Charities battered by COVID-19 say federal support desperately needed

Charities battered by COVID-19 say federal support desperately needed

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is facing increasingly desperate pleas for assistance from Canadian charities and non-profit groups as some of the country’s best-known and largest organizations say they are struggling to survive because of COVID-19.

The YMCA Canada, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion are among those that say they are facing severe financial difficulties and been forced to permanently close some locations even as demand for their services has increased.

A YMCA facility permanently closed its doors in Yarmouth, N.S., because of the pandemic while the Boys and Girls Clubs shuttered its operations in Edson, Alta. The legion has seen three halls close for good in Ontario and one in New Brunswick.

While the fear is those are just the beginning, the government is also being warned that failing to help now could cost more in the long run as organizations that provide child care, emergency food support and other social services disappear.

“The problem is the bill will come due later,” said Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada president Owen Charters. “Because as these organizations disappear, the social safety net becomes a tax burden where the government needs to step in and provide those services directly.”

The sector began to bang the drums with alarm at the end of March as Canadians started to realize the pandemic would last longer than a couple of weeks and donations and other sources of income such as the provision of child care started to dry up.

Dozens of charities signed a letter on March 25 asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government for financial aid to prevent “irreparable damage,” particularly at a time when more people needed their services.

Ottawa has since included the sector in some of its COVID-19 supports such as wage-subsidy and rent-deferral programs. It also created a $350-million fund for organizations to provide emergency assistance to Canadians during the pandemic.

While welcome, those interviewed say the already-announced federal programs and funding fall far short.

“What we need is direct supports to make sure Ys can survive the crisis,” YMCA Canada president Peter Dinsdale said. “There is a real need for sector stabilization. It’s not just YMCAs in this country. It is Boys and Girls Clubs, the United Way. So many entities out there require support.”

The government has been told as much numerous times, with letters written and phone calls made. Yet those interviewed say there has yet to be a real response. That silence has sparked concern and frustration.

“We sent off two letters,” said Royal Canadian Legion dominion president Tom Irvine. ”There was no acknowledgment of receiving the letters or nothing. So I’m pretty discouraged at this time, but still hopeful. This is a Canadian institution and if we don’t do something, we could lose it.”

Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen’s spokeswoman Jessica Eritou on Tuesday praised the work of the charitable and non-profit sector and touted the $350-million emergency fund, which organizations say does not address the core of their concerns.

“We are continuing to look at ways to work with charities and non-profits supporting Canadians during the crisis,” she added.

“We continue discussions with organizations to help support the important work they’re doing in communities across the country and we will keep looking for the most effective ways to help Canadians during this unprecedented crisis.”

Cardus, a charity that does research on the non-profit sector, released a paper on Tuesday urging the federal government to start matching donations from Canadians to different organizations using money set aside to cover the costs of a tax credit for Canadians who donate.

But Dinsdale and Charters said matching programs will still leave many organizations struggling, and that the only real solution is direct federal support to help the sector weather the pandemic and continue providing essential services.

A lack of safe places for children to be while their parents work is an obstacle to economic recovery, economists have warned, particularly for women.

“While the federal government’s been focused on macro-economic approaches like the wage subsidy, like CERB and other initiatives, they have ignored this sector,” said Dinsdale, whose organization runs child-care centres across the country.

“And they’ve ignored this sector at the risk of not having the most critical social services available to Canadians as the economy reopens.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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