Feds considered other groups before WE deal but most were never told about program
New documents indicate the public service considered at least 20 organizations to work on the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), including the United Way and the Canadian Red Cross, before concluding that WE Charity was the best fit.
However, many of these organizations say they were never actually contacted about the program itself.
The new documents, which were given to the House of Commons finance committee on Monday, explain that public servants with Employment and Social Development Canada made calls to multiple organizations in mid-April, including the Boys and Girls Club of Canada, the YMCA and 4-H Canada.
Other organizations, including the Canadian Red Cross, United Way, and Volunteer Canada, were “assessed” to administer the program, though the documents do not indicate what that assessment entailed or how a decision was made.
Despite being considered to deliver this program, many of these groups say they were never specifically contacted about the CSSG — and at least one of them, the YMCA, asserted that it was capable of delivering the program.
“At no point did the government contact YMCA Canada about delivering that program,” Peter Dinsdale, president and CEO of YMCA Canada, told CTV News in an interview.
He added that his organization “absolutely” would have been capable of administering the program. However, he noted that COVID-19 has presented new challenges for YMCA Canada.
“It would have been tough given the state of YMCAs across the country, given the impact of COVID — really fighting for basic survival,” Dinsdale said.
“In normal times, (this) 100 per cent would have been something we could have done.”
Dindsale added that he hasn’t heard from the government since they cancelled the WE Charity contract and decided to allow the public service to deliver the grant.
In addition to YMCA Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, United Way, Chantiers Jeunesse, 4H Canada, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada all said the government never contacted them about the CSSG — despite all of the organizations’ names appearing on the government’s list of groups it considered to deliver the program.
Colleges and Institutes Canada, whose name also appears on the list, did confirm that it was approached about the program.
The question of whether other organizations were capable of administering the program is a key one in the WE Charity controversy. After granting WE Charity the now-cancelled sole-source contract, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said that the public service “determined that the WE organization was the only one that could deliver that program as ambitious as it was this summer.”
However, that assertion came under scrutiny as Trudeau’s ties to WE Charity were revealed. His mother, brother and wife had all been paid to speak at WE Charity events, while Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughter Clare has spoken at WE events, and his daughter Grace is currently employed by WE Charity.
The ethics commissioner is now investigating whether either Trudeau or Morneau breached the Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the decision to award WE Charity the contract. Both have issued apologies for not removing themselves from conversations about the now-cancelled decision to grant WE Charity the student volunteer program, given their personal connections to the organization.
On the same day Trudeau apologized for not recusing himself from the discussions, he continued to emphasize WE’s unique ability to administer the program.
“The amount in the contract to WE was about $20 million for delivery of thousands – tens of thousands of youth placements across the country. They are the ones that have the network that was able to do that quickly,” Trudeau said during a press conference on July 13.
“That was the recommendation by the professional public service.”
Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister with Employment and Social Development Canada, said she was the one behind the recommendation that WE Charity be the one to administer the program. Speaking to the finance committee on July 16, she noted that while other organizations were indeed considered, WE Charity emerged as the front-runner.
“In our assessment [of other organizations], we were unable to identify a single organization that adequately met the need for broad geographic reach, technological capacity and experience working with youth, particularly youth from underserved communities,” Wernick told the committee.
She also noted that while WE had sent her a proposal regarding a program to help students, no other organization had done so — though no call for proposals was put out.
During the same July 16 meeting, Paula Speevak, the president and CEO of Volunteer Canada — one of the organizations public servants had “assessed” to administer the program — also testified. She said there are “many organizations” that have different areas of expertise related to the CSSG.
When asked about whether WE Charity was uniquely suited to administer the program, she said “there are many organizations in the sector that have some of the experience and expertise that could be required for that type of program.”
While she did not outright say whether her organization could have administer the program on its own, she did say they had “been involved in a number of large-scale projects” carried out in collaboration with others.
Speevak also testified that WE Charity, after having won the contract, approached Volunteer Canada to ask them for help with program. She said that after raising concerns about the nature of the program — particularly with the fact that it would pay volunteers less than minimum wage, they informed WE Charity they would “not be working with them on the program.”
While Wernick testified that Volunteer Canada was considered for the administration of the program, Speevak said that her organization was never specifically approached about the program and learned about its existence when the prime minister publicly announced the grant on April 22 — the same day WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger sent Wernick a detailed, unsolicited pitch for the program.
Speaking at the committee, Speevak was asked if she knew what Wernick could have meant by this consideration if the Volunteer Canada had never actually been approached prior to the program’s announcement.
“No, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened with us,” Speevak replied.
FUNDING AGREEMENT ONLY EARMARKED $543 MILLION
Despite the prime minister’s initial announcement that the CSSG would be worth $912 million, the funding agreement with the WE Charity Foundation of Canada only detailed funding worth a maximum of $543.5 million — a little over half of the initially reported cost.
Of that amount, $500 million was earmarked to be disbursed directly to students eligible for the program. The other $43 million was for the WE organization to run the program itself.
While the document breaking down the agreement does not account for the hundreds of millions of dollars in absent funds, testimony from Ian Shugart, clerk of the Privy Council, helps to shine a light on where the rest of the money was hiding.
Speaking to the finance committee last week, Shugart said the $543 million was simply the first portion of the money. His comments echo what Wernick had also said in her testimony, which was that the amount of funding allocated — up to $912 million — would be dependent on the interest in the program.
“This is a common practice in contribution agreements. Additional payments would not be made until there was proof of uptake and the desired results were being achieved,” Wernick said.
With files from CTV National News’ Annie Bergeron-Oliver, CTV News’ Michel Boyer and The Canadian Press