Opposition demand answers and action for students following Liberal WE apologies
OTTAWA -- Federal opposition parties are continuing to demand answers from the federal government, and are calling for a quick solution to revive or rework the now-halted $900 million student summer grant program.
The program was initially awarded to WE Charity, prompting a series of headlines calling into question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ethics and the potential conflict of interest he and his finance minister may have put themselves in by not recusing themselves from the decision making table on the deal, given their close family connections to the organization.
On Monday both Trudeau and minister Bill Morneau apologized for their part in the controversy and vowed to recuse themselves from any WE Charity discussions in the future, though the federal ethics commissioner is still looking into the matter, and various House of Commons committees plan to continue to hear testimony and seek evidence that could further shed light on how this sole-sourced contract came about.
The government insists it was the public service that suggested WE Charity was the best, and only organization to administer the program, though now government departments and agencies are being looked at as alternatives to execute the program that was created to offer students grants for summer volunteer work related to COVID-19.
While the government has vowed to rework the program as quickly as possible, after WE Charity handed back over the program to the government along with the funding, thousands of students are left in limbo without summer jobs and, for now, no chance for volunteer grants to help cover costs like fall tuition.
This has prompted the Green Party to suggest shifting the funds to the Canada Summer Jobs program instead, a pre-existing program that connects young people to temporary job opportunities in their communities. That program was deemed oversubscribed this summer and the government has already put additional funding into it.
“There are thousands of Canadian students who need jobs and thousands of Canadian charities and nonprofits which are dealing with a decline in revenue and an increase in demand in services that could benefit from students working with them. Organizations that applied through WE should be allowed to move their application to Canada Summer Jobs,” Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May said in a statement.
The grant to post-secondary students and recent graduates was designed to provide one-time payments of up to $5,000 for volunteering in pandemic-related programs, depending on the number of hours worked. For every 100 hours spent, a student would receive $1,000.
“The whole premise of the Canada Student Service Grant was problematic,” said Green Party MP and employment critic Paul Manly in the same statement, noting that the amount being offered for the volunteer work was less than the minimum wage in any province.
“Students would not gain any EI eligible hours or have this de facto employment recognized next spring if there is another wave of the pandemic and a need for further financial relief programs,” he said.
STUDENTS GET CREATIVE
Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said on CTV News Channel on Monday that the government will not be able to deliver the program to the same extent as was originally planned when WE Charity was involved.
"There was thousands of opportunities that were posted… Right now we are looking to get the program out the door once again, looking at what needs to be done us to be able to deliver this program," she said.
Brandon Amyot was one of the students who was banking on volunteering through the program to help pay down their student debt. While the government says volunteer hours through to the end of October will count, by then many students will be back in class and preparing for the first round of midterms.
Amyot said WE Charity’s involvement and the inference that students would only volunteer if paid was also a concern. “It leaves me questioning how I am supposed to get through school,” Amyot said. “It weakens my trust in institutions in general when these sort of avoidable things happen.”
Other students have opted to bypass the federal process altogether and set up their own volunteer positions, hoping that the federal government will still compensate them for those hours once the program’s problems are sorted.
“I don’t even know if I’ll still get compensated for my volunteering,” said Jake Chabut, a student volunteer in Guelph, Ont.
Meanwhile, thousands of students like Kevin Caswell have not heard a word about their application.
“I think it’s frustrating not knowing what’s happening,” the Carleton University student said. “We’re jut kept in the dark.”
BLOC LEADER DOUBLES DOWN
In a press conference on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet doubled down on his call for Trudeau to temporarily step aside and let Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland take the reigns of Canada’s COVID-19 response as the ethics probe into his potential conflict of interest is concluded.
“I believe that now his attention is much more on his personal situation… than about helping and taking care of Canadians and Quebecers. That by itself is a good reason for him to step aside,” he said.
Though, given the ongoing health and economic crisis, Blanchet said now is not the time for an election so the Bloc Quebecois is not looking to bring down the minority Liberal government.
He wants to see Trudeau testify at the House of Commons Finance Committee, where one probe of the controversy is already underway. Speaking in French, however, he rejected the Conservative calls for an RCMP investigation, saying that it’s wrong for the Tories to think they can order a police investigation as if it was placing an order for a pizza.
With a report from CTV News’ Molly Thomas and CTVNews.ca Writer Ben Cousins