We will officially call the meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 41, the first panel of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. We are meeting on government spending, the WE Charity and the Canada student service grant. Today's meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website.
We are pleased to have on this first panel, Minister Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth. Accompanying her is Gina Wilson, senior associate deputy minister, diversity and inclusion and youth, with the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Before I turn to you, Minister, I know you have an opening statement, but we do have a bit of committee business that we must complete first.
I believe all members have a copy of the subcommittee report. The subcommittee met on Thursday, July 9 to consider the business of the committee and agreed to a number of recommendations:
That, in relation to the study of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the awarding of the sole-source contract to WE Charity:
(a) the committee hold meetings on Thursday, July 16, Tuesday, July 21, Wednesday, July 22, and Tuesday, July 28;
(b) that for the meeting on Thursday, July 16, the first panel be comprised of the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth and the Deputy Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, and that the second panel be comprised of the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Skills and Employment Branch at Employment and Social Development Canada;
(c) that preliminary priority witness lists be submitted to the clerk no later than 12:00 p.m. on Monday, July 13;
(d) that final priority witness lists be submitted to the clerk no later than 12:00 p.m. on Friday, July 17; and
(e) that over the course of the remaining three meetings, the committee hear from a maximum of 18 witnesses.
That was the motion that was moved. I have just one word of explanation: The clerk is on holiday and is not available for today's meeting. I said that would be fine and we would have him on the 21st. That has been established.
Does somebody want to move that report? Who wants to move it? Okay, Peter Fragiskatos.
Is there any discussion on it?
(Motion agreed to)
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected the daily lives of all Canadians and disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable. Canada's youth are no exception.
Mr. Chair, Canadians are hurting.
As a member of Parliament for Waterloo, I have three post-secondary institutions in my riding that I was elected to represent. I know first-hand that students are facing a unique set of challenges during this pandemic, be they their studies, disruptions to work opportunities, internships and co-op placements, or, like most Canadians, uncertainty about what comes next.
When the pandemic hit, our government acted by immediately placing a moratorium on Canada student loan repayments, including interest relief. Then in April, the announced a $9-billion investment in students and youth, including the Canada emergency student benefit.
We also doubled Canada student grants and increased the Canada student loans program so that students facing financial challenges could access and afford post-secondary education. We increased employment opportunities and supports for youth across the country through the youth employment and skills strategy. We increased our investment in the student work placement program to help create 20,000 job placements for post-secondary students in their fields of study.
As part of this suite of supports for students and youth, the Government of Canada created the Canada student service grant. At the time the grant was developed, the pandemic had reshaped our reality, creating a number of overarching challenges.
First, the country was in lockdown. Post-secondary students and recent graduates, like all Canadians, were facing unprecedented challenges. There was economic uncertainty, and it became apparent that there would be difficulties for students to find employment over the summer months, employment that would be crucial to helping them pay for school in the fall, pay down student debt, or pay for related expenses such as housing and utilities.
Second, we heard from many not-for-profits that they were struggling to provide services in their communities. Almost half of not-for-profits were having trouble finding volunteers at the same time that they were seeing an increased demand for their services. With public health guidelines requiring physical distancing, many not-for-profits needed to find new ways to engage volunteers while continuing to support their local communities within the context of COVID-19.
Third, we also heard very clearly from students that they want to work, yet they also want to serve their communities.
Mr. Chair, we've seen young Canadians roll up their sleeves to assist their vulnerable neighbours, drop off groceries and help people around them connect using technology. They have stepped up to help in this time of need.
As a result of this reality, our policy objectives in creating this grant during the crisis were all-encompassing. We endeavoured to provide a way for students to both serve their communities and develop skills, while also rewarding their contribution and supporting their post-secondary education. It was important to me that the design of the program reflect the diversity of our country and be inclusive to students, regardless of their ability, region or socio-economic status. I pushed to ensure that a diverse range of students and a wide range of not-for-profits could participate in this new initiative.
Given the scope and scale of the program, it was recommended by the public service that entering into a contribution agreement with a third party was the best approach to ensure that both students and not-for-profits could receive the necessary support to deliver this program successfully, and as quickly as possible. The contribution agreement that was negotiated by the public service and signed by the Government of Canada and WE Charity allocated funding to different cohorts.
The first announcement we made was for 20,000 placements, and $19.5 million was allocated. Of this $19.5 million, $5 million was for not-for-profits for the creation and support they needed, and $300,000 was for accessibility supports, so that every student, regardless of their ability, could participate.
There were two other categories of funding envisioned in the contribution agreement. There was $10.5 million to be provided to WE Charity to administer the program for smaller, local not-for-profits that would want to participate. This money was provided to WE in anticipation of a desire by these groups to participate in the program.
Additionally, as we've always stated, our intent was for this program to scale up. Had that occurred, there could have been another $13.53 million provided to WE for an additional 20,000 placements. Going ahead with this would only have been authorized if the demand was there and the program was proceeding as planned. There were checks and balances put in place, and they would have had to approve it for it to move forward. We had not moved to the second cohort.
The maximum amount that WE Charity could have received was $43.53 million out of the total budget of $912 million. The vast majority of the monies were for grants that would have been issued as one-time payments for students to pay for their post-secondary education costs.
Mr. Chair, I would like it noted for the record that our public service entered into a contribution agreement with WE Charity, and not a contract, as the opposition continues to imply.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to make something clear once and for all: our public service entered into a contribution agreement with WE Charity, not a contract, as the opposition continues to imply.
A contribution agreement allowed the department to leverage the network and digital capacity of a national organization to swiftly implement the CSSG program. The non-partisan and professional public service made a clear recommendation that WE Charity was the organization that was able to deliver this program in the timeline that was needed.
Mr. Chair, as you know, WE Charity is no longer delivering the CSSG. There are tens of thousands of students and hundreds of not-for-profit—
Of course we have tough conversations around the cabinet table. We have tough conversations around our teams. Yes, these questions were posed. Our focus was on delivering a program for students to be able to volunteer and provide service opportunities in communities and link them with not-for-profits that were looking for much-needed support.
Mr. Charlie Angus: Okay—
Hon. Bardish Chagger: Therefore, that was my focus. Yes, I asked tough questions of the public service. When we made this decision—
Mr. Charlie Angus: So okay, enough with that—
Hon. Bardish Chagger: —and the public service recommended that it was the only organization that would be able to deliver this program—
Mr. Charlie Angus: No, the question was—
Hon. Bardish Chagger: —we continued to have tough conversations.
Mr. Charlie Angus: Come on, Mr. Chair.
Hon. Bardish Chagger: Finally, I accepted the recommendation.
I would like to begin by commending the Ministry of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, as well as the public servants at ESDC and the Department of Canadian Heritage, for their work in designing the CSSG. This is truly an innovative program, and I can only imagine the considerable creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking by everyone who was involved in this.
At a time when charities are struggling like never before, a program like this is essential. The $900 million in student grants would have translated into roughly 90 million hours of volunteer work and would undeniably have helped charities close the front-line service gap that currently exists.
Additionally, the maximum of $43 million in administrative costs to compensate the WE Charity, if all $900 million had been distributed, would have represented less than 5% of the total program costs, which, in my opinion, would have been well within the norm of project management and administrative fees for such programs, especially given the tight timelines.
Minister Chagger, can you highlight the intentions and objectives of the CSSG? With over 35,000 applicants, how effective was the program in encouraging volunteerism at a time when so many charities and communities are struggling with donations, which are down by about 50%?
I thank the member for the acknowledgement of the very challenging and unprecedented time we all find ourselves in. The public service, just like the government and all members of Parliament, has been working around the clock, as have Canadians.
This was really another program within the suite of programs that we put forward for students and youth. We know that COVID-19 has impacted all Canadians and has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable, and youth are no exception. We know that young people have been rolling up their sleeves and giving back to communities to help heal communities during this challenging time. This was really about ensuring that young people, students, were being rewarded for meeting service opportunities, not only within their communities but also within others by a virtual platform, thus helping heal their own communities and others virtually.
When we launched the program, there was immediately massive demand for it. We saw 35,000 applications submitted by students who wanted to participate. The conversations continue. Students want to see this program delivered. Not-for-profits want the support. That's why I am committed to seeing this program delivered.
Our focus remains on Canadians. Our focus remains on vulnerable Canadians. That's exactly why, when the contribution agreement was negotiated, we ensured that we were collecting disaggregated data so that the most vulnerable in our society would have an opportunity to give back and heal communities.
This is a very innovative program. Volunteers, as we know, from coast to coast to coast, are instrumental in the work that not-for-profits do. They should not go unrecognized. This was one way of not only thanking them for their service, but rewarding students. We know that the financial burden on them, come their post-secondary education costs in the fall, would be high. We just were providing a grant to help them out during this very challenging time.
We will reconvene the meeting. I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 41, the second panel today of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. As everyone knows, we are meeting on government spending, WE Charity and the Canada student service grant. Today's meeting is taking place by video conference. Proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website.
For this panel, we have Ms. Wilson, senior associate deputy minister, diversity and inclusion and youth, from the Department of Canadian Heritage. Ms. Wilson was with us in the first panel. From the Department of Employment and Social Development, we have Rachel Wernick, senior assistant deputy minister, skills and employment branch; and Stephanie Hébert, assistant deputy minister, program operations branch.
Ms. Wilson has an opening statement. Then we will go to questions. Just as a heads-up, we'll start with Mr. Poilievre and then go to Ms. Dzerowicz, Mr. Fortin and Mr. Julian.
Go ahead, Ms. Wilson. The floor is yours.
Got it. They also have my remarks.
Mr. Chair, back in March and April, when the severity of the pandemic became obvious, the Government of Canada focused its efforts on providing Canadians with help as quickly as possible. I know that, at Employment and Social Development, the priority was to establish, implement and quickly distribute the Canada emergency response benefit, or the CERB, working with Canada Revenue Agency as well as putting in place other much-needed supports, such as the Canada emergency student benefit. My public service colleagues worked around the clock to support the government's response and to help Canadians when they needed it the most.
At the same time, ESDC was adjusting to new ways of working, with most employees working from home as provinces and territories implemented lockdown measures. Some employees were also facing concerns about their own health and safety and the spread of COVID-19. Despite these challenges, the department was able to deliver quickly and efficiently. However, we cannot ignore the fact that these are unprecedented times for Canadians. They are also unprecedented times for public servants.
Young people are also facing challenges during this pandemic. In response to the government's desire to develop a comprehensive package to help students, there was a general call-out to relevant departments to provide options to enhance existing youth and/or student-related programs, including ESDC. A series of student measures were being pulled together to make up a student package. The government wanted it to include a volunteer service component.
On April 22 the announced a range of measures to assist students during this crisis, including enhancements to the Canada service corps program delivered by ESDC and the new Canada student service grant. Officials were seized with quickly determining how best to design and implement a new program that met the government's objectives and the broad parameters established by the announcement.
Three things were clear to the public service. One, in the COVID-19 context it was important to move forward as quickly as possible. This initiative aimed to support students in contributing safely to their communities over the summer and then recognizing that service in the fall through a financial reward would help them pay for their studies.
Two, it was imperative to find a fast and effective mechanism to engage not-for-profit organizations in all parts of the country, many of whom were struggling at that time to provide service to their communities. They were, and many still are, responding to a great increase in needs and could benefit from volunteers to help out.
Three, the program had to be easily accessible to all students and effectively bring in students from under-represented groups. It had to involve a diversity of students and a diversity of not-for-profit organizations, large and small, from every part of the country.
It was determined that a third party, funded through a contribution agreement, would be the most effective and efficient delivery approach. Contribution agreements are not sole-source service contracts, nor are they procurements. Contributions agreements are regularly used under the transfer payment policy of the government—
In order to assist the committee, I will limit my opening remarks to providing the context and rationale behind the department's recommendation to Minister Chagger to enter into a contribution agreement with WE Charity. I would like to underscore that the time frame that I can assist you with is prior to any discussion among ministers of Minister Chagger's recommendation to them. I will steer clear of cabinet confidences.
It is important to note that the Canada student service grant was embedded in an ongoing discussion of a broad package of potential measures to help students and youth deal with the impacts of the pandemic. It was never going to be the only measure.
On April 8, changes to the Canada summer jobs program were announced. Interactions, and the potential for overlap with the design and delivery of existing programs and new emergency measures, had to be worked out. The package came together as policy in the 's announcement of April 22.
I was asked in mid-April by my associate deputy minister at ESDC and a Department of Finance official to provide information, analysis and assessment of potential options for including service opportunities in the student package. The finance official indicated that the would announce the student package in the coming days and cited Saturday, April 18 as the likely date. For these discussions with Department of Finance officials, I drew on work that my team had undertaken in March to assess the potential to enhance programming offered under the Canada service corps.
On April 22, the announced at his daily news conference a comprehensive package of support of nearly $9 billion for post-secondary students and recent graduates. I learned the final contents of the package from the announcement.
This package included two items related to youth service.
One was additional investments in the Canada service corps program to increase the number of micro-grants available to youth from 1,800 to 15,000 and to provide stipends to participants.
The second item was the new Canada student service grant, or CSSG. The new CSSG program would provide up to $5,000 to students in reward for service for their education in the fall.
After the announcement, I asked my Department of Finance colleagues if they could help us flesh out the details. They told me that the initiative needed to be launched by mid-May and that the program parameters focused on two key elements: a web-based digital platform that would allow students to apply for the CSSG program and be matched with volunteering opportunities in their community and track their hours completed, and a grant of up to $5,000 for volunteer hours completed.
There were several objectives of the initiative. The first was to facilitate the involvement of students in contributing to the COVID-19 response in their communities through volunteering over the summer. The second was to provide a financial award to recognize this contribution to help students cover the costs of their studies in the fall, as well as to incentivize students to volunteer. The third was to provide students with skills and experience that would help them in pursuing their careers.
Members of my team and I met with members of Minister Chagger’s staff and with officials at central agencies to further understand the desired outcomes of the initiative. It became quickly evident that there was high ambition not only for the speed of implementation, in roughly three weeks, but also for the scope and scale of the initiative. The minister’s staff indicated that volunteering opportunities needed to be available in every province and territory, and in large and small urban and rural communities.
The minister’s staff also communicated to the team that it was imperative to ensure that youth from a wide diversity of backgrounds would be encouraged and be able to participate, including racialized, indigenous, LGBTQ2 youth, and youth with disabilities. There was a long list of design and implementation considerations that the team needed to analyze in pulling together advice on how to implement this ambitious vision within three weeks.
First and foremost was the pandemic context, with health and safety top of mind. There were significant concerns about community spread, as youth had been identified as a high-risk demographic for spreading the virus. Public health advisories were being updated daily on requirements for physical distancing. Keeping students and communities safe was the top priority for the team.
The pandemic was also impacting the capacity of the department to provide any form of direct delivery. In late April, the department, including its delivery arm, Service Canada, was completely consumed with other emergency measures. Officials were working around the clock to get emergency payments out to Canadians.
The next significant consideration was the capacity of the not-for-profit sector organizations that were under stress and stretched to deliver on their mandates. Although volunteers can help, they need orientation and oversight, and digital supports to be able to contribute in a safe, physical distancing context, all of which require time, effort and resources for the organization hosting the volunteers.
Interaction between recently announced emergency supports and payments was another key consideration. Given that students could be receiving the Canada emergency response benefit or the Canada emergency student benefit, and that some not-for-profit organizations could be eligible for the Canada emergency wage subsidy, the team needed to determine eligibility that would be fair and equitable without creating disincentives for students to undertake paid employment.
In my role, I had also been working on the proposal to increase the number of jobs available to youth and introduce new flexibilities for employers under the Canada summer jobs program.
This analysis was also happening in a context where public and media attention was raising concerns about CERB payments and issues of risk mitigation to ensure that no one would get the payment who should not. The team had to ensure that the design maximized the ability for strong oversight and due diligence.
Our experience with the Canada service corps program had taught us many things about the key ingredients for a successful youth service initiative. First, to engage in service the majority of youth—in particular, youth who are under-represented and who are from groups facing barriers—require additional supports ranging from orientation to mentoring to wraparound supports.
Secondly, the biggest influencers of youth are other youth. The success of the initiative required a strong start, whereby a large number of meaningful opportunities would be available immediately to grab youths' interest, so they would spread the word with their friends. Youth do not come to government websites, no matter how well we build them. There was a need for active outreach to find youth where they were. Promotion and communications tailored to a younger audience and that would reach them through all social media platforms were essential.
The purpose was to create a digital platform that allowed for registration of students and not-for-profit organizations, including directly inputting information, logging and tracking of hours, and matching of students with opportunities.
This required analysis of what technological capability would be required, how it would meet all government requirements for bilingualism, accessibility and protection of personal information, and how to ensure the system [Technical difficulty—Editor].
The third party needed massive speed, reach and scale, an ability to quickly mobilize the whole country. The third party needed a demonstrated track record of mobilizing youth for service and to be technologically strong. Some of the bodies we considered and set aside were small advocacy groups with no program delivery experience. Other organizations did not have experience with youth, nor did they have strong technological capacity. Many had never delivered a program of such complexity.
I did engage WE Charity as a potential partner, letting them know the broad parameters of what the government was looking for. They were an obvious option as the largest youth service charity in Canada, with high technological capacity and a Facebook following of four million youth. They had already provided to several officials and ministers a proposal related to social entrepreneurship and indicated it could be adapted as needed.
On April 22, WE Charity sent me a detailed proposal to quickly develop tens of thousands of volunteer placements for youth within a few weeks. Given the need for speed and scale, I determined, with my team and colleagues, that their draft proposal was the best available option in the time we had to work with. The team proceeded to work up the proposed initiative in a form that could be vetted by central agencies and considered by cabinet.
I sent the draft cabinet proposal to the deputy minister for approval, and her office sent it on to the minister in early May.
To be clear, the department's recommendation was that a contribution agreement with WE Charity to mobilize other not-for-profit partners was the best available option, given the requirement for speed, scope, scale and to reach a broad diversity of youth.
We're out of time on this round, but, Mr. Poilievre, stick with me for a minute, will you?
Hon. Pierre Poilievre: Yes.
The Chair: I do see some “unclarity”. It's not a right word, I guess, but I do see some problems here.
I thought in your remarks, Ms. Wernick, you indicated that you approached WE. In his statement a minute ago, Mr. Poilievre basically said—I might not have this, Pierre, so you can correct me if I'm wrong—that the proposal originated with WE to meet the political demand or desire—I don't know which word was used—of the government. We're miles apart on those two statements.
Is that statement correct that the proposal originated with WE, or did you, as I believe you indicated in your remarks, make the first initiative to talk to WE as one of the organizations? Where are we at here? Let's establish the foundation so that we're actually dealing with facts here, if we could.
Ms. Wernick, can you clarify where we're at?
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to the presenters here. There have been some very tough questions indeed.
I want to start by thanking Gina Wilson for using the word meegwetch. We hear a lot of French and we hear a lot of English, but it's not very often we hear indigenous words. Thank you for that.
I want to also say that I think we're in a very difficult situation with a lot of unknowns. The pandemic has caused a lot of issues to come forward. I heard a lot from the students in my riding initially, so I was very happy to see some very important measures come forward: the moratorium on Canada student loan repayments, the doubling of the student loans program, the increased student loan program funding and the work placement program. I think they were all well received across the country. Our young people are certainly facing their share of challenges.
We've also seen a lot of other programs that are helping young people, especially in my riding. I think a lot of indigenous communities would say the same, with the indigenous community support and the on-the-land program. Everybody wants to get involved; they want to play a role.
I was quite happy that these placements were coming forward. It's really unfortunate that it looks like these placements are going to be on hold for a bit now. I'm hoping that our government's objective remains the same, to continue to try to connect the skills and abilities of young people who are looking to improve their skills with service opportunities to help in our communities, especially when it comes to healing.
I understand there was a lot of uptake of the program. I think the minister mentioned there were 35,000 applications.
As we move forward, as the government moves forward with administering the Canada student service grant, what steps are being taken to ensure that indigenous youth in rural and remote northern communities are able to access this program? That's my first question.
Hello, members of the finance committee. My name is Paula Speevak and I have the pleasure of serving as president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. Our organization is pleased to respond to your request to meet with you this afternoon and to answer your questions.
Volunteer Canada recognizes the support that has been provided to Canadians, businesses, non-profits and charitable organizations through the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our organization also appreciates efforts to provide financial support to students and others during these difficult times.
The issues that Volunteer Canada has raised about the Canada student service grant program were about the elements, scope and timing of the program, and not the process for selecting WE Charity or WE Charity itself. I will address these program issues after providing some brief background information.
For those unfamiliar with our organization, Volunteer Canada provides national leadership and expertise on volunteer engagement, in collaboration with more than 200 local volunteer centres, provincial and territorial associations, as well as corporate community engagement leaders, educational institutions and federal departments. This includes our past work with Public Safety Canada on issues related to screening volunteers working with vulnerable populations; Statistics Canada on the general social survey of giving, volunteering and participating; the CRA on the advisory committee on the charitable sector; and Employment and Social Development Canada on a range of topics, including youth engagement and the contributions of volunteers in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals.
In the first three years of the Canada service corps, Volunteer Canada and volunteer centres created the pan-Canadian volunteer matching platform that provided a central place for youth to search, prior to the pandemic, an average of 73,000 volunteer opportunities from around the country. This work also involved the production of tools for youth to explore their passions, values and skills to identify transferable skills for their educational and career paths, and to reflect on critical social, economic and environmental issues. Both the platform and these tools are now publicly available on our website.
Many volunteer centres have taken on the role of mobilizing volunteers as part of the pandemic response. Several provincial and territorial systems were designated by their governments to serve this purpose, including Jebenevole.ca in Quebec, Volunteer Connector in Alberta, Volunteer Yukon, Volunteer Nova Scotia and many others. These COVID-19 volunteer opportunities are also accessible though our platform.
On April 24, two days after the Government of Canada’s announcement of the Canada student service grant program, Volunteer Canada got in touch with the office of the , as well as Canada service corps, to offer support and advice on the design of the program. Volunteer Canada mentioned the pan-Canadian volunteer matching platform and the youth engagement tools that had already been developed with government funding for Canada service corps that could be used for the program.
On April 27, Volunteer Canada had a meeting with senior staff of the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth's office and expressed the following issues that Volunteer Canada and our stakeholders felt needed to be addressed for the program to meet its objectives.
The first issue was not equating the number of hours with the amount of financial support. Our organization had concerns about paying an hourly rate for community service that is below minimum wage, and calling this “volunteering”. This could create the wrong message about volunteering and potentially undermine volunteer engagement in the future.
The second issue was the importance of having a range of opportunities, not only COVID-19 direct response roles, in order to make the program accessible to a range of organizations and students.
Our third issue was the capacity of organizations to engage students and to carry out appropriate screening, including vulnerable sector checks, for those working with vulnerable populations.
The fourth issue is the current lack of available service opportunities and the potential pressure on organizations to create placements in order to support students.
The fifth issue was the importance of building on existing social infrastructure, as I mentioned earlier: community-based volunteer matching systems in local volunteer centres, and provincial and territorial associations connected to the pan-Canadian volunteer matching platform.
Between April 27 and May 19, Volunteer Canada initiated several calls with the minister's office to share our concerns and to get an update on the program. However, little information was available while the program approval was still pending.
On May 20, Volunteer Canada was contacted by WE Charity to explore our potential role in the Canada student service grant program. Between May 25 and June 3, we had four virtual meetings with WE Charity, during which Volunteer Canada expressed the five concerns I mentioned earlier and provided advice on creating a more comprehensive and flexible community learning program. Over the course of these meetings, we understood that the target grew from 20,000 students to 100,000 students. Our board and staff were clear that the service component of the program ought not to connect the number of hours served with the amount of the student's grant.
The “I Want to Help” program description provided to us on June 3 indicated that for every 100 hours of service, a student would be eligible for a grant of $1,000, essentially paying students $10 an hour. As I mentioned, of greatest concern to Volunteer Canada was the notion of paying people to volunteer or paying people below minimum wage.
On June 4, Volunteer Canada met virtually again with WE Charity about our concerns and learned that it was not possible to modify the scope of the program and these elements of the program, within the parameters of WE Charity's contribution agreement with ESDC.
On June 5, Volunteer Canada had a virtual meeting to let WE Charity know that we would not be working with them on the program.
On June 11, Volunteer Canada invited WE Charity to present the Canada student service grant program to local volunteer centres so that they could decide for themselves what their involvement might be. Volunteer Canada respects the autonomy of each organization to decide for themselves what is right for them and their communities.
Following the cancellation of the government's contract with WE Charity to administer the program, Volunteer Canada sent a message to the office of the with some suggestions—not requesting any financial compensation or a role for Volunteer Canada.
Since the Canada student service grant program was announced at the end of April, our team has been inundated with calls and emails looking for information about the program and assuming that we were involved. On the day the program launched on June 26, we had 25,000-plus visits to our website. Volunteer Canada posted a link to the “I Want to Help” platform to assist those seeking information and indicating that Volunteer Canada was not involved.
In closing, Volunteer Canada's concerns were about the elements, scope and timing of the program, and not the selection process or the charity contracted to administer the program. To recap, our concerns were paying people to volunteer or paying people below minimum wage; the scope of the program focusing on pandemic response; the capacity of organizations to meaningfully engage students this summer; the lack of available opportunities; and the importance of building on existing infrastructure.
Volunteer Canada continues to work in collaboration with a network of more than 200 local volunteer centres, the corporate community engagement council, and not-for-profit and charitable organizations around the country to support volunteer engagement, especially during this time. We continue to be in awe of the local leadership of local volunteer centres, the many non-profit and charitable organizations, managers of volunteers and, of course, those who step forward to volunteer and those who stepped away to keep themselves safe.
Thank you very much.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chair.
Ms. Speevak, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for your leadership and for everything you do with your organizations to create stronger communities and a better Canada.
I want to talk about your point that volunteers should not be paid an hourly wage. You know, just in terms of a lot of the information that's come out today, and I think just in understanding what our government's been trying to do, when we go back in time to mid-April, we didn't know the details of how things would unfold. We were urgently trying to support big groups of Canadians. There was this huge desire to make sure we were helping our youth.
The $9-billion program was created. There were four key elements, and there was a very strong desire to have a service or volunteer component as part of it. There was a huge desire to ensure that we were providing as many opportunities as possible to support our youth. We knew that for those in university or college, their year was ended very quickly. They probably weren't going to be able to access many of the opportunities or jobs that they were thinking about for the summer, and we had no clue what would actually be happening in the fall. All four programs were meant to try to give as many opportunities as possible for youth to gain experience, to do something meaningful and to earn a little bit of money in order to continue to support their ambitions in terms of training and more education.
My understanding about the service or volunteer component of the program was that it was always meant to, one, help provide some of those opportunities across Canada for our youth, and two, help a lot of our not-for-profits. We were hearing and getting information that they were desperate to get some additional help to support maybe some COVID-related additional need that was in various communities right across this country. The third component was to try to provide some additional extra dollars to students, because we knew that many of them were not going to have the opportunity that they would normally have to apply for jobs. That grant component was actually a small portion of it, but it was an important component.
My question to you is this: Would you say there's mixed opinion within the charity and not-for-profit sector around whether or not it's okay to provide stipends or grants versus not providing them?
Before you even answer that, I want to stipulate that, for us, I don't think the intention ever was to provide an hourly wage. It really was a stipend or grant. It really was to provide some additional financial support. It was never meant to be an hourly wage. That was never the intention at all. Again, it was part of a huge bucket of $9 billion, in multiple programs, to be able to do everything we possibly could to help our youth not to be at a complete loss or at a detriment because of this COVID, and to do everything we could to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to grow their skills and try to earn some dollars while trying to serve their respective communities.
Would you say there's mixed opinion within the industry around whether stipends and grants are appreciated?
I can't speak for all organizations in the sector, and of course you would always find mixed opinions. However, I want to get back to the three things you raise: the desire to provide meaningful opportunities to students, the desire to support students financially and the desire to help non-profit organizations with their need for volunteers.
I think that in April many things were new to many organizations. As weeks went on, things quickly changed. For example, many organizations switched from an in-person service to virtual services and were able to help volunteers make that transition as well. In addition to that, many governments had announced a call for volunteers to come forward to help.
In terms of the condition you're referring to in early April, when the thought was about helping organizations with their need for volunteers, I think that changed drastically as time went on. That's not to say that there are no organizations still in need of volunteers or no communities that do need that, but I think that's one thing that's changed.
In terms of opportunities for youth, I want to point out that youth have always had the highest volunteer rate of all ages and are very generous and committed to community. All year round, they have been involved in volunteer opportunities, so I would question the idea that we need to provide an incentive for youth to volunteer. In many cases—in most cases—youth are very generous with their time.
In terms of support to the sector, I think, again, that has changed. The opportunities that are available now.... You've probably all heard about these sites where people have come forward and registered their willingness to volunteer and have not been called back. Some have, and some haven't. We do know that the available opportunities and the volunteer needs in organizations are changing.
Thank you for that, Mr. Chair. My right ear will take some time to recover, I think.
Ms. Speevak, thank you for your very detailed presentation. I wish the minister had been as forthright in laying out the timelines for the course of the last few months. It's very useful.
Of course, we hope that you and your family will continue to be safe and healthy in this pandemic.
We've learned a lot of things from this first meeting. We've learned that WE would be getting, as part of its benefits, up to $43 million out of this program. That's something that people were unaware of before this meeting. We've also heard that the proposal from WE came in exactly the same day as the made the announcement of the student grant program, even though public servants admitted they didn't have the details of the announcement. These are facts that we're going to have to delve into more deeply.
As you pointed out, Ms. Speevak, the alternative would have been to put more money into the Canada summer jobs programs, and of course the number of positions has been reduced, and that's something the government is going to have to answer. Why did it divert money that should have gone to providing jobs around the country through the Canada summer jobs program, which has had a massive funding shortage during this pandemic, instead of into this program that obviously is extremely controversial?
You mentioned earlier in your testimony your concerns about the volunteer provisions—the paid volunteerism and the fact these salaries or wages are actually below minimum wage right across the country. Is part of your concern the liability issue? We're not talking about volunteers. We're talking about students who are being paid less than minimum wage, which brings with it a whole range potentially of liability issues.
There are a few aspects of your question that I could address.
The first one is that there's no question that students want financial assistance, and this is one of the ways, one of the opportunities, that was offered for students to receive assistance. It is certainly understandable that students did apply. Many of them, of course, are interested in the community service aspect primarily, but it is understandable that students who need financial assistance would be applying.
In terms of their wanting to help, there are many volunteer opportunities available. What we have heard from students directly, and in my contacts with some student associations, is that many students have multiple responsibilities this summer. They may be caring for younger siblings so that their parents can work. They may have children themselves. They may be helping with elder care or helping neighbours in their community with shopping and other things, providing lots of informal assistance and volunteering. In addition to that, some are catching up with their education that was interrupted during the pandemic, and so on. Therefore, with regard to students wanting something to do, there are some opportunities available, but as I mentioned, in terms of large numbers—100,000 or even 20,000 opportunities for 20 or 27 hours a week—those do not appear to be available.
We recently did some research with IPSOS Public Affairs, asking organizations about how their volunteer programs are going. Half of them said they've had a significant decrease in volunteers. In many cases it is because they have had to close programs and cancel activities, and in some cases older volunteers have had to step aside.
I just wanted to address the issue of what the sector needed by way of help. In some cases, some organizations certainly are welcoming students and others to volunteer. In many other cases, they are overwhelmed with the number of folks generously coming forward to offer to help and don't have the positions available.
In terms of providing grants to students, I think that students can apply for the grant, indicating their need, and if part of the program then includes saying to students that this allows you the time to do a number of things, including attending to family, helping out in neighbourhoods, furthering education, healing from illness, a number of things, then students could indicate that. The financial assistance could be available and they could attend to the things that are important to their lives this summer.
In terms of providing opportunities and promoting the availability of all actual volunteer needs in organizations, that can be done separately as well. As I mentioned, there are many volunteer centres. There is the volunteer matching platform, and those who are interested could certainly find opportunities that exist within organizations.
In terms of helping non-profit organizations in the sector, that's a matter of looking at the resiliency fund that Imagine Canada and others have mentioned, which this sector has been requesting for recovery and resilience, and that can be done separately.
Therefore, I think that attending to students' needs for financial support can be handled with a grant. Providing opportunities to volunteer, where they exist, can be handled through the existing infrastructure, and helping the sector can be handled through a resiliency fund.
Thank you, Ms. Speevak, for being here and for the work that you are doing and that the organization has done.
I want to pick up on this topic of incentives. I take your point that you would hope that volunteerism would be based on an understanding of goodwill and calling folks to service just because of the need to give back, that there shouldn't be an incentive to draw them towards volunteering, that there shouldn't be an incentive in place and that we should act on a very different sort of ethic. I understand that argument, but isn't it fair to say that COVID-19 is a unique phenomenon, a unique experience, that has given rise to many new and unprecedented social challenges and economic challenges. Can we really count on the goodwill of people to step forward and fill all the various needs that exist?
I mean, many will do that just because they want to contribute. Many existing volunteers, for example, would do that, but what happens when we have all these challenges that exist? Wouldn't an incentive like the one that was built into the Canada student service grant serve a good purpose in attracting many young people to get involved in their communities and, if they were to get involved, perhaps to understand more about the importance of volunteering, an understanding that maybe they didn't have before? What do you think of that kind of argument?
We'll have to end it there. We're well over.
With that, Ms. Speevak, we certainly want to thank you. I think one key point you made was about the generosity of spirit of volunteers, and we certainly see that across Canada. I know we see a lot of it in P.E.I. Thanks for appearing. Thanks for the work that your organization does, as well.
Thank you, to committee members, for the questions you've asked today and the research you've done, and certainly to the analysts and the clerk. A series of meetings in July is not the usual thing, but here we are, and we will do it again on the 21st, when we'll have the Clerk of the Privy Council as a witness at that point, among others.
With that, thank you all. Again, thank you, Ms. Speevak, for coming and answering our questions.
To all the members, have a good weekend.
The meeting is adjourned.