July 2nd, 2020
Volunteer credit program to flow through WE Charity
Canada is embarking on a huge program designed to create work for students whose employment prospects have been waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. The money ($912 million) for the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) was announced in April, but the details were only filled in over the last week.
The money will be doled out exclusively through WE Charity, an international development charity and youth empowerment movement founded by former child activists, Craig Kielburger and his brother, Marc. It grew out of the pair’s earlier effort, Free the Children and operates development programs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with a focus on education, water, health, food and economic opportunity. In North America, the charity engages in programming for young people promoting service learning and active citizenship. It is best known for WE Day events that engage young people across the country.
WE Charity will roll out the CSSG for student volunteers who will be eligible to apply for a grant of $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteering they complete. The program will be capped for individuals at $5,000 or 500 hours. An initial criticism of the program is that the dollar amounts mean the volunteers would be working for less than minimum wage in every province - about $10 an hour.
The CSSG also has critics. Volunteer Canada is worried it sets a dangerous precedence by paying volunteers. WE Charity offered to pay for Volunteer Canada’s expertise to work on the grant program recognizing how that organization’s help in promotion, advice on engaging other organizations and helping to create training content would have been invaluable to the effort. The CEO for Volunteer Canada is worried the program will blur the line between volunteerism and work and turned the offer down.
When the Prime Minister encouraged students to volunteer in late April, there was little hint that the government would eventually monetize those efforts. Now that there is a program aimed at paying students for volunteer hours, any work already performed won’t be eligible for consideration since the CSSG will only count hours accumulated as of June 25th. Also left out of the program are students returning to high-school who use summer and part-time employment to build for their futures and save for post-secondary education.
Perhaps the biggest worry about the CSSG are the close ties between the Prime Minister’s wife and the WE Charity. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is an ambassador for the charity and has participated in several WE Day events. That shouldn’t outright disqualify the charity, but when added to the Prime Minister’s comment that WE was the only charity that could have done the work, the questions begin to mount.
The program is needed, there’s little doubt of that. Many traditional avenues for summer employment are not available this year and the CSSG will help off-set some of those losses for students. But necessity isn’t enough of a reason to bypass transparency and accountability. Canadians deserve reassurance on that front and cutting back-room deals, whether it’s with We Charity for the CSSG, or Amazon to distribute emergency supplies isn’t the best path for that exercise.