As the Commons finance committee prepares for more testimony on the controversial Canada Student Service Grant, WE Charity says one of the more contentious aspects of the program's design — paying students less than minimum wage for their hours of work — was the federal government's idea.
With only about six weeks left before their return to full-time studies, some students now say they want the federal government to scrap the stalled $900 million volunteer compensation scheme and redirect the funding toward financial assistance for post-secondary students and recent graduates.
CBC News asked WE Charity whether organizations that supervised volunteers could decide on their own to adjust how they counted their volunteers' hours if they were concerned about students not being paid fairly.
"The Government of Canada determined the compensation per hour of service for the CSSG, and WE Charity was contracted to administer CSSG according to that decision," WE Charity told CBC News.
The government's decision to partner with WE Charity to administer the grant has sparked controversy since the program launched on June 25. WE has close personal ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's family and his role in selecting it is now the subject of a probe by Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.
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.
That works out to a maximum hourly rate of $10 per hour — less than the minimum wage in any Canadian jurisdiction.
Legal experts have warned organizations that they could violate employment codes, like Ontario's Employment Standards Act, by taking on volunteers under the Canada Student Service Grant.
One potential host organization suggested to CBC News it was considering counting four hours of volunteering as six for the purpose of calculating the grant, in order to compensate students at a rate closer to $15 an hour.
Senior bureaucrats appearing before the Commons finance committee last Thursday explained WE Charity's original agreement to administer the volunteer grant.
WE withdrew from its contract on July 3, a decision Youth Minister Bardish Chagger's office called "mutual."
Gina Wilson, Chagger's senior associate deputy minister, said that in a partnership agreement like the one it had with the WE organization, the government sets performance measures and audits the results but "does not direct or dictate how the recipient will carry out the project."
"Contribution agreements lay out the funding and the broad policy objectives ... the desired results. Then it is for the third party to make decisions about how they achieve those results," Rachel Wernick, a senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, told the committee.
Nevertheless, 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 upon by the government, Chagger's office told CBC News Monday. WE's administrative role involved getting students to sign up and recruiting organizations to supervise them.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus asked Chagger during her committee testimony last week if her office sought a legal opinion about having students do work that pays less than the minimum wage — something he suggested should have raised "red flags" because it might not be legal and could leave charities liable.
"I'm confident that the public service would have done their due diligence and would have requested legal opinions," the minister said, after Angus accused her of throwing civil servants "under the bus."
"I think what's important to note is the difference between employment opportunities and volunteer opportunities. This was about service opportunities within communities," Chagger said.
Grant design was 'like Air Miles'
Angus later asked Wernick if her department sought a legal opinion.
"I need to clarify that this was a lump sum financial award like a bursary at the end of the summer. It was not an hourly wage and that was the nature of the grant," Wernick said.
"Rewards are like that. Like Air Miles, you have to reach certain levels before you get a reward," Wernick said later, adding she could not talk about the government's legal advice because it would "constitute advice to ministers and solicitor-client privilege."
Paula Speevak, the president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, told the committee that in late April she met with senior officials from Chagger's office and shared concerns expressed by her member organizations about "paying an hourly rate for community service that is below minimum wage and calling this volunteering."
"This could create the wrong message about volunteering and potentially undermine volunteer engagement in the future," said Speevak. "There are also issues related to insurance — confusion about whether someone is covered as a volunteer or as an employee, and how that works."
Because of its national network of volunteer centres and its expertise in volunteer engagement, Volunteer Canada was offered $100,000 to sub-contract as a "strategic partner" under WE Charity, Speevak said.
Rollout 'bungled,' students prefer direct help
"I'm a big fan of volunteering, but this program really steps over the line of what we can consider volunteering," said Spencer Julien, a University of Toronto student. "It's not volunteering when there's monetary compensation.
"It's unfortunate that the government thinks that the only way to incentivize young people to go out and help in their communities is by bribing them with this grant."
Julien speaks for the #DontForgetStudents campaign. Since April, it's been asking the federal government to provide students with the same amount of emergency relief benefits it offers other workers affected by the pandemic: $2,000 a month, instead of the current $1,250.
Julien said more students would be willing to volunteer if they weren't so worried about how to pay for school — and paying them $10 an hour is "an affront to workers and the progress workers have made.
"We could go and work at Loblaws for more than this would offer us."
Julien's group is launching a petition Tuesday, joining the Canadian Federation of Students in calling for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit to be extended to international students and those who graduated in fall 2019.
Although the Canada Student Grant has been doubled for this fall, the federal government should also work with provinces and territories toward even more tuition relief, the groups say.
But students' most serious problems are less about tuition and more about the cost of living in the cities where they need to be for their studies, Julien said.
"The government has completely bungled the rollout of this program," Julien said, adding there's not enough time now for the public service to save it.
"The government has an opportunity to make up for what it should have done in the first place."