Some advocacy groups are criticizing a new federal internship plan for failing to provide help to unpaid interns. The plan will provide $40 million in federal government funding for post-secondary paid internships.

The funding, announced on May 4 at Fanshawe College, will provide 3,000 private-sector paid internships in high-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and skilled trades .

The announcement came amid a growing national spotlight on unpaid internships. There are an estimated 300,000 unpaid interns in Canada.

Ontario recently cracked down on a number of unpaid internship programs, including programs at Toronto Life and The Walrus.

“Too many young Canadian graduates find themselves unemployed or under-employed, while employers are searching for workers. That is why our government is providing significant support for internships to train Canada’s youth for the skills that are in high-demand across the country, benefiting the economy and young workers alike,” said prime minister Stephen Harper at the announcement.

While the plan was generally well-received, Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, said that it failed to address the problem of unpaid internships.

“If the federal government wanted to address the issue federally, they would have amended the federal labour code and have gotten Statistics Canada to start tracking internships,” Seaborn said.

“Putting a bunch of money towards paid internships in high-demand fields, internships that are almost always paid, is doing very little towards the unpaid issue,” she added.

While some provinces, including Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, have laws in place to protect interns, the same protection does not exist in the federal sector. In March, a private member’s bill that would provide unpaid interns in Ontario with a range of greater legal protections passed first reading at Queen’s Park.

Joshua Mandryk, co-chair of Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams, an organization that lobbies for better protection for interns in Ontario, agreed that the federal labour code should be amended.

“Some of the most exploitive unpaid internships exist in the federal sector, like telecom,” said Mandryk, adding: “If they wanted to do something for unpaid internships, the
easiest thing to do would be to clarify that law.”

Fields targeted by the federal internship program are mainly male-dominated fields, such as math, science, and skilled trades.

Andrew Cash, New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament for Davenport said that more could be done to protect interns, but the government is at least taking a step in the right direction.

“We’re moving the marker forward,” said Cash, who tabled a bill in the House of Commons last fall to implement a national urban workers strategy that would, in part, tighten rules around unpaid interns.

“We’ve got a hodgepodge of rules across the country… but there is a lack of enforcement problem,” he said.

The internships, which will last between six and 12 months, will take place over the next two years.