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Federal government won't say which organizations other than WE Charity it considered to run $900 million student volunteer grant program

Marc Kielburger and Prime Minister Justine Trudeau took part in WE Day Canada Sunday July 2, 2017 on Parliament Hill.
Marc Kielburger and Prime Minister Justine Trudeau took part in WE Day Canada Sunday July 2, 2017 on Parliament Hill.

OTTAWA – The federal government claims it considered “various” organizations to administer its $900 million volunteer student grant before handing the contract to WE Charity, but refuses to disclose how many or who they are.

Since the government revealed nearly two weeks ago that the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) would be administered by WE Charity  — an organization with close ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family — it has often repeated that the organization was the “best and only one” for the job.

Despite that claim, WE Charity pulled out of the deal last Friday after a week of controversy surrounding both how it received the CSSG contract and its management of the program. Trudeau then announced that the government would take over the grant program that will pay eligible volunteers between $1,000 and $5,000 for work done until October 31, 2020.

But the department responsible for the program, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), refuses to answer repeated questions from National Post about which other organizations were considered.

“Given the challenges students are facing as a result of COVID-19, there was a desire to get the Canada Student Service Grant program in place as quickly as possible to help students affected by these unique circumstances. As part of its strategy, ESDC considered several parameters and various not-for-profit (NFP) organizations that could be in a position to deliver such a unique initiative,” an ESDC spokesperson responded on two different occasions last week.

The department did not explain why it would not provide a list of the “various” organizations it considered to administer the student grant program.

I find it a little bit difficult to believe that nobody met the parameters set out by the government to some degree

The lack of transparency by the federal government is both surprising and unjustifiable for public sector transparency advocates.

“There is no good reason to keep that information secret. It’s key to have that information disclosed to ensure that the public’s money is spent efficiently and effectively in every situation,” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said in an interview.

James Cohen, Transparency International Canada’s executive director, says that when there is urgency to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to deliver a program, more transparency is required, not less.

“Yes, there is the need for speed and expedited processes. But we’ve raised awareness on the fact we can’t skip over transparency and accountability when we talk about this amount money,” Cohen said. “Given the circumstances and given the scrutiny on due diligence, the government would do well to explain themselves for this contract.”

According to ESDC, the nature of the student volunteer grant program required it to find one single organization that could orchestrate it all, rather than a collection of smaller non-profit groups.

Department spokesperson Megan Fulton confirmed the government briefly considered running the CSSG through its existing Canada Service Corps program, before concluding that wasn’t feasible.

“While expanding the program was considered, we learned through engaging with (the national partners delivering the program) that many not-for-profits were also experiencing difficulties carrying through with planned placements and pivoting to the virtual environment,” Fulton said.

From that point on, some of the features that set WE Charity apart from the other not-for-profits were its “large scale reach” extending to 2.4 million young Canadians, its “extensive network and infrastructure”, its connections to other not-for-profits and its ability to operate digitally.

But neither Conacher nor Cohen believe the government’s claim that WE Charity was the only organization that was able to administer the $900 million program in the first place.

“WE proved they don’t have the capacity to run the program by then reaching out to six or seven other groups to help them. So either WE lied to the government, or the government is misleading the public,” Conacher noted.

Cohen says just the fact that the government will be running the program now seems to discredit the claim that WE was the only organization able to do so in the first place.

“It may very well be that WE is the best placed charity. But to say that they’re the only one … I find it a little bit difficult to believe that nobody met the parameters set out by the government to some degree,” Cohen added.

“If it turns out that the federal government can deliver it, though maybe not up to the standards that they thought WE could, well that calls into question the idea of WE were the only ones who could deliver it, as opposed to the best ones to deliver it.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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