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Trudeau doubles down on defence of WE Charity handling volunteering program

Coronavirus: Trudeau announces further support for students
WATCH: Trudeau announces further support for students

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubled down Monday on his defence of choosing WE Charity as the organization to run a federal student aid program, saying his government has “extensive practice” working with third parties and charities to deliver programs.

The WE Charity will administer the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program, which will provide eligible students with up to $5,000 for volunteer work with non-profit organizations in an effort to help soften the blow from the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

The decision to work with WE raised conflict-of-interest concerns last week, as the group has ties to both the prime minister and his wife.

The federal Conservatives have since called for an investigation into the decision, arguing that “outsourcing” the grant program to WE undermines Parliament’s ability to monitor the program.

Read more: Conservatives ask auditor to probe government’s $900M partnership with WE Charity

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Trudeau has said there is no conflict of interest since the organization is not making a profit on the work, and neither he nor his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, is paid for anything they do with the group. The prime minister attended several WE events in the past and his wife hosts one of its podcasts.

“When we wanted to move forward to help various food banks across the country, we worked with the charity Food Banks Canada in order to deliver the program. When we wanted to help grassroots community organizations, we worked with the United Way in order to deliver that program,” he said.

He said the delivery of the program required an organization able to reach the number of students the government hopes will participate.

Canadian Minister Chagger announces student volunteer grant program through Oct. 31
Canadian Minister Chagger announces student volunteer grant program through Oct. 31

He said that since June 25, when the program opened, the government has received approximately 25,000 applications.

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“The WE Charities are evaluated by our public service as being the best and only organization able to deliver on the scale that we need to make sure that young people have service opportunities this summer,” he said. “We know that this is something that is going to be extremely important in the coming months.”

The program aims to place up to 20,000 students in volunteer positions between now and October. It will only count hours worked during that time, so anything done prior will be left out.

Depending on the amount of time spent volunteering, the grants will range from $1,000 to $5,000. For every 100 hours spent, a student could receive $1,000.

Read more: Trudeau says civil service chose WE Charity for partnership on student grant program

The program is part of the Trudeau government’s $9-billion student support package, which includes funding for summer job placements and internships. The government has pledged $912 million for the CSSG, however, it’s not clear how much WE will receive.

Trudeau has said the charity will not make a profit but will be paid to administer the program.

Conservative and NDP MPs have called on the Liberals to release the terms of the federal contract.

When asked about criticism that the program blurs the lines between volunteerism and paid labour, Trudeau emphasized that young people “want to step up.”

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“They want to engage in their communities, serve in their communities, help their country and fellow citizens through this difficulty, while at the same time developing important work experience,” he said.

“The idea of giving bonus grants to young people who serve has long existed, and we know it’s something that’s really important to recognize the value of service, but these young people will be volunteering in ways that will make a huge difference right across the country.”

— with files from the Canadian Press