Policy Case Studies

Between the 6-week modules in each term, students spend two weeks on Policy Case Studies, taught by practitioners. The case study classes are small and highly interactive between students and instructors. Each case study spans five half-days, developing the complete storyline and multi-dimensional complexity of an actual policy, including:

  • problem recognition and context
  • the need for new policy action
  • identification of various policy options
  • economic, environmental, fiscal, political, and social analysis of policy options
  • identification of key policy trade-offs
  • necessary stakeholder engagement
  • communication challenges
  • final policy decision, implementation


The Policy Case Studies for 2023-2024 are:

A School Food Program for Canada: A Case Study of a Successful Social Movement for Policy Change

Policy change often comes after years of cultural change and its more visible expression in the development of grassroots engagement, organizing and mobilizing. This course will examine the decades-long work of the school food movement in creating a successful campaign for “A School Food Program for Canada”. Focusing on this process, Debbie Field and David Kraft will reference the experiences of other movements for change, to provide a conceptual framework and a practical approach that is relevant to understanding, analyzing and participating in the development of any social movement for policy change.

Instructor: Debbie Field, Coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food and David Kraft, Senior Associate of Strategic Communications Inc.

Alberta’s Climate Change Plan

With its 2015 climate change leadership plan, Alberta joined a very select group of petroleum producers (Norway, Holland and the UK) who have reached for a global leadership role in addressing climate change. In this policy case study, Brian Topp, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s chief of staff in 2015 and 2016 and one of that plan’s architects, will outline his perspective on its background, genesis, and fate – a case study in economic and political strategic governance.

Instructor: Brian Topp, Former Chief of Staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow

Preventing Violence Against Women and Children in Kenya

This case study is about a ground-breaking initiative aimed at combating sexual violence. It started with public interest litigation in Kenya following multiple cases of sexual assault against young girls in central/eastern Kenya. The case involves not only issues of criminal law, but also policy issues that were the product of indifferent governments, inadequate policing, and community inertia. A group of girls ranging from 3 to 17 years of age, working through an NGO, sued the Kenyan government for the damage they had experienced, not only physically, but all in terms of lack of access to personal security, to education, and to life opportunities. They secured a landmark victory in 2013. But that victory turned out to be just the beginning. In this case study, students will have the opportunity to examine how public policy can be reformed and official attitudes changed starting with civil society organizations and the courts, and ending with a police training, political and policy changes, and engagement through the arts and sports to improve awareness. Concepts such as instrument choice and the policy cycle will be reviewed, as well as legal tools to analyze concepts of gender equality. Students will also review leading cases on violence against women in national and international jurisdictions. This course will be of particular interest for students who would like additional background in preparing for the Law, Human Rights and Public Policy course. Please note that this course addresses difficult and sensitive topics and may be disturbing or triggering for some students.

Instructor: Pearl Eliadis, Associate Professor

Women’s Equality Rights in India

Across the globe, pluralist democracies grapple with the issue of balancing gender equality with religious freedom and group rights. This seminar will examine how the Indian Supreme Court mediates the tension between these competing interests and the extent to which it affirms women’s rights through the lens of its ruling in Shayara Bano v. Union of India.  Shayara Bano is a good example of the steps involved in the formulation of public policy, starting from civil society action, leading to constitutional litigation and finally culminating in law reform. This course is designed to provide students with a framework for analyzing the debates that shape public policy, focusing on constitutional rights in the areas of legal pluralism, minority rights, religious freedom and women’s rights within the family. Through the course, students will evaluate the emancipatory potential of constitutional law to develop understandings of justice that can improve the lives of women and move them further towards equality.   

Instructor: Vrinda Narain, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law

Supporting Underserved and Marginalized Populations

The province of Quebec has been a trailblazer when it comes to early childhood development, which is an important lever for developing healthy families and societies. This year marks the 25th anniversary since the inaugural public policy that led to the creation of a province-wide network of not-for-profit early childhood centres called “Centres de la petite enfance” (or CPE) which aimed to increase gender equity and family / work balance and to promote equal opportunities for all. Fast forward a quarter of a century later, and there now exists a very large body of scientific evidence in the area of early childhood education demonstrating that such programs increase school readiness and the likelihood of high school graduation, reduce educational achievement gaps for children from low-income communities and promote health equity. Moreover, it is estimated there is a benefit to the overall economy of $2 to $4 for every dollar invested, as well as increased earnings for children when they grow up. This policy case study therefore highlights how a federal initiative currently underway aims to create a Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care system through enacting public policy “to set out the Government of Canada’s vision for a Canada-wide, community-based early learning and child care system" (https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/bill/C-35/first-reading), investing up to 30 billion dollars over 5 years, as well as negotiating early learning and child care agreements with all 13 provinces and territories. This 15-hour graduate-level course provides students with the opportunity to learn about evidence-informed decision-making and the multiple types of expertise and sources of evidence that can be used to clarify policy decisions and their implications to maximize benefits, minimize harms, and ensure a fair distribution of benefits and harms. Students will also learn about the social determinants of health, measurement of health disparities, and organizational interventions in health and social care that promote health equity. The aim of this course is to help students understand the many different inputs, stakeholders and considerations involved, as well as the jurisdictional, legal, ethical and systems factors at play in creating supportive social environments and promoting healthier and more inclusive societies. Each day of the course there are opportunities for discussion, answering questions as well as helping with brainstorming ideas for student assignments and the final student project.

Instructor: Anne Andermann, Associate Professor in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine

Seeking to convince Russia to eliminate a Non-Tariff Barrier: Stakeholder Management by a Multinational Corp

This case study provides an insider’s view of Stakeholder engagement an influencing in a high-stakes business environment.   At its core is Russia’s steadfast refusal to provide airworthiness certification to Canadian- and Brazilian-made Regional Jets and their US-made Aero-engines.  This refusal was a blatant attempt to preserve the Russian market for an indigenous RJ in development (the Sukhoi SuperJet). Important context for the case study includes Russia’s ongoing but as-yet incomplete accession to the WTO and Sukhoi’s own attempts to market and sell its aircraft internationally.  We will explore how a group of MNCs from Canada and other countries devised and managed a sophisticated stakeholder engagement campaign at the highest international levels, seeking to change this Russian policy.  

Instructor: Michael McAdoo

How to Reduce Poverty in a Big City: a Community Approach

Municipalities are often described as the level of government closest to the population but are traditionally viewed as having a limited role in reducing poverty. Despite its national and provincial aspects, poverty reduction should also be a major preoccupation for municipal leaders. This case study will examine a bottom-up local policy initiative on poverty reduction in the Borough of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (CDN-NDG), the City of Montréal’s most populous and diverse neighbourhood. It will examine how and why this initiative was launched and the challenges associated with such community driven policy development, risk taking, and innovation.

Instructor: Russell Copeman

Participatory Canada: Prototyping & Scaling Social Infrastructure that Centers Truth & Reconciliation

This course provides public policy students with an introduction to social infrastructure generally, and an in-depth look at the case of Participatory Canada, prototyped in 2020-2021 in Montreal, Toronto, and Halifax. Focus is on an approach that is Indigenous-(co)led by the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre and that embeds Truth & Reconciliation at the heart. We’ll discuss policy issues that can be addressed by this social infrastructure and study the ‘participatory city approach’ and how it was adapted to distinct local contexts. Students will learn about: social R&D in a policy context, outcomes of prototyping social infrastructure during the pandemic, emerging strategy, what it means to center Truth & Reconciliation in community work that is inclusive and aims to decolonize, and longer-term financing and policy challenges and innovations that could support social infrastructure needed for rapidly changing futures.

Instructor: Jayne Engle, Adjunct Professor in McGill's School of Urban Planning and Max Bell School of Public Policy

From Canada to Timbuktu: Peacekeeping in the Quicksand of Mali

In 2015, the Trudeau government committed to restoring Canada’s historic leadership in peacekeeping as part of Canada’s foreign policy renewal and campaign for a UN Security Council seat. Following extensive consultations across the government, with the UN in parallel with allies, the government opted for a one-year Air Task Force in Mali as the centerpiece of its effort. What factors led to this decision? At the time, Mali hosted the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission, struggling to protect itself. Mali’s peace process had stalled in the years since French and partner military forces wrested the country from a combination of terrorist and rebel groups. Can Canada help bring peace to Mali? How did the military mission complement other Canadian and international tools to build peace, such as diplomacy, policing, security sector reform, stabilization programs and development assistance?

Instructor: Andrew Ng

Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda

In post-conflict nations, who is held responsible for mass atrocities and what processes should be used? How do governments manage difficult political and social transitions while attempting to reconcile torn societies? States must achieve a fine balance between political stability and social peace on the one hand and demands for justice and accountability on the other. This case study examines how the Rwandan government, donors and the ‘international community’ sought to resolve those tensions in the years following the 1994 genocide in a decimated nation with an obliterated justice system and a traumatized population. The seminar will focus on how institutional policy instruments were created and implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s to provide students with a framework to analyze difficult public policy choices in contexts where none of the usual policy prescriptions apply.

Instructor: Pearl Eliadis

Canada, Quebec, and Immigration 

Successfully adopting comprehensive immigration policy continues to present a major challenge for Western democracies. In the United States, polarizing contentious debates surrounding border control and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants have been ongoing for years with no consensus in sight. In Europe, a failure to deliver a comprehensive and effective immigration framework has resulted in some member states refusing to take in a significant number of migrants.

Despite the many challenges to building, adopting or reforming immigration policy, Canada’s point-based immigration system is generally well regarded by both Canadian citizens and the international community. This course will allow the participant to gain a better understanding of the challenges to finding consensus on immigration reform, with a special emphasis on the Quebec perspective.

The Canada-Quebec Accord of 1991 takes into account the province’s distinct francophone identity, and gives Quebec complete jurisdiction over economic immigration. This makes Quebec the only province in the country to control the selection of over seventy percent of its immigrant population.

In the midst of the contentious reasonable accommodation debate on the rights of religious minorities (2007), the Quebec government moved to adopt an immigration plan that increased immigration levels over the next 3 years. Though the 2008-2010 immigration plan was adopted, the provincial government’s plan was met with sustained opposition throughout the consultation process. Participants will explore questions including: How does one advance policy under contentious circumstances? How are stakeholders identified and how can they be persuaded? Should the government have pulled back and changed course in spite of the data confirming the advantages of the policy?

Participants will also explore the often-invisible work that supports the development of an immigration plan and its ultimate adoption. Discussion will address the importance of consulting different constituencies and stakeholders, consensus building, and the importance of communicating a vision.

Through this case study, participants will explore the inherent challenges of framing a policy response in the world of identity politics, the media’s influence on debate and the relevance of setting up performance indicators to test the policy strengths and weaknesses.

Instructor: Yolande James

Managing Principled Trade-offs in International Public Policy: Lessons from International Peace, Security and Humanitarian Interventions

International public policy makers continually manage trade-offs among often-competing principles in complex and highly politicized environments. United Nations officials working in situations of violent conflict around the world are faced with daily decisions on how to balance political vs. humanitarian priorities, short- vs. long-term objectives, and expedient vs. principled solutions. Each decision has life and death implications for those affected by conflict, for the effectiveness of the United Nations, and for the viability and legitimacy of multilateral approaches to managing violence and alleviating suffering.

This seminar examines the competing principles at play in international complex emergencies, and the processes by which international public policymakers manage decision making in delicate and dynamic political and humanitarian environments. Looking across a series of historical and ongoing violent conflicts around the world, the course will examine how universal principles come into contact with real-world situations and imperatives. For example, the course will analyse how public policy makers balance trade-offs between the universality of human rights versus sovereignty, and humanity versus neutrality. The course will delve into the management of institutional interests and reputation as a consideration in public policy making and address innate tensions between the universal principle of state sovereignty and the mandate of many international organizations, including the United Nations, to pursue specific normative objectives.

Using a participatory approach, participants in the seminar will actively engage with the processes for managing these trade-offs, including stakeholder management and consultation, transparency and public engagement, moral and ethical reasoning, and internal debate and decision-making. In so going, the seminar aims to equip participants with an understanding of nuance and complexity in international public policy making; the skills to manage complex operational, ethical, and political questions in highly charged and morally laden situations; and practical expertise applying these skills to a broad variety of real-world scenarios of international public policy, including international aid and development, trade and economic assistance, and international diplomacy and negotiation.

Instructor: Dirk Druet

Domestic vs. International Politics: Canada-United States-Mexico Trade Agreement – Is Any Deal Better Than No Deal?

The negotiations to replace the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were fraught with tensions and political gamesmanship. The resulting agreement, the Canada-United States Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) was, in many respects, weaker than the original. These events offer important considerations for policy analysis, including the interplay of domestic and international factors that underpin a decision to pursue a major external policy goal, negotiation strategies under conditions of asymmetry, and the trade-offs between political and economic objectives in the pursuit of policy goals. This policy case study utilizes negotiation simulations, guest speakers from the trade teams of the three countries, and academic analysts. The CUSMA case will be augmented by discussions of trade dynamics in Europe and Asia to create a more complete understanding of contemporary economic integration and fragmentation.

Instructor: Laura Dawson

Human Trafficking

The purpose of this case study is to explore the international and national legal frameworks governing human trafficking; identify the indicators of human trafficking; foster an understanding of the complexities of human trafficking in a discussion/seminar format; unpack different conceptions of human trafficking and their influence on public policy and law; reflect on the structural factors that facilitate exploitative and coercive conditions and practices, including legal and policy conditions.

Instructor: Olivia Smith

Preventing Homelessness in Quebec 

This case study is about a novel policy initiative designed to address homelessness “upstream” through prevention strategies that protect access to adequate and affordable housing.

Inadequate housing is a pervasive and persistent policy problem with no single cause or entry point for solving it. Canada occupies the lowest position among G7 countries in terms of housing units per 1,000 residents, while municipal authorities bluntly warn of a “humanitarian crisis. Quebec alone has almost 6,000 visibly unhoused people, most of whom are in Montreal, and thousands more are living in hidden homelessness or other unstable housing situations.

The Quebec Homelessness Prevention Policy Collaborative is a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral policy collaborative launched in 2021 by Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission and McGill University. It examines policy options for Québec and catalyzes law reform through rights-based, people-centered approaches. The case study will give students real-time insights into building and sustaining a multi-sectoral policy initiative: topics include the initial conceptualization and design of the collaborative, the creation of partnerships and research streams, knowledge co-creation, communications, and outreach strategies. During the week, students will hear from key members of the Collaborative, including practitioners, academics, and civil society leaders.

Instructor: Pearl Eliadis

Responding to the Freedom Convoy

A series of highly disruptive protests and blockades began in Ottawa in January 2022 that attracted attention around the world. The initial movement focused on opposing vaccine mandates for crossing the US border but evolved over time into protests against COVID-19 mandates and government writ large. Downtown Ottawa was effectively brought to a standstill, and several offshoot protests stopped traffic across the Canada-US border. After several weeks of growing tensions, the federal Government invoked the Emergencies Act on 14 February 2022 for the first time since its creation in 1988. A week later, the convoy protests were over. A Public Order Emergency Commission (the Rouleau Commission) looking into the invocation of the Emergencies Act produced its final report in February 2023.

This policy lab will explore the origins of the so-called Freedom Convoy protests across Canada during the winter of 2022, as well as the response of government at various levels. What prompted such near-fanatical protests? Was it just COVID-19 or part of a broader statement against the role of government in society and the lives of individual Canadians? How effective were the protests in achieving their aims? How effective was the government response? Was there adequate coordination between federal, provincial and municipal levels? Did the various police forces involved perform adequately? The intelligence community? Did it evolve into a national security crisis as the government claimed, and if so, when? Was the invocation of the Emergencies Act warranted? Were the conclusions and recommendations of the Rouleau Commission helpful? What lessons were learned for future such events?


Instructor: Neil Bouwer

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