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Volunteer placements on pause as Liberals try to restart troubled student grant program

Students slated to start volunteering this week in order to receive the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) have seen their placements grind to halt as the government tries to sort out the troubled program, CBC News has learned.

WE Charity said Friday it was pulling out of administering the $900-million project, citing the on-going controversy surrounding it and the government’s decision to give the sole-source contract to WE. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would take over, but that young people might not have the same opportunities as when WE was involved.

Some 35,000 students and recent graduates have applied for the CSSG, which connects them with volunteering opportunities in exchange for between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the number of hours worked. 

Two government sources tell CBC News there is extensive work going on behind the scenes as the government and WE try to disentangle. 

WE Charity says its responsibilities included recruiting students, processing tens of thousands of applications, and working with the not-for-profits offering volunteer opportunities. 

WE also said Friday it had recruited hundreds of staff to mentor students. CBC News has previously reported that teachers were being offered $12,000 to recruit and mentor dozens of applicants to the grant program.

Payment infrastructure, insurance and waiver systems and “countless other administrative functions” were all part of WE’s responsibilities, according to its statement.

Now the federal government has to determine how to make that system function without WE. The charity has publicly pledged its support during the transition, but decisions need to be made quickly, given that many applicants were supposed to have begun their work this week.

Sources didn’t give a precise timeline for addressing these challenges, but acknowledged the work needs to happen swiftly.

The Canadian Federation of Students has been quick to sound an alarm about the delay. The tens of thousands of applications to the program suggest students are looking for ways to make ends meet, the group said.

“School starts again in less than two months and students still don’t know if they’ll be able to afford classes … on top of their living expenses,” CFS said.

The group argues the federal government should simply increase the amount of the Canada Student Emergency Benefit, which in many cases pays $1,250 per four-week period, in order to get more money into students’ pockets.

bardish chagger
Bardish Chagger is minister for diversity, inclusion and youth, the department overseeing the CSSG. The government is working to get the controversial volunteer program up and running after WE Charity backed out. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

While the federal government’s efforts to salvage the program continue behind the scenes, official voices have been tight lipped.

Asked about the message to students, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada sent a statement referring to the challenges both the non-profit sector and and students are facing because of COVID-19.

The government is “working diligently to develop a transition plan. More information will be provided as soon as it is available,” the statement said. 

In the meantime, the federal Ethics Commissioner has said he will investigate the decision to award the contract to WE. The House of Commons Finance Committee has given the federal government until Aug. 8 to produce documents related to the program including the contract with WE. The committee will also bring in witnesses to discuss the matter and produce a report on it.

The prime minister said Wednesday that while the decision to give the sole-source contract to WE came from the civil service, he and the other members of cabinet did ratify the decision.

He added that it remains important to give young people opportunities during the pandemic to engage in their communities.

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