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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said WE will not receive a profit and that the charity was recommended by the public service as the only organization that could administer the program.Christopher Katsarov/The Associated Press

WE Charity is offering 450 online student-volunteer placements at its own organization as part of a $900-million federal grant program it is managing, raising questions about who decides which organizations will receive taxpayer-funded help this summer.

The Canada Student Service Grant program is facing criticism from some in the voluntary sector who say it is blurring the lines between unpaid volunteering and paid work by offering compensation equivalent to $10 an hour, which is below the minimum wage in all provinces. Students between the ages of 15 and 30 will receive a grant of $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteer service, up to $5,000 for 500 hours.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said WE will not receive a profit and that the charity was recommended by the public service as the only organization that could administer the program. However, Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, said the number of positions WE is offering raises questions.

“The way that Trudeau is defending this and the way that the organization is defending this is to say we’re not making any money from this. … We’re doing this because it’s the right thing, because we are set up to do it, but there’s nothing in it for us, per se,” she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “But as you see, the bit about so many jobs going back to the organization, well, that claim is then undermined.”

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Dr. Turnbull said WE is a well-respected organization and time will tell whether the federal government made the right decision to outsource the administration to the charity.

“But on the other hand, I think it strikes some people as a little odd when someone says you are the only organization that could possibly administer this program, because we do have a professional public service that is quite large in size and is good at administering programs. It does beg some questions,” she said.

Available positions that qualify for the new grant are posted on the federal government’s job bank.

The WE Charity positions include 200 openings for its “Social Entrepreneurship Innovation Lab,” either as a researcher, innovator or content creator and 250 positions as “Wellbeing Digital Resource Creator.”

All of the positions are described as “virtual volunteering,” in which students can conduct their volunteering online from home.

According to the Innovation Lab postings, “volunteers will work in groups to conduct research, generate and test new ideas and develop ways to address COVID-19-related topics such as wellness and mindfulness.”

The posting for the positions as digital resource creators states that the key responsibilities will include content creation, photography and videography focused on mental health.

“Volunteers will volunteer on projects creating digital content and educational resources to help foster resiliency, reduce stigma, increase personal connections and build community despite the challenges of physical distancing,” the posting states.

The Prime Minister first announced the program in April, but it was not until last week that the government revealed key details, including that the grant amounts will be based on hours served and that the administration of the program is being entirely outsourced to WE Charity.

Opposition parties have questioned the government’s decision to outsource the program’s management, in part because of the close relationship between WE Charity and the Prime Minister and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who is a volunteer “ambassador and ally” of the WE well-being initiative.

Examples of other volunteer opportunities posted on the job bank include making reusable gowns and caps for staff at the Toronto Humane Society, helping with promotional material for Kids Help Phone and marketing support for various food banks.

The Archway Food Bank in Abbotsford, B.C., is looking for one student to work seven hours a week sorting fresh food and making hampers. The St. Andrew’s Community Food Bank, in Whitby, Ont., is looking for five students to help with packing food boxes and to assist with inventory on location.

Conservative MP Dan Albas said most Canadians would have assumed that a national volunteer program would focus on supporting places such as food banks and homeless shelters. He said that the large number of positions by WE raises conflict questions, as well as concerns that it could be crowding out opportunities for other organizations in need.

“From day one, the government has not been straight with Canadians as to how this $900-million program is to be run,” he said. “This is the reason why we called for the contract to be publicly available.

“For WE Charity to be both the administrator and a participant raises questions of potential conflict of interest, but without having the contract made public, we just don’t know if this was something that was part of the arrangement or if this is something that WE Charity has decided that they can participate in.”

The federal outsourcing contract was announced after WE co-founder Craig Kielburger was campaigning for governments to include the charitable sector in its support programs.

“As the pandemic ravages the economy, talks turn to bailouts for sectors deemed too important or big to fail, from the airline to energy industries. Canada’s 170,000 registered charities have lost an estimated $10-billion and should be part of the conversation,” Mr. Kielburger wrote in a June 2 column published by Postmedia.

Neither WE nor Employment and Social Development Canada responded to questions about the volunteer positions at WE Charity. The Globe is a WE Charity media partner.

The Globe reported this week that WE is offering to pay teachers $12,000 if they recruit at least 75 students into the program and help manage the student placements.

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