Justin Trudeau at a WE event, September 20, 2017. // SOURCE: CBC

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Liberal government decided to allow Toronto-based WE Charity to administer a $912 million Canada Student Services Grant program (CSSG). With a launch date set for mid-June, the premise was that WE Charity would connect students with volunteer positions over the summer months and pay them anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000 dollars, depending on the amount of hours they worked from June 25 to October 31, 2020. The glimmer of hope for the 35,000 students who applied across the country was quickly diminished as the agreement between WE Charity and the Federal government was dissolved in early July.

So, what happened? Here is what we know so far…

On April 9, 2020, WE drafted a proposal for a youth entrepreneurship program which was sent to Youth Minister Bardish Chagger and Small Business Minister Mary Ng. While similar to the CSSG program, WE stated this proposal sent in early April was unrelated.

Just over a week goes by and Rachel Wernick, a senior Employment and Social Development Canada official, reaches out to WE on April 19 regarding a new proposal which would become the CSSG program. Wernick stated she was unaware of the original proposal sent a week and a half prior, and that the idea to reach out to WE about running the CSSG program originally came from someone in finance.

Chagger later told the House of Commons finance committee on July 16th that neither Prime Minister Trudeau or Bill Morneau, former finance minister, had suggested to partner with WE for the delivery of this program prior to introducing it to cabinet. Instead, according to BNN Bloomberg, Chagger noted Public Service had their hands full with the coronavirus and the recommendation (made in writing by Wernick), was that WE Charity would have the capacity and network to handle the program. She stated in her testimony, “I was given a recommendation by the public service…I accepted the recommendation and brought it forward to cabinet.”

Earlier this September, new documents were released which allegedly proved Minister Chagger may in fact have been a dominant driver for WE Charities involvement with the program, and not Public Service as she had stated. According to the National Post, although originally claiming to have not discussed the program with anyone from WE Charity prior to presenting it to cabinet, Minister Chagger had been in contact with WE co-founder Craig Kielburger as early as April 17th to discuss a suggestion made by Chagger of a summer service opportunity. Justin Trudeau would announce the program five days later on April 22nd.  

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger// SOURCE: CBC

It is hard to know what actually happened, and I am starting to develop a headache trying to figure it out. So, at this point you might be asking, why do we care about who came up with the program?

WE Charity was set to be paid $43 million by the federal government to administer the program (they received $30 million before the program was cancelled). It did not take long after the announcement of the program for family ties between Trudeau, Morneau and WE Charity to be exposed. With both the Morneau and Trudeau family directly profiting off WE in the past, this just didn’t sit right with people.

Shortly after, the agreement was dissolved and WE Charity announced they would pay back the funds they had been given thus far. This whole ordeal seemed to be quite a hit for WE. According to CBC, WE Charity confessed fundraising since the scandal has been fairly difficult. Between the pandemic’s financial strain on the company and the failure of the student grant program, on September 9th the WE Charity announced the closing of their Canadian operations.

Any trace of the program’s existence isn’t easy to find these days. The online portal where students were able to access CSSG, called “I Want to Help”, has been dismantled on all web platforms. If you go to the main page you will find nothing, but “The Government is currently considering options for the Canada Student Service Grant. As such, applications for service opportunities and students are not currently being processed or accepted.”

Wait a second. What about the 35,000 students who applied to the program and were left without a volunteer placement? I have questions!

Surely, one would like to assume the money allocated for the program would go back to students in some form or another. According to the Huffington Post, many students are asking for the grant to be dissolved into the Canada Emergency Student Benefit or through tuition relief. 

Nicole Brayiannis, National Deputy Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, told Alternatives Journal that so far, this has not been the case.

“Students have not been receiving consistent and clear support about what would be coming from the government to support financially throughout this pandemic, and students are still eagerly waiting.” -Nicole Brayiannis

“I think at the closure of the program, it was tried to be said that only $500 million was allocated which was not consistent with what was originally said to be $912 million,” said Brayiannis. “Students have not been receiving consistent and clear support about what would be coming from the government to support financially throughout this pandemic, and students are still eagerly waiting.” Brayiannis says, to her knowledge, the 35,000 students who applied to the program have still not been given any kind of placement or alternative funding.

I spoke with Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth to try and understand what was going on. “In response to Covid-19, we came out with a $9 billion dollar plan for students and youth,” Chagger told me, “So the Canada Student Service Grant was part of that bigger picture.” Included in the $9 billion dollar plan was placing moratoriums on Canada student loan repayments and increasing job opportunities.

Chagger continued, “We had students wanting to not put a pause on their future and wanting to gain work experience, so we increased the number of Canada student summer jobs opportunities from 70,000 to 80,000. We had students that were saying, yes, it is great to work in the not for profit sector, but we also want to work in other sectors including for small businesses. So, the government responded by saying 100% of wages will be covered for all sectors that provide a youth a meaningful employment opportunity…. If you actually look at the $9 billion dollar program, the Canada student service grant was just a very small portion of that. And those other programs we put out, have actually been better used than we additionally thought, and we were able to help more Canadians than we had originally estimated.” Chagger noted the government is still currently looking at options for a replacement for the CSSG program but stated that everything remains on the table.