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Parliamentary internship program’s model grates against modern labour, tax rules

May 3, 2023
The Canadian Press

The interior of the House of Commons in Ottawa. Photo: Steven Kriemadis/Getty Images
By Dylan Robertson

A program that for five decades has had young Canadians shadow MPs from across the political spectrum is facing an uncertain future because the model that has kept it running grates against modern labour codes and tax laws.

“The main goal for me is just to avoid any disruption to the intern experience,” said Paul Thomas, head of the Parliamentary Internship Programme.

The internship brings 10 young professionals and recent university graduates onto Parliament Hill to shadow two MPs — one from the sitting government and the other in opposition — for 10 months

The interns help MPs with analysis and writing while also researching their own academic paper.


Program started in the 1970s

The program started in 1970 after a motion from a backbench MP called for the government to create a non-partisan program for young Canadians to learn about the parliamentary process and the role of MPs.

The House of Commons helps run the program with the Speaker as its patron. The Canadian Political Science Association is paid to operate the program using donations from sponsors and alumni.

That follows a deliberate formula MPs designed in 1969 to avoid political interference from government and to ensure it was not reliant on public funds.

Last week, the association sent out a notice saying it’s pulling out of the arrangement by the end of 2024 after a year of trying to find a workaround.

“Maintaining the current relationship is no longer feasible,” reads the letter, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

“The arrangement between the CPSA and House of Commons has outrun its original mission.”

Interns neither students nor full employees

The program’s tax status has become increasingly unclear because the interns don’t qualify as receiving a scholarship but also are neither students nor full employees of the House of Commons.

They were at one time considered independent contractors, but that didn’t align with the reality of having the program set their work hours and vacation dates while reimbursing expenses.

In 2020, the political science association converted the interns into employees so they would qualify for COVID-19 subsidies when Parliament Hill scaled down its work at the start of the pandemic.

Since then, the association has had to take on responsibility for human resources, but it only has partial say in which organizations can sponsor the program, and it argues that could put its reputation at risk.

The academic group says it’s trying to proactively avoid running into conflicts, and also has its own unrelated financial questions to manage.

Proposal for House of Commons to absorb program

It has proposed the House of Commons absorb the program — something that came as news to the Speaker’s office, which called that a “unilateral decision” by the association’s board.

“As we learned of this decision just a few days ago, we are still discussing next steps and developing options to present to the House,” spokeswoman Amelie Crosson wrote in an emailed statement.

“The House of Commons will continue to work with the CPSA to ensure an effective and respectful transition for the programme.”

Thomas said it’s unclear how the neutral House of Commons administration would be able to accept corporate donations or choose which groups to take funds from.

He said putting the internship program under House control also raises the risk of partisan meddling that MPs sought to avoid in 1969. For example, if one of the interns writes a controversial essay, a government might seek to curtail the program.

“There is that desire to keep a bit of independence for their research,” Thomas said.

Some provincial programs shut down

Provincial programs that had relied on government funding ended up being closed down, such as in Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Yet the federal program is so in demand that Thomas said 69 MPs put their name forward this year for just 20 available five-month slots.

Last November, MPs voted through the board of internal economy to raise annual funding for the program by $186,047 to adjust salaries for inflation and expand to 12 annual interns this fall, from 10.

The political science association processes invoices and expenses and employs Thomas as the program’s only employee, while the House of Commons provides half a full-time employee’s hours to help with logistics.

The program has more House of Commons privileges than similar internships run by universities or groups like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and GreenPAC.

Interns qualify for many of the same perks as House staffers, such as language training, human resources support and onboarding seminars. They can fly to an MP’s riding on their office budget to assist with tasks.

The program also covers moving costs and cellphone bills on top of the $35,000 salary and trips with parliamentary groups in Canada and abroad.

“We have really tried, especially in recent years, knowing that we have not always been successful, to make it accessible to anyone who has an interest,” Thomas said.

He said the program is key to giving a realistic vantage point of how Parliament Hill works for people who become diplomats, civil servants, journalists and even MPs.

They enter those fields with a sense of how Parliament scrutinizes finances, who moves amendments on bills and how parties negotiate with each other.

“It is learning about the reality of politics that one cannot get from studying it,” he said.

“Having people in those kinds of positions who do understand parliamentary accountability I think enriches the governance of the country.”

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