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National Opinion Centre

Most throne speeches are primarily political affairs, designed to either obscure some kind of scandal or poor performance or to usher in some emerging initiative by putting immediate wind in its sails.  Occasionally it deals with both, as is the case with this week’s attempt to change the channel.

Rumors abound, with some maintaining that some new policy will be announced, perhaps dealing with serious climate change regime or a more radical announcement regarding alleviating poverty.  A new finance minister and a newly-minted opposition leader will push Ottawa in new directions for this coming parliament.  It’s heady stuff for political junkies.

Lost in it all are the fates of this country’s 170,000 charities and non-profits, who have felt the chill of the long shadow cast by the We scandal.  They have largely been shunted to the side in all the political shenanigans and yet most of them serve at the leading edge of the COVID-19 assault.  They have helped thousands to navigate the maze of government bureaucracy in search of financial relief.  Their efforts in assisting new Canadians to manage their way through this crisis have been impressive.  On a more fundamental level, these organizations have fed the poor, housed the homeless, supported those facing a pandemic while struggling with mental illness and addictions and they have worked overtime to assist the unemployed in their quest for security.

But there is more.  New and old voices have come together to call for a different kind of economy coming out of COVID-19, something fairer and more inclusive.  And impressive wave of advocates lift their voices every day, with viable research in hand, pointing out that women are increasingly losing out on initiatives to get its economic health on a more steady path.

In other words, these are the people and organizations, along with frontline workers in emergencies and in health, who this country has depended on to take care of the vulnerable while the rest of us seek to take care of ourselves and our families.  They are the stalwarts of humanity in a sea of confusion and the behind the scenes battles waged by those seeking greater financial advantage for themselves out of all this chaos.  We owe them much.

But that’s not what they are getting.  As Shachi Kurl pointed to recently in the Ottawa Citizen:

New research released this week by the Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with Cardus, Charitable Impact, Imagine Canada, Philanthropic Foundations Canada, United Way and Canada Helps, shows that the WE affair has left a distinctly bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Canadians donors . . . A majority of the 85 per cent in this country who currently contribute say it has raised questions about the governance, transparency and management of all charities. Significant segments say it has shaken their confidence in the organizations to which they have given in the past. Many say it’s changed how they feel about giving altogether.

This is seismic in its implications.  Just as they are reeling from meeting a challenge unlike anything seen in a century, large parts of their respective donor bases are having their doubts.  And if people stop donating, it will be inconceivable that any level of government can pick up the slack.  Perhaps even worse, what happens if volunteers dry up over this escapade?  In 2017, the volunteer contribution in Canada was valued at $55.9 billion dollars, or the equivalent of 2.6 per cent of our GDP.

This has been what the We scandal has wrought – the very disparagement that the government hopes to put behind them in tomorrow’s throne speech.

The desire for the Trudeau government to move on is natural and inevitable, but in the process, it must throw its weight behind those organizations who have been thrust into disarray as a result of its mishandling of the WE file a short time ago.  In reality, should the government opt to do nothing, it will have undermined the very sector of society that the Prime Minister continues to claim has made this country one of the most compassionate in the world.  Caring it may be, but fair?  That’s another matter.

The pandemic was already reducing the options of most charities and non-profits as the WE controversy erupted.  Almost 49 per cent of donors say they are giving less than before COVID arrived.  That they had previously give $10 billion a year was impressive, but that number is now in decline.

So, just how are the vulnerable and marginalized in this country going to fare if those charged with caring for them are cutting back because of a scandal that they had nothing to do with?  Will all levels of government step up to fill the gap?  Unlikely.

Priority number one should be the actions of the federal government to restore the level of trust enjoyed by these organizations before the WE imbroglio.  Kurl suggests that the feds should encourage that confidence by matching dollar for dollar any donations made to Canadian charities during this pandemic, as it occasionally does in times of global emergencies.    She points out that nearly 40 per cent of Canadians affirm they would donate more with such a program.  Kurl is right: it’s a good way of getting the country reengaged with its caring sectors.

The midst of a pandemic is no time to pull the rug from under the feet of millions of Canadians who both care and deliver that care through a variety of dedicated associations.  While the federal government seeks to defray the vestiges of the WE controversy through its throne speech, it would do just as well to reintroduce Canadians to some of their finest citizens undertaking remarkable work to lessen our present pain.

Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.
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