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Charities awaiting word on fate of $912M student-volunteer program

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OTTAWA — Non-profit groups that wanted to use the Canada Student Service Grant to hire volunteers say they have not heard a peep from the federal government since WE Charity walked away from running the $912-million program almost two weeks ago.

That's causing angst for organizations such as Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in Halifax, which has already taken on seven students but now doesn't know whether the government will actually cover the payments the volunteers have been promised.

"I wish they would just come out with a statement to say: 'It's taking us a while, but charities, we won't leave you hanging for it,'" said Souls Harbour CEO Michelle Portman. "They haven't said that. So that's why we're all twiddling our thumbs and biting our nails."

Souls Harbour's board of directors has decided the charity will honour the commitment made to the seven students who are now volunteering in its thrift store, even if the government kills the program.

But Portman said that will have financial implications across the rest of the organization, which provides lunches and a safe space for hundreds of people every week.

"We have decided that if the government decides not to pay then we will uphold it in some way and pay the grant for them," she said. "But we have no way of knowing. ... My HR lady is just completely stressed about it because she knows how much that will cost us if the program folds."

The fate of the program is just one of many unanswered questions about the student-volunteer scheme, which has been left in turmoil after the government and WE ended their partnership on Juy 3.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced general plans for the grant program in April with details following June 25. The government promised students could receive up to $5,000 toward their education costs by volunteering the maximum 500 hours through the program.

Souls Harbour isn't the only one waiting for word from the government since the $20-million contract with Toronto-based WE was terminated amid questions about the Trudeau family's links to WE co-founder Craig and Marc Kielburger.

"We have had no communication," said Toronto Zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Tracey "One of the last communications from the WE folks was just that they were working on transitioning everything back over to the federal government, but there's been nothing further."

Charities like the Toronto Zoo, which had planned to take on five students to conduct research on animal behaviour during COVID-19, weren't the only ones in the dark. Tracey said her daughter had also heard nothing after applying to work at a centre for Indigenous women.

YMCA Canada president Peter Dinsdale also said there has been no word on his organization's desire to take on 391 students at branches across the country, adding he was "starting to wonder if this is going to happen."

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger's office and the Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department that has taken over the program, have said the government will help students dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet they have offered no update on the program, including whether it will even continue.

"The government of Canada remains committed to supporting students and the not-for-profit sector and is working diligently to develop a transition plan, including looking at options on how best to proceed," ESDC spokeswoman Isabelle Maheu said in an email Wednesday.

"This means there will be delays, but more information will be provided as soon as it is available."

The department has also declined to say how many positions the $912-million program was supposed to create for students, how many positions had been approved, the number of applications received from students or how many positions have been filled.

Those questions are in addition to what other organizations were considered to run the program before cabinet decided to award a sole-sourced contract to WE. Trudeau has said WE was recommended by the public service and was the only organization capable of running the program.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press




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