PEI

UPEI student waits for answers after federal volunteer program problems

One UPEI student is among the thousands of Canadian students whose educational futures have been put on hold until they hear whether they will participate in the federal Canada Student Services Grant (CSSG).

Program transition delays placements with not-for-profits

'I was hoping to be able to help with some of the associations I received help from when I moved to Canada,' says Sara Badr, of her hopes of volunteering. (Kareem Abulez)

A UPEI student is among the thousands of Canadian students whose educational futures have been put on hold until they hear whether they'll be able to participate in the federal Canada Student Services Grant (CSSG).

Sara Badr, 21, an engineering student entering her fourth year at UPEI, said she was accepted for the CSSG on June 30 and told she would soon be placed with a not-for-profit organization.

She's still waiting.

The CSSG was introduced in April, offering post-secondary students and recent graduates struggling to find work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, between $1,000 and $5,000 in exchange for volunteering. The amount would depend on the number of hours they spent volunteering.

WE Charity was given the federal government contract to administer the grants, but pulled out of that arrangement July 3 amid controversy over the involvement of the prime minister's family with WE. The federal government took over the program.

Wanted independence

Badr wanted to volunteer 40 hours a week with a not-for-profit group that helps newcomers. 

"I was hoping to be able to help with some of the associations I received help from when I moved to Canada," Badr said.

This was a well-intentioned program that was derailed.— Charlottetown MP Sean Casey

For the past two years, Badr has worked two full-time jobs and applied for bursaries to help pay for her university tuition. This summer, she is working as a research assistant. She was depending on the income from the CSSG to save for graduate school. 

Badr said her family is now helping her with additional finances. 

"I wanted to be more independent," said Badr. "It would have been a great additional source of income." 

The CSSG got 35,000 applications from across the country in the first week after it opened on June 25. 

WE Charity was given the federal government contract to administer the grants, but pulled out of that arrangement July 3 due to controversy surrounding the involvement of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's family with WE. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

According to Danielle Keenan, director of communications and issues management in the office of the minister of diversity and inclusion and youth, more than 20,000 placements were available. 

"We are looking at next steps and we are committed to supporting students and not-for-profits." Keenan said. "

Currently, the program is being led by the federal minister of diversity and inclusion and youth. A timeline for the program has not been put in place yet but Keenan said they are looking at options.

She said no applicants have begun their placements yet. 

Badr has been waiting three weeks for her placement. When she inquired about the status of her application two weeks ago, she said she got an automated response on July 14 saying the WE Charity was no longer administering the program and a transition was being worked on. She said she was told her application was still in the queue and she would be contacted as soon as possible.

Compounding the problem, as it stands, those accepted into the CSSG program have to complete their volunteer work by Oct. 31.

"I'm hoping they will get back soon," she said. "I was expecting to volunteer more during the summer. I am not studying, I am going to be a full-time student. That will definitely affect the time I can plan on my volunteering hours." 

"This was a well-intentioned program that was derailed. We will see how it plays out," said Charlottetown MP Sean Casey.

He said his office has not heard any concerns or received questions about the program from students or families. 

Student union wants program adjusted

The UPEI Student Union (UPEISU) said it wants to see some changes to open up the program to more people, including extending the eligibility to students over 30 and international students. 

"It is quite concerning news for many of us because most post-secondary students are struggling in the financial strain they are in currently," said Brian Affouan, the union's president.

He said the union is concerned about the impact the delay in funding will have on students since many begin studying full time in September. He suggests reallocating the funds to supports like grants. 

He would also like to see Ottawa discontinue its involvement of third-party organizations in administering the program.

"We believe that privacy of post-secondary students' information is crucial," said Affouan. 

Brian Affouan, president of the UPEI Student Union, says many students have been struggling financially through the pandemic, and delays with the program are concerning. (John Robertson/CBC)

That concern is echoed by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, a group that speaks for post-secondary students. The association has called on the federal privacy commissioner to investigate its concerns over the CSSG program.

Keenan said the "reason the third party was recommended was due to the scope and scale of the project."

In addition, the UPEISU would like to see more transparency on how students are matched with the not-for-profits, said Malak Nassar, vice-president academic and external.

"We need more answers and we need more timely answers," she said. 

Nassar would like to see the Oct. 31 deadline extended as well.

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