Trudeau and family close ties to WE Charity raise ethical concerns

Margaret Trudeau was paid more than $312,000 to speak at WE Charity events

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME—JUST ASK JUSTIN TRUDEAU. MPs are doing that right now. They want to know if the WE Charity his government chose to dole out $900 million in public funds to student “volunteers” was too much of a cozy family affair.

Two House of Commons committees are holding hearings on the matter. The opposition parties will use the hearings to try to damage the Trudeau government. They will do their best to pin down exactly who got what when and how much direct influence Trudeau had in the whole farrago of family favours, no-bid million dollar contracts and plain old operational incompetence. Some damage has already been done.

WE connection axed

The WE connection to the Canadian Student Service Grants (CSSG) program is gone.

Justin Trudeau had to publicly admit he made a “mistake” when he failed to take himself out of the decision-making process to pay the WE Charity $43.53 million to hand out $900 million in grants.

Trudeau confirmed his direct family connections with the charity: WE paid his mother $312,000 in speaker’s fees and his brother $35,000; Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the charity.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion launched an investigation into Trudeau’s role in giving WE the contract.

Students exploited

The Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) provides eligible students up to $5,000 in a lump sum grant at the end of a summer’s worth of work. The amount of the final payout depends on how much time students spend doing volunteer work.

Even if 100,000 students were recruited and logged enough hours to earn the maximum $5,000 grant, that would only account for $500 million of the more than $900 million allocated to the program.

The federal public service is working on a new delivery model to replace WE.

The WE approach was to reach out to 83 selected Canadian charitable organizations to find “volunteers” eligible for a grant.

The program was set up in five tiers, with students qualifying for $1,000 in grant money for every block of 100 hours worked, up to a maximum of $5,000 for 500 hours work.

That works out to a maximum hourly rate of $10 per hour—less than the minimum wage in any Canadian jurisdiction

In fact, the program may value student time at even less than $10, because the grant is calculated using 100-hour thresholds. A student who volunteers for 179 hours, for example, is still only eligible for a $1,000 grant because hours are rounded down. Students need to reach the full 200 hours to get $2,000, and so on, up to the $5,000 maximum for 500 hours.

A student who hopes to earn the maximum grant before returning to full-time studies in September could need to volunteer for 50 hours a week—well beyond full-time hours.

“These young people are clearly employees more than volunteers,” says Toronto labour lawyer Andrew Langille.

If they’re employees, their compensation and benefits should include things like Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance premiums and workplace safety insurance.

“From a public policy perspective, it’s a bit bizarre” to encourage precarious work during a pandemic that’s already been devastating for young workers, Langille said.

More like Air Miles than a wage

WE Charity was not in charge of designing how the program would compensate students. Things like the value of the grant, or how often students would be required to volunteer, were decided by the government.

Rachel Wernick, a senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, testified to MPs that the money the student’s worked for was “like a bursary at the end of the summer. It was not an hourly wage.”

“Rewards are like that,” she said. “Like Air Miles, you have to reach certain levels before you get a reward.”

Colleen Sharen, a Brescia University College professor in management and organization studies, said it would be cheaper and more efficient to just give students $900 million to fund their education through the federal student financial assistance programs that already exist.

A straight cash transfer to needy students also would have avoided claims that the federal government has designed a program that violates employment standards by paying less than minimum wage.

While it’s important to make sure students don’t drop out of school because of financial need during the pandemic, “let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be,” Sharen said.

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