WE Charity ethics controversy leaves students without promised funding

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ethical controversy has put the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) on hold — leaving thousands of students without promised support.

The volunteer program, put in place to ease student financial concerns during the pandemic, has been put on hold after WE Charity backed out of its deal with the government to administer the grant. The grant involved giving post-secondary students the opportunity to earn $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteering, with a maximum of $5,000.

Nicole Brayiannis, deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), questioned the initial premise of providing grants for volunteer work, saying that the program set students up for precarious working conditions because they were not being compensated minimum wage.

“This program shouldn’t have existed from the start,” said Brayiannis. “And it doesn’t make sense to pursue it now.”

UBC student groups are echoing the sentiment.

“Ten dollars per hour is just not acceptable,” said Alireza Kamyabi, VP external of the UBC Graduate Student Society (GSS), adding that many graduate students do not have hundreds of hours to spend in the summer to receive the grant.

The government chose WE Charity to administer the program, but the agreement fell through after allegations that the charity was chosen due to its affiliation with the families of Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

The prime minister has denied involvement in the recommendation of WE Charity but has nonetheless apologized for not recusing himself from relevant cabinet discussions. Trudeau is currently under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.

Since WE Charity has pulled out of the program, the federal government now intends to distribute the grant itself.

International students and students above the age of 30 were ineligible for this grant.

Kamyabi said that the age limit made the grant inaccessible to many graduate students, who are “usually in a higher age demographic.” According to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the average age of doctoral students in 2019 was 31.6. For master’s students, it was 29.

Kalith Nanayakkara, AMS VP external, said that the AMS is advocating for increased support for international students.

Brayiannis also said that there has been no consultation with student groups by the government on relief for students during the pandemic. Elected leaders in post-secondary institutions should be consulted, GSS President Kimani Karangu said, because they are trusted by students to represent them in such matters.

Around 35,000 students applied for the CSSG in the week it launched. The federal government, along with WE Charity, intends to prevent the program’s suspension from impacting these students.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation — giving hope and taking it away,” said Karangu. He added that withdrawing the program also creates an unfortunate psychological and emotional impact on students.

“There’s not even any conversations right now about what’s happening next because everybody’s so caught up in trying to put blame, rather than focusing on how students can actually get supported,” said Brayiannis.

With full-time studies for many resuming in the fall semester, students will likely no longer be able to take full advantage of the grant.

Kamyabi said the government should provide a wage subsidy to encourage student employment. Brayiannis said that the money should go to the Canadian Student Emergency Benefit because it is already accessible to students and would provide immediate support.

“Students just simply aren’t receiving the relief that they need and continue to be left behind,” said Brayiannis.