Ottawa goes the extra Air Mile

The idea of earning miles at YMCAs came from Air Miles -- so why are taxpayers footing the bill?

“Being active just got more rewarding,” boast the posters dotted throughout YMCA centres in cities across Canada. Under a new venture, Y members can sign up to collect Air Miles every time they swipe their cards to enter the fitness facilities. Yet while Air Miles gets a gold mine of information on the recreational and spending habits of Y members, including how often they go to the gym and even what summer camps their kids attend, the federal government is paying Air Miles up to $750,000 for the one-year pilot program.

The idea, being rolled out at 15 centres in greater Toronto, Oakville, Ont., Calgary and Moncton, N.B., came from Air Miles, which is contributing its marketing and organizational clout. So why are taxpayers footing the bill?

“They have areas of expertise that we want to tap into,” says Rodney Ghali, a Public Health Agency of Canada senior director, emphasizing that Air Miles has “immense expertise connecting to Canadians” and has skills lacking in the public and not-for-profit sectors. Dealing directly with YMCA Canada—which doesn’t get any of the PHAC funding—wasn’t a consideration, he says.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation doesn’t see the sense of the feds paying Air Miles, and certainly not for such a high price. “Only with the government of Canada do you see costs like this for things so simple,” says federal director Gregory Thomas.

As for the Y, it will be happy if the program gets more people, especially kids, into a physically active routine. “Getting people off the couch is one of the hardest things to do,” explains YMCA Canada CEO Scott Haldane. “Healthy living is everyone’s business,” said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. It’s certainly a good one for Air Miles.