07/06/2014 01:00 EDT | Updated 09/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Applications Numbers Suggest Waning Interest In Harper's Volunteer Awards

ODD ANDERSEN via Getty Images
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper addresses a joint press conference with German Chancellor following a meeting at Chancellery in Berlin on March 27, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
OTTAWA - Canadians appear to be losing interest in a controversial awards program linked to Stephen Harper's office.

The Harper government launched the Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards in 2011, to honour 17 Canadians across the country each year for their volunteer work.

Critics and focus groups said the honour was tainted by politics because it was associated with a sitting prime minister rather than a neutral person, such as the Governor General.

Even so, in the first year there were 751 nominations for awards worth $5,000 and $10,000 each, cheques that must be directed to a non-profit group selected by the winners.

That number fell to 482 nominations in the second year of the award, despite a concerted campaign to stir interest, and after the applications deadline was extended by six weeks.

And this year, the number arriving by the extended June 23 deadline fell to 315, or less than half of the original number.

Some of those applications may still be rejected as the secretariat running the awards vets the forms for eligibility and completeness.

Details of nominations process were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act from Employment and Social Development Canada, which administers the awards program.

Asked about the declining numbers, a spokeswoman for Candice Bergen, the junior minister responsible, said only that the department has been trying to stir up interest.

"Outreach efforts and processes continue to be adapted to improve the program's delivery," Christine Csversko said in an email.

Before launching the awards, the government commissioned a $64,000 focus-group study by Harris-Decima, which canvassed members of the public as well as representative of volunteer groups.

The awards would be "perceived as political in nature" if they were associated with the prime minister, said the November 2010 report, citing a majority of participants.

The new awards are in addition to an existing federal volunteer award, the Governor General's Caring Canadian Award, given annually to groups and individuals since 1995.

Political controversy tainted the prime minister's awards last year when it was revealed that opposition MPs were not invited to a ceremony on Parliament Hill in December 2012.

Five NDP and two Liberal MPs were originally on guest lists because their constituents were receiving awards, but their names were removed sometime before the ceremony, documents released under access to information showed.

"The prime minister is taking what really should be a non-partisan awards ceremony, and something that all Canadians could get behind, and turned it into a Conservative-only event," Andrew Cash, one of the disinvited New Democrat MPs, said at the time.

This year's nominations opened Feb. 27 and were to close on May 9, a 10-week period. Employment Minister Jason Kenney extended the period to June 23 — an additional six weeks — after officials warned that only 134 potential nominations had come through the door.

The small numbers followed an outreach campaign that included "email blasts" to 50,000 non-profit organizations, 190,000 emails associated with chambers of commerce, newsletter postings and many other ads and reminders.

The awards ceremony this year was held Feb. 27 in Toronto, with Harper personally presenting a medal and certificate to each winner, and having his picture taken with them.

Employment and Social Development says 47 per cent of Canadians volunteer their time, in work estimated to be worth some $14 billion.

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