We'll say it's a point of information. I knew there would be a bit of controversy around the one hour, because we had talked about it previously.
We did initially invite the witnesses for one hour. They agreed to come as of Tuesday. A schedule of the committee went out, I believe it was last Friday, which indicated there would be one hour with these witnesses.
The clerk did talk to them this morning to see if it was possible for two hours, but they had one hour available, so we will stick with that. Maybe we'll get all the answers in half an hour, you never know. People in the private sector have businesses to run, so their time is very valuable as well.
With that, we will start with the witnesses. I want to welcome the witnesses, and thank them for coming. We have, from WE Charity, Mrs. Al-Waheidi, executive director; and Mr. Baker, chief operations officer. As an individual, we have Ms. Marquez, former staff member, government and stakeholder relations, WE Charity.
Mrs. Al-Waheidi, the floor is yours.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you to the committee.
Good afternoon. My name is Dalal Al-Waheidi, and I serve as the executive director for WE Charity.
I've spent 18 years in various roles at WE Charity, and I work alongside an exceptional team. I'm proud of the impact we make in helping young people at home by engaging them in service, and around the world helping children and families lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Our work is so important to me.
I'm a Palestinian Canadian and a refugee by birth. Growing up, I was affected by war twice: First, my family was in Kuwait during the 1990 Gulf War, and second, while living in the Gaza Strip. As a child and a teenager, I experienced first-hand the terrible impact of war, political instability, violence and systematic racism of young children because of identity, nationality and religion. However, I held on to a faint hope that my education would unlock doors for my future.
These experiences of political and cultural divisiveness have come to define my life and my professional career at WE Charity, from advocating for young people, advancing education, working on diversity and inclusion, and championing the rights of girls and women.
In 1998, I arrived in Canada on my own to study international development, on a full scholarship, at Trent University. After graduation, I was proud to join a Canadian-founded not-for-profit, then called Free the Children and now known as WE Charity.
I have been lucky to build an entrepreneurial career with WE Charity, progressing from a youth coordinator to a program builder, overseeing our international development programs, leading WE Day, and now as its executive director. My story is only one of the many stories of people who have helped build this organization with staff and volunteers, many of whom have worked for 25 years to build WE Charity into what it is today.
I was directly involved in shaping and growing it, alongside passionate and dedicated team members for WE Days across Canada. It was our dream to make it cool for kids to care and to contribute. WE Day is a celebration of their service to their communities. Imagine the young person who volunteers for the first time in life, who cares about poverty or homelessness or racial injustice, who takes a stand on an issue, raises their voice for our cause or organizes a campaign, and then gets to celebrate with other youth who want to change the world too.
Through WE Day, more than one million Canadians have been inspired to give back and volunteer for the first time. We have worked with 7,000 schools. Students have volunteered 70 million hours for more than 3,000 causes, creating compassionate people who know they can make a difference. Studies have shown that our alumni are more likely to join, volunteer and look for careers in the social sector.
In addition to our local work, we also do international development, which makes us different. Through our development projects, we have built 1,500 schools and classrooms where more than 200,000 children have been educated and 30,000 women have been supported by our alternative income projects. I have had the honour to meet hundreds and hundreds of children in developing countries who attend schools built by WE Charity, many of whom are girls.
WE Charity is different from most groups, and that can be a source of confusion. As we grew beyond the small charity, it required a better model to sustain itself and its good work. ME to WE social enterprise creates jobs overseas, especially for women entrepreneurs, and it chose volunteers and donors at all of our global development sites so that they can transparently see the impact of our development projects.
Since the ME to WE social enterprise was founded in 2008, 100% of its profit—every penny—has been annually donated to WE Charity or reinvested to grow the social mission. At a time when charitable donations in Canada are at a 30-year low, the support of the social enterprise means that we do not have to plead for money from an ever-dwindling group of donors.
WE Charity is not perfect, especially when pulling apart every choice over the past 25 years, but I hope Canadians are willing to give us a second look. Under additional lights, outside of the political controversy we find ourselves in, our programs should be seen as innovative and entrepreneurial and delivering meaningful impact, benefiting children across Canada and around the world.
One of the greatest privileges of my life has been helping to bring service opportunities to young people. It was with great optimism that I worked alongside a talented team to make the Canada service grant a reality. A lot has been lost with its cancellation. This summer tens of thousands of students, over 65% from the visible minority population, lost their service opportunities. I could never have imagined that the combination of COVID-19 and the political fallout of agreeing to partner on the CSSG could be so devastating for WE Charity, our staff and the communities we serve.
A lot has happened. This week we had to release staff in Canada and say good-bye to talented and passionate members who came to WE because of their commitment to service. This is incredibly difficult and emotional. We have proactively suspended many of our philanthropic partnerships and school board partnerships in Canada. The organization is examining every aspect of what it does, including streamlining its organizational structure, conducting a governance review, simplifying its brand and closing certain programs.
It is easy to tear things down, but I can tell you from personal experience that it's not easy to build. Twenty-five years were invested by thousands of current and former staff, board members, teachers, schools, donors, students and advisers to create a unique platform for youth engagement and international development. I want to take a moment to share my gratitude and thanks for each one of them for believing in our mission. Regardless of the firestorm we are facing, nothing can erase the pride I feel for the impact of WE Charity and the dedication of our team. I know what has been achieved. I've seen it. I've seen its magical impact. It is worth saving.
As a child who fled war twice, Canada has given me everything. I've tried and worked very hard to give something back. I hope my two daughters, Zeina and Leila, first-generation Canadians, will one day participate in service programs, give back to this country and be celebrated for their service. I want to do my part to always ensure that Canada continues to be a good country with good people who have good hearts.
Thank you. Meegwetch. Merci. Shukran.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chair.
I want to say a huge thank you to all three of you for presenting today.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Ms. Al-Waheidi.
I want to thank all of you for all the work you do to inspire and engage youth across Canada and around the world.
The May 5th.... I just want to remind everybody on the committee that I specifically asked the Kielburgers this question. Why was work started? They have very clearly indicated that there was no agreement. There was no one who told them to start the agreement. They had taken it as a risk upon themselves because they wanted to help students. They understood that there was no agreement, but they decided to go ahead and start working on it. They were very clear with this committee. I want to make sure that is reiterated to everyone here.
My first question is about the WE Charity Foundation. There was some testimony THAT indicated that the reason there was an agreement not with WE Charity but with the WE Charity Foundation was that the government had asked the WE Charity to take on all the liability of this program. It was the lawyers of WE Charity who said that in order for WE Charity to be able to do that, they recommended that the agreement be signed with WE Charity Foundation.
My understanding is that this is a very typical thing that is done to cover liabilities, within both the public and private industry. Can you please comment? Is that what your understanding is as well?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you to the witnesses. I appreciate all the responses to the questions that have been provided. A lot of the questions are starting to become repetitive.
My concern continues to be that this program was created to deliver $900 million to support students. The future of those funds is unclear, now that the program has not been implemented, and it's a huge loss of opportunity for the youth across our country.
My first question is about a July 3, 2020 news article. The editor-in-chief of The Charity Report stated that WE Charity has connections to “18,000 schools in Canada, the U.S. and the UK” making it “Canada's largest youth” network; however, “WE does not have those kinds of relationships with other non-profit organizations and charities” necessary to find placements for youth.
How effective would a charitable or non-profit organization such as WE Charity have been in recruiting and finding placements for student volunteers?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and honourable members.
Upon receipt of your request to participate in your inquiry and to attend today's hearing, though I do not have any direct knowledge of some aspects of your inquiry, our organization, Katimavik, takes the view that a publicly funded organization, as we are, and a recipient of taxpayer dollars, should respect the request of any parliamentary committee. In that spirit, I am pleased to be here with you today, albeit virtually.
Our organization brings a very unique perspective to what has become a meaningful and important national conversation. Katimavik has been at the very centre of that spirit of youth volunteerism since its founding in 1977. Through a model based on experiential learning and through our flagship program, the Katimavik national experience, young Canadians are encouraged to embrace diversity, become active and engaged citizens and evolve into leaders and change-makers in their communities.
As this program did in the seventies, eighties, nineties and today, we bring young Canadians together who may not yet have found their fit in society. From a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, we introduce them to their country and their country to them. They explore parts of our great country that they likely have not seen before, and they form a collective in a sense.
Katimavik today has evolved from being primarily a bridge between what was referred to at the time of its founding as “the two solitudes”, referencing the divide between English and French Canadians at that time. Today, the diversity among our youth is broad, with some representing different religions and cultural backgrounds, some from the LGBTQ2+ community, and very importantly, some youth from indigenous communities. They live together, learn together, play together, serve together and they bond together.
In doing so, the differences and prejudices they had perceived between each other prior to the program disappear and they form lifelong friendships. They become advocates for truth and reconciliation with indigenous communities. As importantly, they develop life skills and employment skills through this program.
We place these phenomenal youth in communities where they volunteer with non-profits and charitable community organizations and thereby contribute to building those communities. They learn about and embrace the priorities of the different regions of our country as youth from the east travel to western communities and vice versa. Through that journey, they very often find themselves and become active and engaged citizens.
They come into our program often not being very confident, and some not so sure what to do with their lives and how to contribute. They leave our program with a renewed sense of confidence, self-aware and committed to becoming contributing members of society. Their love for this great country is enhanced, and we are better off as a result.
I am so very proud to be able to share with you that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, our participants volunteered with local organizations across the country. In fact, for decades, Canada's young people have enthusiastically and wholeheartedly volunteered their time and effort for the betterment of the greater society.
The fact remains that Canadian youth were undeterred by the obstacles brought forth by a global pandemic, instead focusing on how they could give back to the country while strictly adhering to all health guidelines and protocols. In so doing, they demonstrated tremendous bravery. Their contributions through our program included activities such as picking up garbage in their neighbourhoods, making artwork for their communities, contributing to food security initiatives, talking to socially isolated seniors and delivering groceries to Canadians in need.
We saw this first-hand, since in just the first two months of the pandemic, young Canadians participating in Katimavik's national experience program volunteered nearly 7,000 hours in total. They also inspired hundreds of others to follow their lead and make an impact of their own.
Furthermore, the degree of their enthusiasm and commitment was demonstrated when, this summer, Katimavik received almost four times more applications than opportunities available for the national experience cohort that began in July. We were both stunned and elated that so many fearless and inspiring young Canadians from around the country responded and applied to volunteer with community organizations from coast to coast to coast.
As Canadians face our new realities as a result of COVID-19 and its longer term implications, we have come to terms with the fact that our world has experienced transformative changes. Some of these changes have already created division among us as we debate how to confront these new challenges. Every aspect of our lives, from how we eat to where we work, to what we wear, looks different. While many aspects of our country seem unrecognizable from a few short months ago, and as so many things we took for granted disappear, it is truly inspiring to remember that one constant has prevailed: Canadian youth and their commitment to building a better country.
In our opinion, the proposed Canada student service grant program was and is an innovative way to assist students who were facing the elimination of job opportunities. At the same time, this program sought to leverage the tremendous spirit of volunteerism in support of non-profits across the country. The opportunity provided by the proposed program to mobilize even more young Canadians to volunteer for many causes, some directly affected by COVID-19, and thereby simultaneously contribute to their education, is, in our view, an honourable and valuable goal.
Given our organization's commitment to youth empowerment, it would not surprise you that we were and remain strong supporters of the proposed program. We were therefore delighted to be asked to contribute to the program by doing simply what is in our Katimavik DNA: connecting Canadian youth with non-profit and charitable organization placements across our great country.
Through this pandemic, Canadian youth have led and will continue to lead the way, if we continue to provide them the opportunities to do so. Katimavik can attest to the fact that they have already demonstrated the capacity, courage and bravery necessary. Our hope is that Canadians will continue to support, encourage and empower them.
In closing, on behalf of Katimavik's board of directors and our staff team, we thank Canadians for their ongoing support and are grateful for the support provided through the federal government, and to all members of Parliament who have supported this important work since our founding in 1977 and up to today. It is an honour to sit before you today.
We appreciate the opportunity to share this information with you. Thank you.
The scope and the focus of this particular program, as I said in my opening, is something that we very much believe in, because obviously students have been displaced from jobs that they would need to continue their education.
First of all, I would say that it's unfortunate, because I think we don't want to see an entire generation of youth delay their post-secondary education and, therefore, delay unnecessarily their entry into the job market for a year or two.
Katimavik did write the minister a letter to say that one of the things that we were proposing we consider, as a country, going forward, is that some people might argue that university-educated youth or post-secondary education students are somewhat privileged. They can afford to go to school, they have some benefits to help them to do that, or they are eligible for grants. However, there's a whole subset of other youth for whom I think this was a wonderful opportunity to enter into training, those who, otherwise, would not have had the chance or have conceived that they had the opportunity to do that. Therefore, we could more broadly serve a larger segment of young people.
That is what I would say around doing a better job in terms of this particular initiative.
I would agree with that.
As I said in a previous question or in my remarks, we did reach out to the minister to offer one suggestion, which was to maybe look at the potential of not only supporting post-secondary education students, who many believe, rightfully or wrongly, are privileged to begin with.... I'm not arguing that's the case. I'm just saying that can be the perception.
There is a whole segment of youth who don't feel that they have access to higher training and education and skills development. I think there's a real opportunity here to provide them with that kind of support as well. That might encourage them, through training and higher education, to conceive of things they otherwise would not have conceived of. It doesn't have to be post-secondary. There are all sorts of skills training and so forth that they could access.
I think it's an opportunity for all youth, regardless of economic background, to be able to dream a little brighter and step up to get some training that will help achieve their goals.