Edmonton

Some Alberta school boards reviewing links with WE Charity

Alberta’s two largest school boards, Edmonton Public Schools and the Calgary Board of Education, said their relationships with WE Charity are under review.

970 Alberta schools took part in WE programs last year

The Trudeau government has been embroiled in a weeks-long scandal over its relationship with the WE charity. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Alberta school divisions are contemplating their future relationships with the charitable organization that has sparked probes of the federal government.

Alberta's two largest school boards, Edmonton Public Schools and the Calgary Board of Education, said their relationships with WE Charity are under review, spokespeople said in separate statements on Friday.

Calgary Catholic Schools has "not yet determined" future participation in WE Day events, according to a statement from that division.

Red Deer Public Schools will also look at the issue, spokesperson Bruce Buruma said in an email.

"As to future involvement we have not had those discussions at this point but will review once we can connect with stakeholders," he said.

A few of the boards declined to disclose more information about their review processes or timelines.

According to WE Charity public relations, students and staff at 970 Alberta schools participated in WE programs last year. Alberta youth logged more than 398,000 hours of volunteer work with local organizations through WE programs, an unnamed person said in an email.

"We hope that Alberta educators will continue to use our online service-learning resources," the email said. "We're very proud of our positive impact and partnership with educators across Alberta."

WE produces curriculum resources and campaigns teachers can use to engage students in causes, such as fundraising for clean drinking water in developing countries or supplies for local food banks.

Students who participate in a local and global campaign can "earn" a ticket to WE Day, a stadium show featuring inspirational speeches, musical performances, promotion of WE programs and advertising from corporate sponsors.

About 16,000 students attended the last WE Day in Edmonton, which was in October 2019.

Last week, the charity decided to move its WE Schools programs online and pause WE Day events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Controversy halted Alberta Education contract with WE

Both a federal finance committee and ethics commissioner are looking into the relationships between members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's family and government and the WE organization.

The Trudeau government sole-sourced a $900-million summer jobs grant contract to WE last month. Trudeau's mother and brother have both been paid to speak at WE Day events. His wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, hosts a WE well-being podcast. The charity also paid for $41,000-worth of travel for Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his family.

In its statement, WE Charity said the organization stepped up to help students with the jobs grant program at a difficult time.

"Unfortunately, the charity has now been drawn into a divisive political environment," the statement said.

Alberta's Education Minister, Adriana LaGrange, was negotiating a three-year contract with WE to develop and administer mental health and wellness programs to Alberta students. The $750,000 contract was also going to include a digital WE Day-type celebration to mark students return to school, press secretary Colin Aitchison said.

"As soon as the scandal began unfolding federally, the minister put an end to any potential partnership," Aitchison said in an email. "Alberta will not be funding any WE activities, and we would encourage school authorities to carefully examine any potential partnerships with WE."

Alberta's Education Minister Adriana LaGrange halted contract talks with WE Charity to provide mental health programs and a virtual WE Day for Alberta students. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

In an email earlier this week, Aitchison also said school boards have the autonomy to decide if they want to continue relationships with the organization.

He said government funding and money fundraised by parents could be better spent in partnership with local community groups.

The education ministry is now exploring partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs and other organizations, he said.

Teachers' association cites concerns about WE model

The Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) ended its relationship with the WE organization a few years ago, executive director Dennis Theobald said. He didn't have specific dates available on Friday.

The ATA had difficulty deciphering the lines between WE's charitable work and for-profit ventures, he said. They also had concerns about the organization's transparency. 

Theobald questioned the value of the WE Day model, which generates a lot of short-term hype for students involved in international development causes rather than building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with people and organizations overseas. 

He said it's critically important for students to learn about international issues.

"The really sad thing about this is that it may undermine support for some important work in schools and in the larger community around important issues like promotion of mental health and promotion of international development," Theobald said.

He advises teachers and school leaders to research carefully any charitable or non-profit partners before involving students in their projects.

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