadre of leaders in the college sector. Since then, we have added a number of leadership institutes, each tailored to a different position and providing participants with the opportunity to learn from distinguished college and institute leader. As of 2021, we offer nine institutes each year (seven in English and two in French), whose popularity with members has only grown over the years.

Diversity & Innovation in Funding

In addition to the extensive and ongoing support we receive from our federal government partners, we have always sought to innovate and diversify our funding sources and opportunities. Our initial operating money was provided by the American Kellogg Foundation in 1976, and their financial support enabled the earliest work of the organization before we received our first batch of federal funding in 1978. As our international program roster expanded, we began to pursue additional funding opportunities through the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank in 1984. Our first ADB-financed project was approved in that same year, to support the development of a skills-upgrading program for teachers in Thailand.3 We went on to win 19 contracts with the ADB after 1996. We launched our Corporate Alliance program in 2001 with select corporate partners who provide vital services, goods, and support to our members. These partners have included TD Bank, AVIS Budget Group, BGIS, RBC, CISCO, and Dell.

In 2016, in partnership with the Canadian government, four member colleges, and three private sector investors, we developed the first social financing project in Canada. The Essential Skills Social Finance project was created to deliver essential-skills training to unemployed adult Canadians through four college partners, while piloting this new funding model. This was the first time that social impact bonds were used nationally in Canada, with the investors and program participants reporting positive outcomes.

Today, we enjoy the partnership of organizations like the McConnell Foundation, who are supporting our ImpAct programs focused on enhancing sustainability on college campuses, and the Mastercard Foundation, with whom we are implementing the Young Africa Works program, with the goal of supporting 30 million young Africans in finding dignified and fulfilling work by 2030.