Donations to curb Ontario government's debt rose during COVID-19

·4 min read
Premier Doug Ford, pictured during his 2018 victory speech, has long talked about putting more money into people's pockets. But donations Ontarians made to the government to curb the province's debt actually rose during the pandemic. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Premier Doug Ford, pictured during his 2018 victory speech, has long talked about putting more money into people's pockets. But donations Ontarians made to the government to curb the province's debt actually rose during the pandemic. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Premier Doug Ford has said it over and over — the worst place to hand your money is to the government. But Ontarians gave a boost in donations to help pay down the province's debt during the first year of COVID-19, amid record spending and deficit.

A total of $154,389 was contributed to the Ontario Opportunities Fund in 2020-21, from 1,530 donations — a jump from amounts the program pulled in over the past decade.

The fund, created in 1996 to tackle the debt, is credited as the brainchild of two young sisters.

Donations are solicited on tax forms — you may notice the box as you rush to finish taxes before Monday's deadline — or can be sent any time during the year. Contributions are redirected to the fund from income tax refunds.

The range in donations for 2020-21 varies wildly, starting at just $2 (19 donors opted to give a toonie) and rising all the way to one donation of $9,000. The most common amount was $100, contributed 155 times.

Notably, 20 donors gave exactly $224, but the reason for that number is unclear. The province doesn't collect information on when or where the donations are made.

Donations to pay off Ontario's debt

Doesn't make a debt dent

The uptick goes against the decline many Canadian charities are dealing with right now.

A recent giving report by the online donations platform Canada Helps shows an overall drop in donations during the pandemic, especially with the cancellation of many in-person fundraising events.

Samantha Jones, co-ordinator of fundraising management program at Toronto's Humber College, actually credits COVID-19 for benefiting the province's fund.

"[Ontarians are] aware of the significant impact of COVID and want to be a part of that solution," she said. "I really hope that we see that uptick as well across charitable donations."

Despite the 2020-21 donations, the amount raised has dropped significantly over time. In 2003-04, for example, donors contributed $307,000 — it's now basically half that amount.

This barely makes a dent in the debt. The province most recently projected net debt for 2021-22 at almost $395.4 billion, while projecting the deficit at $13.1 billion for 2021-22. Updated numbers are expected during Thursday's budget.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation believes the fund is a good idea, giving donors a way to show the government how much debt matters to them.

But Jay Goldberg, the federation's Ontario director, said he wouldn't donate to the fund until the books are balanced.

"Any money that taxpayers are going to try to put toward paying down the debt is going to be immediately offset within minutes by the new debt that the government is taking on," he said.

Fund founder thinks its 'weird'

CBC couldn't find any recent contributors, but did hear from Chelsea Smith, who was celebrated along with her sister Sam for "founding" the fund during Premier Mike Harris's reign.

The siblings, then 6 and 5, saw a story about the province's money woes on TV and pooled their piggy banks to send $21.97.

The finance minister at the time, Ernie Eves, ran with it, creating the Opportunities Fund, or as he called it, The Chelsea and Samantha Fund.

The family got invited to Queen's Park. There's even archival footage of Chelsea picking her nose up in the gallery.

"My only concern at the time was I was going to go back to school, and all the kids would see and they would be making fun of me."

CBC
CBC

Now 32 years old, working, paying taxes and living with her boyfriend and their three cats, she has a different perspective.

"If this happened today to some other kids, I would be very cynical about it," she admitted. "I think it was kind of scummy to do, to be honest."

Smith believes there are better places these donations could be going, fixing issues like cost of living, climate change and housing instead. She hasn't donated to the fund since — and doesn't know anyone who has.

"I kind of find it to be kind of a weird idea," she said. "I'm probably going to be donating to the NDP this year. That'll be my donation to the Ontario government, in my eyes."

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