Students Ask Liberals to Scrap Grant Program as Morneau to Testify on WE Deal

July 22, 2020 Updated: July 22, 2020

OTTAWA—Two groups representing thousands of post-secondary students are calling on the Trudeau Liberals to abandon its troubled volunteer program and push its $900-million funding to other student supports.

The program the Liberals first unveiled in April proposed paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs based on the number of hours they volunteer.

But its rollout has stumbled after the group chosen to run it, WE Charity, backed out amid an ethical uproar involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations say it’s clear the program won’t provide the financial help students are looking for.

The CFS warns students may be unable to accumulate enough hours to receive grants because it’s almost August and there is no clarity on when the program will launch.

“Students have waited for this program to roll out since April and now they’re told they have to wait even longer,” national chair Sofia Descalzi said in a statement.

“This is unacceptable.”

The CFS is asking the Liberals to put all money budgeted for the program into an emergency benefit for out-of-work students.

CASA says the money should be redirected to helping returning students, but doesn’t specify a mechanism to use.

The group says it is too late to put the money towards the Canada Summer Jobs program, which funds summer student salaries at small businesses and non-profits, or the emergency student benefit.

“Students have been expecting financial aid from the government, and are relying on it to continue their educational pursuits,” the group’s chair, Bryn de Chastelain, said in a statement.

“The government needs to be timely in providing clarity to students and ensure no student is left behind.”

The call comes ahead of an appearance at the House of Commons committee by Finance Minister Bill Morneau over the cancelled agreement for WE Charity to run the student-volunteer program.

Morneau has apologized for not recusing himself from the cabinet discussions and vote on the agreement, given his daughters have ties to WE—including one who works on contract for an arm of the organization.

He will be the latest cabinet minister to be grilled over the aborted deal that would have seen WE receive up to $43.5 million to oversee a program with a maximum budget of $912 million.

Morneau, like Trudeau, is being investigated by the federal ethics watchdog for possible violations of conflict of interest rules.

On Tuesday, Canada’s top bureaucrat said he couldn’t see not having the finance minister and prime minister involved in discussions about a program as big in scope and price as the Canada Student Service Grant program.

The Liberals have said the non-partisan public service recommended going with WE as it was the only organization in the country able to launch a program as quickly and as broadly as the government wanted.

In early July, the organization handed back control of the program to the government amid the controversy about its connections to Trudeau. The organization says it has paid speaking fees to his mother Margaret (including as recently as this year) and brother Alexandre, and a small amount to his wife Sophie in 2012.

The finance committee also heard Tuesday from the head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada that public servants could have delivered the program, while lawyer Joshua Mandryk raised concerns about effectively paying students below minimum wage and calling it volunteering.