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No students participated in grant program, government says, to charity’s surprise

OTTAWA — A Halifax-based charity is expressing confusion and frustration as it looks likely to have to foot the bill for nine students that it says were hired through the federal volunteer program at the centre of the WE affair.

That is because the Liberal government contends no students actually started their placements before WE Charity backed out of running the Canada Student Services Grant amid controversy about its ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family.

Souls Harbour Rescue Mission CEO Michelle Porter says that isn’t true and her organization brought the students in during the brief period, about a week at the end of June, when WE Charity was running the Canada Student Service Grant for the federal government.

Students participating in the grant program had been promised they would receive up to $5,000 toward the cost of their post-secondary educations depending on how many hours they volunteered.

“There was a formal process and we followed it,” Porter said Tuesday. “And we have confirmations in our email saying you’re approved for 15 positions. … The students then applied on their own. They picked us and they contacted us.”

The nine students have been working in the Souls Harbour thrift store, which helps fund a meal program for local families in need. Porter said they have been critical to the organization, which has seen about 60 fewer volunteers due to the pandemic.

Souls Harbour isn’t alone in its confusion as a number of students have taken to online forums such as Reddit in recent days wondering whether they will receive any grant money for volunteer hours that they have already worked.

Many of the questions were prompted by Trudeau’s appearance before the House of Commons finance committee last week, in which he suggested the grant program was not going to be part of the government’s COVID-19 support for students.

Asked what that meant for charities such as Souls Harbour as well as students who had already started placements, Youth Minister Bardish Chagger’s spokeswoman Danielle Keenan told The Canadian Press that those people didn’t exist.

“The way that the program unfolded is unfortunate, especially as no students had started their placements through the CSSG at the time the decision was made that WE would no longer administer the program,” Keenan said in an email.

Keenan repeated the assertion when asked specifically about Souls Harbour, saying only that when it comes to supporting students and charities, “we’re looking at options on how best to proceed.”

“Obviously I’m frustrated,” Porter said in response to Keenan’s statement. “Up to now I’ve just been assuming they’ll come up with something. Are they really just leaving charities out in the lurch?”

While Porter said she intends to press the government to change its mind, the Souls Harbour board has agreed to pay the students if the program is cancelled, at an estimated cost of around $15,000 — money that would normally go toward feeding local families.

Opposition critics blasted the Liberal government for mismanaging the rollout of the program and for leaving charities and students in the dark about what will happen to them.

“The two things cannot be true: they cannot be saying they’re not proceeding to these groups, and the groups saying they were approved,” said Conservative economic development critic Dan Albas.

“It’s almost been a month now since they stopped the program and they have yet to actually tell Canadians clearly what they’re going to do about the different groups that did apply and if this program will be delivered.”

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said students took the prime minister at his word that they would be compensated for volunteering through the program.

“It is unconscionable that Justin Trudeau is now telling students that signed up for the program that they aren’t getting paid,” he said. “The summer is ticking down and not a dime has flown to students who badly needed help.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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