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Governor-General seeks permanent fund to honour volunteers

Governor General David Johnston pose for portrait after an interview at Rideau Hall February 19, 2014 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Governor-General David Johnston is trying to raise $5-million toward an endowment to ensure ordinary Canadians who volunteer in their communities are not forgotten.

As he kicks off National Volunteer Week, the Governor-General is keenly aware how easily programs can be slashed or cut. The endowment, he believes, will make the Canadian Caring Awards "impermeable to budget cuts."

Forty Canadians from across the country received the award Monday at Rideau Hall as part of events for this week.

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"It's important to recognize the people who are not celebrities or front page in the newspaper but just year after year do great things in their communities," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

He notes that prominent honours are given to more famous Canadians – the Order of Canada, military awards, as well as awards recognizing journalism, visual and performing arts and literature.

The Canadian Caring Award, however, celebrates people who are "a little bit embarrassed about any attention so you often have to persuade them to accept their award." The argument: "Your example is important and it inspires others and as your story is told other people say, 'Hey, I can do that, too.'"

For example, Mr. Johnston talked about Nova Scotia octogenarian Wilfred Edmond, to whom he gave the award on Monday. Mr. Edmond was a long-time volunteer firefighter in his community of Donkin; he coached minor hockey and baseball. He's also toured with the Men of the Deeps coal miners choir and now sings at hospitals and seniors' homes with the Cape Breton Legionnaires Choir.

"What a guy," the Governor-General said.

The Caring Canadian Award was created by then-governor-general Roméo LeBlanc in 1995. Recipients receive a certificate and lapel pin. Mr. Johnston is trying to strengthen it. In his first year he gave out about 100 awards; last year there were 400 recipients and he hopes to honour 1,000 Canadians this year.

The program costs between $200,000 and $250,000 a year to operate. He says he believes the $5-million target is achievable, with early efforts underway through the Rideau Hall Foundation.

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But the Governor-General is detecting what he characterizes as "worrisome" trends. When he began his mandate in 2010, he highlighted volunteerism and philanthropy areas for his focus. Although Canadians rank fairly high internationally in terms of volunteering, he says, those who do volunteer are becoming fewer and older. He says younger people need to be engaged.

In addition, the percentage of people who donate money is declining, as are the number of those who give large donations. "The large donations are great," said the Governor-General, "but what you want to do is expand the base of the pyramid."

He says his office is also attempting to make people realize that "giving comes in a number of ways." He says it is significant to simply help a neighbour, who may be elderly, with an offer to pick up something at the grocery store.

"These are in a sense modest gestures but very important to the people who receive them and important to make a community an attractive place to live in," he said.

As a way of helping to attract a younger demographic, he inspired a social media campaign. "My Giving Moment" was launched last fall, asking Canadians to share their stories of giving back to their community on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Mr. Johnston says his "giving moment" is the annual Terry Fox Run, which he and his wife, Sharon, have participated in since it began. Now the third generation – his 11 grandchildren – is taking part. In one of the more recent runs, two of his grandchildren were in a stroller and giggling as he puffed up the hill beside them.

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"Do your giggling now," he told them, "because in a few years our roles will be reversed."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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