Volunteer groups fear being sidelined by student grant program

Organizations that place volunteers with community-based non-profits are concerned they may be sidelined by a federal grant program designed to compensate student volunteers for their time. 

Canada Student Service Grant, run by WE Charity, offers young volunteers up to $5K

A volunteer sorts food items in the receiving area of the warehouse at the Ottawa Food Bank on April 23, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Organizations that place volunteers with community-based non-profits are concerned they may be sidelined by a federal grant program designed to compensate student volunteers for their time. 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), which pays post-secondary students and recent graduates up to $5,000 for volunteering in their communities. The government has contracted the international WE Charity to design and implement the program. 

Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, said community-based organizations have expressed frustration with how the federal program is being implemented. 

"Why not build on the existing infrastructure, where people are already posting these opportunities?" Speevak asked, adding local organizations already have "really excellent systems and a connection with non-profits in their communities."

Volunteer Canada's "I Want to Volunteer" platform, funded in part by the federal government, allows people to sign up to help at 156 different organizations across the country. The CSSG platform run by the WE Charity is called "I Want to Help."

Sagni Kuma, a recent high school graduate and frequent volunteer, says she plans to apply for the Canada Student Service Grant. (Submitted by Sagni Kuma)

Concerns over duplication

Marie Eveline, president of Volunteer Ottawa, said her organization has already been busy placing student volunteers with organizations in need.

"I think there could have been some better collaboration in working with the local volunteer centres to avoid duplication, because both students and organizations will now have to register at another site," she said. "So that's unfortunate."

Eveline said she's been receiving lots of calls from students since the federal grant program was first announced last month, and has been working with local non-profits to prepare for a surge in young volunteers. 

Sagni Kuma, 17, just graduated from high school and is heading to university in the fall. She already spends nearly 20 hours a week volunteering with a number of organizations across the city, and said she's excited by the prospect of getting paid for her time.

"For me, the volunteering aspect is great," Kuma said. "It's also a way to make some side money for university."

From left, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and host Leona Lewis speak on stage during WE Day UK 2020 on March 4, 2020, in London. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

WE Charity connections

The prime minister, his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and his mother, Margaret Trudeau, have all taken part in WE Charity events. Grégoire Trudeau is listed on the WE Charity site as an "ambassador."

Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger defended the choice, suggesting Employment and Social Development Canada made the decision.

"They assessed WE Charity as having the necessary experience, expertise and capacity to deliver the large scale program," Chagger said. 

Chagger said the program "will provide volunteers with service placement opportunities this summer while delivering much-needed support to Canadian not-for-profits." 

Bardish Chagger is Minister of Diversity Inclusion and Youth. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On Friday, Trudeau confirmed the government is covering WE's costs, but said the charity isn't making any money from the partnership. He also acknowledged his own links to the charity.

"Yes, I have worked with WE in the past, because I believe strongly in promoting opportunities for young people," Trudeau said.

With files from Janyce McGregor

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