WE Charity controversy fallout affects hopeful Islanders

MANITOULIN – WE Charity and the federal Liberal government have suspended plans to launch the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) amid controversy over the Trudeau family’s close ties with the WE group of organizations, leaving long-time WE supporters and those who may have benefited from the grant program feeling disappointed.

“My faith in the charity has wavered. I know the work they’ve been doing for many years has made a huge difference, but I have a lot of questions around (the corporate side) because there’s a lot of inconsistencies and not as much transparency or accountability,” said Yana Bauer, a Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) teacher who is also its WE School supervisor.

“I do hope (WE) can survive this and manage to get better in the end,” she added.

WE Charity partnered with the feds to deliver the CSSG. Government staff had identified WE as the only organization that could pull together a program of this scale within the tight timeframe before the school year began again in the fall.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not recuse himself from the final decision, despite his family members having received hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and expense reimbursements from WE in recent years.

Opposition parties have launched substantial inquiries into the matter, with the Conservatives especially calling for resignations and a heavy reckoning.

Further complicating the matter is the division between WE Charity and Me to WE, the non-profit and for-profit divisions of WE, respectively.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded both divisions. Me to WE raises money to support the charitable efforts of WE Charity under a social enterprise model.

As the controversy continues, the student program has been mostly paused.

“My immediate concern (when the controversy emerged) was ‘what about students that I’ve encouraged to take advantage of this? Are they still going to be eligible for the grant? Can I continue to support them?’” said Ms. Bauer.

Ms. Bauer said the cancellation was especially hard on students given the global climate. 

“In this uncertain global environment, it’s yet another piece (students) might have thought was solid but is now another piece of uncertainty,” she continued.

As a WE School supervisor, Ms. Bauer had gotten involved with the CSSG to help guide students, answer questions and connect them with resources.

Her long list of students has since been pared down to about a dozen that regularly keep in contact for guidance; the rest have not reached out and Ms. Bauer has not been asked to contact those who do not initiate conversation.

She said WE and the government are actively working on solutions and said she has heard students are still eligible, but the number of available positions is smaller than planned.

Supervisors were also previously able to monitor their students’ progress through an online dashboard but this is now suspended.

Ms. Bauer said the program uniquely ensured opportunities for rural students who are often at a disadvantage. Training sessions for the supervisors included modules on creating local opportunities, but many of these have not come to pass.

One such opportunity was the Providence Bay Fair. Providence Bay Agricultural Society president Dawn Dawson was about 80 percent through the process of registering her group with the charity when the CSSG stalled.

“I’ve had some very emotional days. It’s really upsetting to us. We’ve done the best we can and we’ve had a handful of students stay on, but there’s things I’m afraid may fall through the cracks because I don’t have the young people I thought I was going to have,” said Ms. Dawson.

The society was hoping to draw a dozen young volunteers to adapt its Providence Bay Fair to have more virtual offerings this year. The amount of work involved in the plan, however, was insurmountable with only half of its expected numbers.

She has heard from Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes and was expecting a call from NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus to discuss the situation.

Ms. Dawson, like Ms. Bauer, agreed that WE has contributed much good to the world and that her own daughter had positive experiences with the group, especially through its WE Day events run through the for-profit branch of the organization.

“Those were so valuable for young people to hear the quality of speakers and to be motivated to be leaders. I think there’s still some value in that,” she said.

Ms. Bauer addressed one of the contentious items, the honouraria promised to teachers for helping to lead the program. Ms. Bauer said she did not receive any details of the amount before the program’s suspension but said most teachers, including herself, were focused on supporting students rather than seeking to benefit.

“My only personal benefit would have been my daughter Cassandra, who is in college, but as far as I know she isn’t currently participating in any placements,” said Ms. Bauer.

Questions remain of the future of WE Charity and its WE Schools program, of which MSS is a member. At the current moment there are no plans to suspend the partnership but Ms. Bauer said some students may understandably be hesitant to get involved with WE activities going forward, including through MSS’ SHARE/Go Green committee.

“Every year we come up with a plan at the start of the year of what actions we’ll commit to for the rest of the year to make the world a better place both globally and locally. We’ll still go through that same process with SHARE but the materials we normally use that are WE-branded, we may or may not continue to use those,” she said.

Ms. Bauer and Ms. Dawson urged the government to extend the promised grant money to students, considering most would be unable to earn the full grant complement—if anything at all.

“If students don’t benefit from this program because of the political stuff that’s happened, then everyone has failed. That means students will be in worse states going back to school and more disillusioned with politics and service. That’s not good for anybody,” said Ms. Bauer.