Statement made on 24 March 2011 by Senator Terry Mercer
Hon. Terry M. Mercer:
Honourable senators, it is a pleasure for me to speak this evening on my inquiry on volunteerism. It is spurred on by my sitting on the Special Senate Committee on Aging, and our travels across the country, meeting with people in every province and territory to talk about the problems of people who are aging; as well as in our travels with the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, in our study on rural poverty, at which meeting the issue of volunteers came up; as well as my 35 years of working with volunteers and my over 40 years of being a volunteer.
Honourable senators, this matter is very close to my heart and is probably close to the hearts of many here. Volunteering is an integral part of Canadian culture. As parliamentarians, we understand there are always economic, cultural and social changes within Canada, but how does this affect the volunteer community? I want to take this opportunity to review the sector and provide some insight into how it works and what we can do to improve it.
In understanding the changing patterns in who is volunteering and what they are volunteering for, we would have a greater understanding of the causes and issues that are important to Canadians. Ultimately, anything we can do to increase volunteerism would definitely contribute to a better Canada.
There have been several studies on volunteering in Canada over the past decade. The studies focus more often than not on the relationship between a person's age and the likelihood of their participation in volunteer activities. There are, of course, a variety of factors such as an individual's marital status, income, and the participation in religious activities, education, and even previous experiences that affect why and how people volunteer.
What is really important to note is that, in spite of the significant number of volunteers, the majority of the work is still done by very few people. In 2004, there were 11.8 million volunteers who contributed approximately 2 billion hours of volunteer service. In terms of what that would mean in jobs, honourable senators, that is approximately 1 million jobs in this country. In 2007, the number of volunteers in Canada rose to 12.5 million people.
What is interesting is that as individuals age the amount of people volunteering declines. At the same time, as volunteers age the average amount of volunteer hours contributed increases. Put another way, as the amount of people who can volunteer ages, they are less likely to volunteer, but those who continue to or begin volunteering do it more often.
Young Canadians under 30 usually have the largest volunteer participation. However, they also contribute the least amount of hours on average. The second age group to have the highest level of participation are individuals between the ages of 30 and 44. Their participation is usually dependent on their marital status or whether or not they have children. Finally, there are the elderly, people over the age of 65, who contribute the greatest quantity of hours but the least amount of volunteers.
Generally, it seems the more education and higher income an individual has, the more likely they are to volunteer. However, on average, the people with lower incomes, even though they represent a smaller portion of the volunteer population, actually contribute a greater percentage of the volunteer activity.
Honourable senators, there are a many areas in which a person can volunteer. People can volunteer for organizations that help religious groups, recreational activities such as sports and political campaigns, to name a few. These volunteers are an integral part of our communities and without them our society could not function as well as it does. If events happen, as we predict tomorrow in the other place, we are all going to be interacting with tens of thousands of volunteers across this country for our political parties. We should remember that they are volunteers and to thank them for their participation. It is a very important service that they offer to all of us and to all of our political parties.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Mercer: Given that the volunteer sector is entirely dependent on the participation of Canadians, it is not surprising that the most important issue facing the sector is demographic change. Canada is aging. As we learned from our study undertaken by the Special Senate Committee on Aging, the number of people aged 100 or older, for example, increased 50 per cent between 1996 and 2006, and is set to triple to more than 14,000 by 2031.
The proportion of persons aged 65 or over in Canada was 8 per cent in 1971, and it is 13 per cent today. It is projected that by 2031, 1 in 4 Canadians will be 65 years of age or over. Meanwhile, Canadians are also having fewer babies.
Since my career has relied heavily on the volunteer sector, testimony about the need for a strong voluntary sector during the hearings of the Aging Committee was very important. Seniors benefit from a strong volunteer sector, both as contributors and as beneficiaries. Volunteers provide a sense of service for seniors, but volunteering also allows society to tap into the skills and knowledge of older Canadians. Even so, to help the volunteer sector grow, we need to encourage volunteerism throughout all age groups and remove barriers to volunteering, not only for our aging population but everyone in Canada.
During the committee, we examined numerous ways to increase volunteerism and encourage the federal government to show leadership by promoting volunteerism within the federal public service. We also recommended working with the volunteer sector to identity mechanisms to recognize and reimburse out-of-pocket expenses incurred by volunteers.
Honourable senators, volunteers have several reasons for participating in their activities. The most common reasons why people volunteer are to gain skills and knowledge, or that they are personally affected by an issue or know someone who is personally affected by an issue. Also, people want to give back to their communities by volunteering.
Canada's volunteer sector is in need of a comprehensive review. As parliamentarians and Canadians, we need to increase our understanding and encourage more people to volunteer. We need to help the sector enhance its capacity to provide such needed services to our families and to our communities.
As stated in Volunteer Canada's recent report, the lives of Canadians from coast to coast are touched by volunteering every day. It is an enriching experience both for the volunteers as well as the beneficiaries of the contribution of volunteers. We would do well to take notice.
I know honourable senators will join me in thanking every volunteer who makes a difference in our communities. I encourage all honourable senators to take part in this inquiry either as we continue or when we come back after the election.