Confusion, frustration abound as feds weigh options for $900M student program

Confusion, frustration abound as feds weigh options for $900M student program

OTTAWA — Anxious students and non-profit groups say they’re frustrated over a lack of answers from the federal government as they wait to hear what will happen to the $900-million volunteering program previously administered by the WE Charity.

The government says it is working on what to do with the Canada Student Services Grant program after its agreement with WE was cancelled last week amid controversy over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s connections to the Toronto-based charity and its for-profit arm, ME to WE Social Enterprise.

The WE organization said Thursday that it had paid Trudeau’s mother Margaret about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020.

His brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events, according to WE. The organization that represents them as speakers was paid additional commissions, WE said.

And Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance that year.

Most of the payments went from the for-profit component of the organization, which sponsors the charitable component, WE Charity said in a statement, though about $64,000 went from WE Charity to Margaret Trudeau’s speaker’s bureau because of “an error in billing / payment.”

“Justin Trudeau has never been paid by WE Charity or ME to WE Social Enterprise for any speeches or any other matters,” WE Charity said.

Trudeau is now under investigation by the ethics commissioner over allegations of a potential conflict of interest when the government awarded the sole-source contract to WE. Trudeau has acknowledged he did not recuse himself when cabinet approved the deal.

Trudeau has maintained the non-partisan public service recommended WE to administer the deal, while his spokesman Alex Wellstead on Thursday said “the prime minister’s relatives engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord.”

“What is important to remember here is that this is about a charity supporting students. The Canada Student Service Grant program is about giving young people opportunities to contribute to their communities, not about benefits to anyone else.”

WE’s sudden departure from the volunteering program has created confusion as the days tick past for young people to put in hours for which the government promises to pay them up to $5,000 toward schooling.

Several non-profits say they and their volunteers are anxiously waiting for answers from the government, including whether the program is going to go ahead and the students they have already taken on will be compensated for their work.

“I have three or four students talk to me and they’re anxious, and I get why they’re anxious,” said Emily Fern, mission co-ordinator for the Saint Andrew’s Community Outreach and Support Program in Whitby, Ont. “And I’ve had a mom call me and she’s anxious.

“I’ve got a few people who are volunteering in good faith right now and we are keeping track of their hours. And some of the families that use our program have been asking (to volunteer) and I can’t tell them anything right now.”

The grant program promises to pay students up to $5,000 for their post-secondary educations if they volunteer the maximum 500 hours. WE said last week that around 35,000 applications had been received for the program.

The Saint Andrew’s program provides food assistance to local families in need, among other things. Fern said demand has increased by more than 25 per cent since the pandemic started in March even as the number of volunteers available has dramatically declined.

It was for that reason that Fern asked for and was given approval to take on five student volunteers through the Canada Student Service Grant while WE was administering the program. But since WE left last week and the government took over, “it’s kind of been radio silence.”

“It’s not like I have a ton of time to deal with this,” she said. Most of us are all volunteers too. And it’s also such a stressful time that if I didn’t need the help I wouldn’t have asked for it. And I definitely didn’t need more work.”

The silence greeting Fern from the government isn’t unique. Michelle Porter, CEO of the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in Halifax, said she has also heard nothing from Ottawa since it took over the program from WE, which both she and Fern praised for their level of support.

“They were giving us frontline care,” Porter said of WE. “‘What do you need? What do you need them for?’ So we thought this is great because we were getting great treatment. And then they kind of got pulled away and we haven’t heard anything since.”

Porter doesn’t know whether the five students she has now will be compensated as promised and she is reluctant to advertise the other 10 unfilled positions, which her organization needs to run the 17,000-square-foot thrift store that funds many of its other charitable operations.

“Students want to come here and I would like to see even more students if we could get them,” Porter said. “That’s the biggest thing, having to just put it on a hold because we don’t know if there are going to be any changes or if they are going to pull it away.”

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger’s spokeswoman Danielle Keenan appeared to stand by the Canada Student Services Grant program this week even as she said government officials were “working right now to determine the next steps” and acknowledged the likelihood of a delay.

The program itself has criticized since the details were rolled out at the end of June, with some questioning the blurry lines between volunteer and paid work. Others have blasted the government for compensating students $10 per hour worked, which is less than minimum wage.

Canadian Federation of Students deputy chairperson Nicole Brayiannis echoed those criticisms Thursday as she urged Ottawa to pull the plug on any further positions and invest instead in more direct aid to students, noting the summer is already well underway.

She also suggested keeping existing placements, but increasing their pay to at least minimum wage.

“Students do want to be able to contribute to their communities and they do want to build their resumes and gain that experience,” she said.

“However, the volunteer program just doesn’t seem to make sense in the way that it was laid out. It would make much more sense just to ensure that if compensation is received for work that is being done, it should be at the minimum-wage level.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

Three young Sylvan Lake residents are asking for lights to be added to the walking trail system to make them safer and less scary at night. Photo by @workinonmyfitness72
Young Sylvan Lake residents ask for lights to be added to walking trails

Three young Sylvan Lake residents appeared before Council recently to present their ask

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Town of Sylvan Lake recieves funding to help with COVID-19 related revenue losses

Minister Devin Dreeshen says the funding will help the Town pay staff and provide services

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo by The Associated Press)
Alberta records 410 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

Most Read