O Canada: Four Uniquely Canadian Things about Volunteerism and Volunteer Engagement during COVID-19

In this special bonus post, we welcome our Canadian colleague Jessica Pang-Parks who shares her insights into volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The whole world is on the same COVID-19 car ride right now, wondering, “are we there yet?” and waiting for restrictions to lift. 

In Canada, as in most of the Western world, COVID-19 has impacted volunteerism and volunteer engagement. On May 1, 2020, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada took a poll (during a Zoom call) of fifty leaders of volunteers from across the country. No surprise, none of us said that our volunteer programs were running “business as usual”. Forty-six percent of us said that volunteering at our organizations was “shut down until further notice”.

Screen shot of research findings mentioned in the article

Indeed, many of us have had hours reduced, been furloughed, or been laid off completely. Many of those who remain employed full-time at their organizations have had to take on new responsibilities, sometimes even stepping in to be on the front lines. 

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Imagine Canada, non-profits have been included in the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidyprogram, and organizations that serve the most vulnerable can access the $350 million Emergency Community Support Fund. As well, many paid leaders of volunteers who have been laid off or furloughed have access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

In his interview with the CBC, Imagine Canada’s CEO Bruce MacDonald said that charities in Canada are being “profoundly affected by drops in revenue, by a need to change and adapt their services, by not having access to volunteers – many of whom delivered those services.” As a volunteer engagement professional, I’m glad to see that the main advocacy body for non-profits in Canada recognizes the importance and power of volunteers.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also recognizes the importance and power of volunteers. He has a particular interest in youth development through volunteerism. His father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, created Katimavik (a national youth volunteer program) in the 1970s. The younger Trudeau was a Katimavik participant as a teen and served as the organization’s chair in the early 2000s. 

As part of Canada’s COVID-19 response, Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Student Service Grant on April 22, 2020. “Students helping in the fight against COVID-19 this summer will soon be eligible for $1,000 to $5,000” depending on their volunteer hours. What does that mean? I have so many questions!

While we grapple with these questions as Canadian volunteer engagement professionals, like in other countries, some jurisdictions are reopening faster than others. And now that you have some context, let’s look at four uniquely Canadian things that affect volunteerism and volunteer engagement during COVID-19.

#1: Rural Canadians and Internet Access

Virtual volunteering isn’t new, and we must be mindful of virtual volunteering as many people “don’t know how to effectively use these tools… [or] simply lack access.” In Canada, rural residents make up over 39% of our population, and over 40% of those people don’t have broadband internet access. 

Our large rural population is a uniquely Canadian quality. Only 19% of Americans29% of Aussies14% of Kiwis, and 17% of people in the UK live in rural communities. One-third of Canadians live in communities that have “weak or no link to population centres” including indigenous communities and northern fly-in communities. 

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared high-speed internet a basic service and aimed to provide “100 percent of Canadians access to reliable, world-class mobile and fixed Internet services”. This was reflected in Canada’s 2019 budget, which committed to universal high-speed internet for all Canadians, no matter their location, by 2030. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there is new pressure on the government to implement internet infrastructure more quickly.

Canadian charities have moved much of their programming online. While some see this as a temporary measure, others see value in making online programming permanent and plan to continue to expand online offerings. When universal high-speed internet comes to Canada, our sector should be ready to respond and leverage the resources. Volunteer engagement professionals will need to continue to innovate and keep our tech skills sharp. We are in a unique position to combine technical skills with soft skills to help our organizations move their missions forward. Keep learning, and as you learn, think about how to engage volunteers with new technology solutions that emerge. 

#2: Nova Scotia Strong

Canada’s deadliest mass shooting happened in mid-April, during the COVID-19 lockdown. It happened in Nova Scotia, one of our country’s least-populated provinces with very tight-knit communities. Very quickly, volunteers organized to fundraiseshow support, and provide space for people to grieve while being physically distant. 

Much of this was driven by grassroots community organizers, first through Facebook, and more recently, working through a local law firm to establish charitable status so they can establish permanent memorials and financial supports for affected families. Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy reminds me of We Love Willowdale, which was born in a similar manner, out of tragedy after the horrific van attack in April 2019

As these organizations professionalize, they will require volunteer engagement support. This is a great opportunity for leaders of volunteers to step up and support the grassroots. We want these organizations to make volunteer engagement a strategic priority in their infancies, so a culture of volunteer engagement is inherent to their operations. Full disclosure: I live in Willowdale and have provided the We Love Willowdale leaders volunteer engagement consulting on a voluntary basis. 

What these tragedies, and the circumstances of COVID-19 have done, is get more Canadians involved with informal and/or grassroots volunteering. As Rob Jackson says, “At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?” 

Moving forward, what can professionalized Canadian non-profits learn from the grassroots organizations formed rapidly from tragedy? Perhaps less paperwork and bureaucracy? Perhaps more urgency and emotion? My personal hope is that the learning goes both ways: that “professionalized” leaders of volunteers listen to ideas from leaders of volunteers who were, until a day ago, accountants or farm hands, and that the grassroots leaders of volunteers seek our advice, experiences, and learn from our mistakes. 

#3: America – It’s Right There

The United States is our neighbour. Approximately two-thirds of Canadians live within 100km of the US border, which also happens to be the world’s “longest undefended border”. 

Right now, the biggest factor influencing the future of volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada is COVID-19. While this border is closed except for essential goods and services until at least June 21, as of May 19,  US still has the world’s largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. A famous cross-border couple, Justin and Hailey Bieber, are spending the lockdown in Waterloo, Ontario. 

So, if there is a second, or third, or fourth spike in the Canadian curve because Americans start travelling to Canada, we may be in lockdown for longer than we thought we’d be. Volunteers who were hoping to return to giving their time in-person may need to wait longer. There may be an even greater demand for volunteer engagement professionals to step into front-line healthcare duties. Whatever happens, we can’t ignore the US, because it is right there

#4: Are you Bilingual? 

As non-profit programming moves online, organizations will struggle with being truly bilingual. Canada has two official languages: English and French. National organizations, as well as organizations serving the National Capital Region or other jurisdictions where both official languages are frequently used (e.g. New BrunswickSaint Boniface in Manitoba) will require even more volunteers and employees with bilingualism than usual.

For predominantly Anglophone organizations, excluding Francophones from programming means losing out on approximately 22% of the Canadian population. Organizations with bilingual resources were either already prepared to engage in either or both official languages, or, can easily pivot to do so. 

Volunteers who are bilingual will be in even higher demand, and bilingual volunteer engagement professionals will be much more employable. This means that Canadian leaders of volunteers should brush up on their French, collect better data on language preferences and capabilities, and be mindful of the benefits and limitations of translation technology

Franco-Canadiens are proud (so proud that there is still a strong separatist movement). We Anglophones may feel it is cute when benevoles mis-conjugate a verb. But to some Franco-Canadiens, mispronunciation can feel like a personal insult. As leaders of volunteers, we are in the business of stewarding relationships, and if we can’t literally speak the same language as volunteers and other supporters, then we can’t do our work effectively. 


Are you a Canadian leader of volunteers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted us uniquely. Are you a leader of volunteers from outside Canada who has noticed similar trends? What actions are you, your colleagues, and your government taking to support volunteerisim and volunteer engagement under these circumstances?

Reach out to me through my blog: www.learnwithjpp.com

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