Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his government’s decision to contract out the administration of its new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program to a charity with close personal ties to his family.
Trudeau said the public service deemed that the WE Charity – founded by Craig and Mark Kielburger in 1995 – is the "best and only" organization to administer the $912 million program that he says has already received 25,000 applications since it formally launched last Thursday.
The prime minister’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, is an ambassador with the organization and hosts a mental health podcast under its name. Trudeau has also spoken at a number of WE events globally.
"The Government of Canada has extensive practise working with third-party charities to deliver programs. When we wanted to move forward to help various food banks across the country, we worked with the charity Food Banks Canada to deliver the program," he said speaking to reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Monday morning.
When the government made the announcement last week, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger said the Department of Employment and Social Development came to the conclusion that it would be best managed by the charity because of its reach and expertise.
"It's important that we be able to work with an organization that can ensure that they have the ability to deliver a successful program," Chagger said on June 25.
Trudeau echoed this sentiment on Monday.
"They have networks in every corner of the country, and organizations that they work with. They have already worked over the past many years to deliver service opportunities to young people," said the prime minister.
The Conservative Party has raised concern about the charity’s involvement and its ties to the Liberals.
MPs Pierre Poilievre, Dan Albas, and Raquel Dancho wrote a letter to the Auditor General Karen Hogan on Sunday, asking that she include the decision to outsource the CSSG to WE in her audit of the Liberal’s COVID-19 spending.
"By outsourcing this program to a third party, the proper channels for Opposition scrutiny, the very bedrock of our parliamentary democracy, have been circumvented. Indeed, it is your office that will provide the most legitimate and transparent examination of this program," reads the letter.
To incentivize pandemic-related volunteering, the CSSG provides students and recent graduates with a one-time cash grant between $1,000 and $5000 based on the hours they serve.
The aim of the program is to "support student's post-secondary education costs in the fall," while at the same time help charities and not-for-profit organizations working on the front lines of COVID-19.
In order to qualify to take part in this program, participants must be 30 years of age or younger and a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a student with a refugee status. Applicants must also be either:
Enrolled in and attending a college or university during the spring, summer, or fall 2020 semesters;
A post-secondary graduate no earlier than December 2019; or
Studying abroad but currently residing in Canada.
The Trudeau government has also fielded criticism for blurring the lines between volunteering and paid work.
"We know thousands upon thousands of young people want to step up and engage in their communities, serve in their communities, help their country and their fellow citizens through this difficult time," said Trudeau.
"The idea of giving bonus grants to young people who serve has long existed and we know that it’s something that is really important."
In an interview with CTV News, Volunteer Canada CEO Paula Speevak said the reimbursement component of the program is one of the main reasons her organization opted out of participating in its nationwide rollout when approached by WE.
"The question that comes to mind for everyone is, is this volunteering or is this employment and is attaching an hourly rate within this program going to create an expectation among people that it's reasonable to expect to be paid for volunteering?" she said.
"It really puts into question the whole spirit of volunteering."
She said the initiative becomes problematic even if it is deemed to be paid work, given the pay structure of $1,000 per 100 hours amounts to $10 an hour, which is below minimum wage.
Volunteer Canada also raised concerns about need versus demand for volunteers to both WE and Chagger’s office.
"People are registering on various platforms that have been set up for COVID-19 and in many jurisdictions, the experience is, there are thousands and thousands of people who have signed up and are yet to be deployed and that’s because there’s an issue with capacity in the sector right now to be able to mobilize and engage."
Speevak said after a number of conversations with WE, deliberating the organization’s involvement, it became clear their jurisdiction was confined by the government’s mandate.
"There wasn’t the flexibility for WE as an organization to be able to address those specific concerns and therefore we needed to step away."
Speevak clarified that she has no problem with WE administering the program nor did she hope or intend for Volunteer Canada to take on the task.
Bell Media, which owns CTV News, is a media partner of WE Charity.
With files from CTV’s Kevin Gallagher and Rachel Aiello