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Federal government, WE Charity agree to part ways on summer student grant program

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-07-03 John Paul Tasker

The federal Liberal government and the WE Charity are ending a partnership that would have seen the charity distribute around $900 million in federal student grants this summer.

The decision to outsource this work to a third party with ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's family was criticized by some in the charitable sector and by the opposition Conservatives.

Pierre Poilievre, the Tory finance critic, has asked both the auditor general and the federal procurement watchdog to review the sole-sourced contract that would have given WE the authority to administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG).

Volunteer Canada, a group that promotes volunteerism, refused to work with WE because it objected to how the program was being administered — and they opposed paying students for volunteer work.

Trudeau and his mother, Margaret, have appeared at a number of WE Day events, while his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the group called "WE Well-being."

WE has said no member of the Trudeau family receives an honorarium for their appearances with the charity, though Grégoire Trudeau has had her travel expenses covered. A spokesperson from the Prime Minister's Office said Grégoire Trudeau's involvement with WE was cleared by the federal ethics commissioner.

WE also has gone through an organizational upheaval in recent months, with a series of resignations and layoffs.

Trudeau had defended the partnership, saying WE was the only group with a nationwide network capable of operating a program of this sort for young people. Other charitable organizations have questioned that assertion.

Trudeau said Friday the move to cut ties was "WE's decision, which we support."

He said the federal government will simply distribute the grants itself, even though it doesn't have the same "connections" to smaller charities that WE said it had.

"Certainly there are certain things that we will not be able to do as government delivers this program directly," Trudeau said.

"Obviously this situation unfolded in a way that is truly unfortunate because one of the things that ends up happening with this is that young people won't maybe have the same kind of access to programs that they would have."

Asked Friday if he and his family would continue their work with WE, Trudeau said he remains committed to youth-related issues.

"As for WE, I think the organization is going to take some time to reflect on its next steps and how exactly it responds to this situation," he said.

Trudeau said both the government and WE have "things to reflect on, there are ways to do it better."

"But that core principle of being a government that is there to support young people and to work with partners across the country, to make sure that young people are able to get the opportunities, the experience, and the service to their country at this time, is continuing to be extremely important," he said. A statement from the federal government said today's move was "a mutually agreed upon decision." "The Government of Canada and WE Charity will work together to ensure that the volunteers who have applied and been placed won't be adversely affected. WE Charity has also decided to return any funds that had already been received," Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said in the statement. "Our government's objective remains to connect the skills and abilities of young people with service opportunities to help heal their communities."

"But that core principle of being a government that is there to support young people and to work with partners across the country, to make sure that young people are able to get the opportunities, the experience, and the service to their country at this time, is continuing to be extremely important," he said.

A statement from the federal government said today's move was "a mutually agreed upon decision."

"The Government of Canada and WE Charity will work together to ensure that the volunteers who have applied and been placed won't be adversely affected. WE Charity has also decided to return any funds that had already been received," Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said in the statement.

"Our government's objective remains to connect the skills and abilities of young people with service opportunities to help heal their communities."

Trudeau has said WE Charity, which was started by youth advocates Marc and Craig Kielburger in 1995, was picked by bureaucrats to administer the grant.

The grant provides eligible students with up to $5,000 each to help cover the cost of post-secondary education this fall. The size of each grant depends on the amount of time the recipient devotes to volunteer work.

Chagger said Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) recommended that a third party administer the grant "given the scope and scale of the program" and the "urgent need to deliver this new program."

But, with WE out, it's not clear how the program, which received around 35,000 applicants within the first week, will now be administered.

In a statement, WE Charity said while take-up has been strong, the criticism of WE's involvement "has not abated."

"The program has also been enmeshed in controversy from the moment of its announcement," the statement reads.

"Our concern is that to continue in this way, the program itself will begin to suffer – and as a consequence, opportunities for students might be negatively affected. Not only would that be unwelcome, it is unnecessary."

WE said any federal funds earmarked for WE to administer the grant "will be returned in full to the government."

Chagger said Ottawa is working on an "expedited transition" and "examining all options to ensure students, not-for-profits, and communities continue to be supported throughout the pandemic."

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