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Graeme Menzies is a marketing professional specializing in youth and a former Canadian Armed Forces officer with the Cadet Instructors Cadre.

The WE Charity scandal has pretty much killed the federal government’s planned $900-million Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program. It’s probably fair to say that, in reference to a classic Monty Python sketch, it’s the dead parrot of summer relief programs.

But while the time for launching a summer program has passed, there is no reason the government could not develop a better one for the fall. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should ask the Canadian Armed Forces to do what WE cannot.

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First, to avoid some of the mistakes brought to light by the WE fiasco, the government needs to be very clear what it means by “youth.” Part of the reason the CSSG went sideways was because of confusion over this critical point. The initial program announcement said it was for high-school graduates up to the age of 30. But asking WE, a charity that deals almost exclusively with children under 18, to administer the program seemed to signal something else.

People were, rightly, second-guessing the mandate from the start.

Fortunately, the CAF has expertise developing and administering programs for young people older than 18 and for youth under 18.

In the over-18 category, the CAF’s summer Bold Eagle program for Indigenous persons could serve as a model for a new initiative. Bold Eagle participants get all kinds of unique experiences, and can earn $4,200 in cash and academic credits. They have no obligation to stay in the armed forces when the program is over (though they are well-prepared to transfer into a reserve unit should they wish).

The CAF’s Full-time Summer Employment Program is another operation that could be used as a model for creation of an effective short-term youth development program that provides participants the opportunity to serve their communities, gain skills and earn money.

In response to the pandemic, the Prime Minister should immediately ask the CAF to develop a special reservist program for youth who have recently left high school. Such a program could work toward the original CSSG program goal of encouraging participation in national service and providing practical work experience and career development skills.

It could be short term (six or eight months) and, like the existing reserve programs, could allow participants to drop out at any time. The program would not be able to provide the usual sort of training and experiences that a typical reservist would experience in non-pandemic times. But the CAF is full of professionals who live by the motto “improve, adapt and overcome,” and an effective program could no doubt be created if they were asked to step up to the challenge.

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In the under-18 category, if the government really was thinking of a program for youth still in high school, there is still time to address that audience, too.

Again, the CAF could be part of the solution since it already has about 5,000 Cadet Instructor Cadre officers administering the Cadet Program. These CIC instructors are specifically trained to work with youth between 12 and 18 and they come from all walks of life – some are veterans but many are accountants, software developers, teachers, entrepreneurs, musicians, mechanics, doctors, parents and so on.

The Cadet program – once described by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as “the best youth leadership program in the country” – already has more than 50,000 Canadian youth participating in it but could be scaled up to include more.

With many parents covering homeschooling duties in addition to their jobs, any program that helped engage youth in positive civic development would undoubtedly be welcomed support. Youth would also be able to earn high-school credits in return for their participation.

It is puzzling that the resources of the CAF were not immediately considered when developing the CSSG, or when thinking of ways to help Canadian youth positively respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Mr. Trudeau used military metaphors to describe the challenge faced by the country. Now perhaps it is time to drop the metaphors and to ask the military what they can do to help. They are, after all, already on the payroll.

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