POLITICS
07/21/2020 15:32 EDT | Updated 07/29/2020 16:00 EDT

Give The $900-Million WE Charity Grant Directly To Students: Groups

The groups said the volunteer program, now subject to an ethics investigation, was “flawed from the start.”

Amid increasing scrutiny about the federal government’s role in awarding the administration of the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to WE Charity, two national student groups are calling for the reallocation of the program’s $912 million.

Don’t Forget Students, a group created during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Canadian Federation of Students, which represents 64 student unions across the country, launched a petition Tuesday calling the grant program “flawed from the start.”

Under the CSSG, students who volunteer 100 hours are eligible for $1,000, to a maximum payment of $5,000 for 500 hours. That equates to $10 per hour, lower than the minimum wage in every province or territory in the country.

The federal government has come under fire for its decision to have WE administer the grant program, after it was revealed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother had been paid for speaking appearances at WE events.

The federal ethics commissioner is now investigating. 

“The CSSG violates provincial minimum wage laws, blurs the line between paid and volunteer labour, and has become the centre of a national ethics investigation,” students wrote in the petition. 

“The time has come to face reality: with August only weeks away, it is too late to re-implement the failed CSSG Program.”

Students are calling for the grant to be dissolved and for the funds to be given to other existing programs. They’re asking for:

  • The government to extend the $1,250 Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) by three eligibility periods, and increase the monthly amount to $2,000;

  • The feds to allow international students and students who graduated in fall 2019 to be eligible for the CESB; 

  • The federal government to work with its provincial counterparts to provide “significant tuition relief” to students.

Greg Sibley, one of the lead organizers from Don’t Forget Students, told HuffPost Canada that even without the WE scandal, the CSSG was a “poorly conceived” program to begin with. 

“We’re encouraging all of our federal political leaders to look at this as an opportunity to really come together and fix the problems with the original student bailout” and not get bogged down with focusing on the scandal, although the ethics commissioner’s work is important, Sibley said.

Courtesy of Greg Sibley
Greg Sibley, one of the lead organizers of Don't Forget Students, said he's not eligible for federal financial aid during the pandemic.

“Students deserve clarity on that, Canadians deserve clarity on that, but we can’t really lose the forest through the trees here,” he said. “This program was set up because students needed support, and it had problems, but we need to come together and fix all of those problems.”

For Sibley, the advocacy work is personal, too. He graduated with a master’s degree in November 2019, and students who graduated in December or later are eligible for the CESB. He’s also not eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) because he made less than the cutoff in his work in the fall. 

“I actually qualify for zero dollars of federal aid, despite being almost five months into a pandemic,” he said. 

He added that fulfilling the group’s asks would mean the government investing more than the $900 million meant for the CSSG.

“I think [our demands] are the necessary investments in Canada’s young people and students and recent graduates to make sure that recovery goes ahead,” Sibley said. “It is a bit of a cliché to say but it happens to be true: That if Canada’s young people fall through the cracks here and don’t succeed, our recovery is also not gonna succeed.”

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada told HuffPost the government remains committed to supporting students and the nonprofit sector and is “is working diligently to develop a transition plan.”

... if Canada's young people fall through the cracks here and don't succeed, our recovery is also not gonna succeed.Greg Sibley

“This means there will be delays but more information will be provided as soon as it is available,” Isabelle Maheu said.

In response to a question about concerns that students would be paid less than minimum wage, Maheu said job creation was not an objective of the program and that the CSSG payment would be a lump-sum at the end of the summer, not an hourly wage.

At the standing committee on finance Tuesday morning, Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos asked about the future of the CSSG program and what student volunteers can expect, given that it’s late July.

Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart responded that he believes there will be a program that will take advantage of the existing ′I Want to Help’ platform that the government has. 

“It will offer much less in the way of wraparound services to students — that is a consequence of the public service having to deliver the program,” Shugart said. “But from the beginning the government has been concerned about the impact of the pandemic on students and is determined to provide whatever support through this program can be done. It will, without question, be less than what was envisaged through the third party delivery of the program.” 

Also at the committee, Josh Mandryk, a labour and class actions lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP, said the CSSG has “serious design flaws that give rise to the exploitation and to the potential misclassification of students and recent graduates.”

Mandryk said the CSSG would put “onerous” demands on participating students, who would have to volunteer about 27 hours per week during the June-October program to be eligible for the full $5,000. That would increase to around 50 hours per week if students wanted to finish volunteering before their classes start in September, he said. 

The best way to salvage the problem, Mandryk said, would be to remove the mandatory volunteer requirement and convert the positions into paid jobs through the Canada Summer Jobs program, and to expand and build up the CESB to be more like the CERB. 

Note: HuffPost’s previous owner, AOL, sponsored and participated in WE Charity events and Free The Children trips.