It’s supposed to be all about doing good, about boosting volunteers to do work for the public benefit. So why can’t the government just show us how the whole thing will work?
A week ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave us the surprising news that the whole $900-million Canada Student Service Grant program – which will pay grants of $1,000 to $5,000 to postsecondary students who “volunteer” – will be administered by WE Charity, the Toronto-based charitable organization founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger, which stages the well-known WE Day events.
That arrangement is odd by itself. And it raised eyebrows in part because both Mr. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, act as volunteer spokespersons for the charity. The fact that WE will receive a $19.5-million federal contribution to administer the program had folks asking questions.
But still, you would think it would be easy enough for the federal government to spell out the whole arrangement, in detail.
In fact, there’s a written agreement. All that needs to be done is to walk over to the filing cabinet, fish out the agreement, scan it and post it. Or send it out to those who have been asking to see it.
It really is that simple. Yet the federal government won’t do it. The Globe and Mail has been asking. Opposition MPs have been asking. We’re talking about an agreement to have a charity hand out grants to volunteers. It is not even a commercial contract with business information – it’s a contribution agreement, which sets out terms and conditions for getting money from Ottawa. What is so secret?
Over the past week, bits of information have been teased out. The arrangement, government officials said, calls for $19.5-million to be paid for administration, but that includes $5.3-million for “NGO partners” – the organizations that will receive the volunteers, and $300,000 for accessibility measures for persons with disabilities. We also know organizations that are going to take volunteers are eligible for grants of $2,500 to $100,000.
We have learned other things, too. The Globe’s Bill Curry reported that WE is offering teachers $12,000 each to recruit students to volunteer. And that WE itself has posted openings for 450 volunteer spots in its own organization.
We also now know that WE will be paid, at least in part, according to the number of people it brings in – but just how much, or how that will work, isn’t public.
Is WE to be paid $5 per volunteer, or $500? How many people does the government expect to be placed as volunteers? Will WE disburse all the sums to individuals? What controls will be used to ensure the grant money actually goes to individuals who do the required amount of volunteering for volunteering?
The Globe asked those things Monday and didn’t get answers before deadline Thursday.
Some of the numbers we do know don’t seem to add up. Government officials said the $19.5-million is for managing 20,000 volunteer placements, but the program budget allows for more than 170,000 grants. Might WE get more?
The issue here isn’t just whether this arrangement was made with WE because it’s the Trudeaus’ favourite charity, but also whether the program is ill-conceived. Canadians have a right to judge.
This program pays WE by the volunteer, while WE pays teachers to recruit the volunteers as well as the organizations that accept them. That appears to line up incentives to build a big grant machine, rather than fill a charitable-sector demand. Some volunteer organizations have expressed concerns that the program blurs the line between volunteering and $10-an-hour paid work.
The government has excluded some kinds of volunteering – lobbying, advocacy or filling roles that should be paid. What controls will WE have to ensure those rules are followed?
Some answers, presumably, would be in the written agreement Ottawa has signed with WE.
Perhaps it has not been made public still simply because of the bureaucracy’s penchant for keeping details of government secret. The government has said information about it will be made available through its disclosure website in the fall, but that website provides basic details, not the text of the agreement. The entry for a $3-million contribution that WE received last September is so vague it’s impossible to tell what exactly it was for.
This should be simple. It’s a $900-million government program where a charity will hand out grants to volunteers. Go to the filing cabinet, get it out and show us.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.