There are many ways to volunteer in Canada—through established networks like WWOOF or HelpX, with local organizations or even for short-term events. It’s a great way to meet people, get references, grow your network and to potentially save money on accommodation and food if you get room and board.
So, technically, if you don’t get paid, do you need a work visa to volunteer in Canada?
“Good question,” said the Government of Canada. “What is work, really?” And so it came up with a set of policies, procedures and guidance Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada employees can use to see if a work visa is needed.
Two relevant instructions are available to the public:
- International Mobility Program: Authorization to work without a work permit – Assessing farm work
- Temporary Foreign Worker and International Mobility Programs: What is work?
If you’re a Working Holiday permit holder, you’re all good. You have the right to work in Canada so you have the right to volunteer as well.
Four conditions to volunteer without a work permit
All four conditions must be met:
- Volunteer work can’t be the main reason for entering Canada. You must have other plans for the majority of your stay (i.e. tourism, visiting friends, etc.).
- You can’t compete directly with Canadian citizens or permanent residents in the Canadian labour market and your volunteer activities must be part-time. Basically, you can’t “take away” from opportunities for Canadians or permanent residents.
- You can’t work on the same farm for more than four weeks (otherwise, you’re considered a worker).
- You must be volunteering in a non-commercial farm, defined as followed: “a farm where the farm family provides much of the capital and labour for the farm and where the production of agricultural products is to provide for the basic needs of the family, with little extra to sell for the profit of the family.” Basically, you can’t volunteer in a commercial farm, i.e. “commercial venture undertaken with an expectation of profit.”
Guidelines to assess commercial enterprises vs. non-commercial enterprises
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada employees will typically make the following assessments:
- A farm which is also an ecotourism centre or a bed and breakfast is considered a “commercial enterprise.”
- A farm growing vegetables or fruits typically needs extra labour during planting and harvest seasons therefore volunteers could be entering the labour market.
- A youth hostel is a commercial enterprise, so you do need a work permit if you help at the front desk or if you clean the dorms and common areas.
- Large farms are typically considered “commercial farms.”
- A farm selling to wholesalers or grocery chains generally indicates a commercial enterprise due to the larger volumes.
Don’t forget that it’s up to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada agent to determine whether you need a work permit or not. If you’re planning to volunteer on a farm during harvest season, it’s likely that you will be turned away at the border because you’ll be competing with locals for work.