Canadian Internships: What’s Legal and What’s Ethical?

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Depending upon who you ask, unpaid internships are either a great way for an up and comer to get a leg up in their chosen field, or an exploitative and classist system that should be eliminated. Is it legal not to pay an intern in Canada? Is it ethical? Do unpaid internships really favour the wealthy? Let’s take a closer look.

Are Unpaid Internships Legal in Canada?

According to federal law, interns in Canada must be paid at least minimum wage unless they are student interns.1 To be considered a student intern, one must be “undertaking the internship to fulfill educational program requirements” at a valid secondary or post-secondary educational institution. 1 Documentation of this is required.

Furthermore, the intern must not be an employee of the company and must be “performing activities for the employer with the primary purpose of gaining knowledge or experience.” 1

For other aspects of employment, such as entitlement to breaks, interns, both paid and unpaid, are protected by the same laws that apply to other workers.

What Does ‘Gaining Knowledge and Experience’ Mean for an Intern?

While ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ represent both the legal and common-sense framework of an internship, these terms are less than tangible.

“The experience of “learning” is difficult to quantify, especially in the workplace,” writes Sara Parker for the McGill International Review. “If you ask an intern, they will say that they are learning something.”2

An oft-cited example is the case of Ryerson graphics student Krista Brown, who, in 2012 found herself at NY Fashion Week cleaning up a bloody pig’s heart with her bare hands.3

“The only thing you’re thinking about is, ‘This is what I have to do. You have to pay your dues,’” says Brown.3

The image of the young intern completing such a task while upscale Big Apple fashionistas socialize seems like a scene from a Netflix comedy, but the story is neither fictional nor humourous.

It’s “probably my biggest intern horror story,” says Ms. Brown.3

Do Unpaid Internships Favour the Wealthy?

A common argument against unpaid internship claims that the practice re-enforces the class system by favouring wealthy students who can afford to work for free.

That’s how labour lawyer Andrew Langille sees it.

“People ask what’s the harm? Well, it cuts out people who can’t afford to do unpaid internships; it can [favour] people based on their socioeconomic class. It erodes any notion of meritocracy,” says Langille.4

It’s a sentiment echoed by opinion columnist Rina Cakrani.

“We have to admit that not everyone is at the same starting point,” she says. “Underprivileged students or students that do not have the financial means to support themselves during unpaid internships are unable to pursue the same career opportunities as their richer classmates,” she says.5

The problem is even more concerning with internships that serve as a springboard into politics, a problem that may be more prevalent south of the border but nonetheless warrants consideration.  

“People who take on these roles are often not the people who are affected by these policies,” says one unpaid US intern. “There’s a disconnect from people affected by policy not getting policy positions. I worry that we’re not building the right workforce for the problems we have today.”2

Ontario Crackdown of 2014

While laws are in place to ensure that internships are above board, they are compromised by ambiguity and lack of enforcement.

A crackdown in 2014 by the government of Ontario resulted in $140,000 in wages being retroactively paid to interns who weren’t being fairly compensated. The Ministry of Labour investigated 123 workplaces as part of the blitz.6

Among those found in violation were magazines The Walrus and Toronto Life. Rather than reform their internship programs, the media companies elected to shut them down.7

“Too many workplaces have come to expect emerging media workers of all ages to have multiple degrees, to come fully trained, and to demonstrate unpaid “experience” as proof,” opines journalist Katherine Lapointe. “This system categorically fails the next generation of media workers and betrays the public role of media in our society.”7

Mutually Beneficial Internships

Conducted properly, internships can be beneficial for both parties. Interns get to apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world scenarios and gain valuable facetime within the industry. Employers, meanwhile, get to source potential future candidates in a low-stakes scenario. While it’s probably unreasonable to expect companies to provide a large wage to interns, they should certainly compensate them according to the minimum thresholds required by the law and their own ethics (whichever is larger!). Additionally, they should put themselves in the shoes of the interns and work to ensure that the experience gained is both relevant and valuable to someone seeking to enter the industry.

Cited Sources

1 Canada, Service. “Government of Canada.”, March 1, 2023.

2 Parker, Sara. “Unpaid Internships: The New Frontier of Labour.” MIR, August 16, 2021.

3 Reuben Kaufman, Sherie, Jen, and Linnet Humble. “The Plight of the Unpaid Intern.” University Affairs, January 28, 2019.

4 “Unpaid Internship Crackdown Won’t Ease Young Jobseekers’ Suffering | CBC News.” CBCnews, March 28, 2014.

5 Cakrani, Rina. “Internships Favor the Wealthy.” Whitman Wire. Accessed June 8, 2023.

6 Press, The Canadian. “Ontario Government Blitz Cracks down on Unpaid Internships – Toronto.” Global News, April 29, 2016. “Opinion: Crackdown on Unpaid Internships a Positive Step, but the Collective Struggle Must Continue.” Canadian Journalism Foundation. Accessed June 8, 2023.