A $900-million government aid program is funding volunteer positions for students hoping to earn money for their educations, in a July 8, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Federal website advertising hundreds of non-existent student-volunteer positions

Conservative employment critic wants answers

OTTAWA — The federal website advertising volunteer positions for students hoping to earn money for their educations through a $900-million government aid program contains hundreds of positions that do not actually exist.

Among the student-volunteer positions advertised as available on the I Want to Help website are 1,500 spots with YMCA Canada to help create online exercise regimes for kids and seniors in their communities.

Yet the YMCA says those positions were actually the brainchild of WE Charity, the organization originally tapped by the Liberal government to administer the Canada Student Services Grant, and that the YMCA never agreed to them.

Both the YMCA and WE blame a miscommunication as WE scrambled to get the grant program — through which students can get up to $5,000 toward their schooling if they volunteer the maximum 500 hours — up and running as quickly as possible.

WE has since withdrawn from running the program.

In an interview, YMCA Canada president Peter Dinsdale said his organization proposed hosting 391 volunteers through dozens of YMCA locations. They would focus on three areas: helping local branches with marketing and website design; data analysis; and assisting seniors with tech questions.

The YMCA arrived at the number after reaching out to branches across the country, Dinsdale said, after which the national office drew up a draft memorandum of understanding with WE to formalize the arrangement.

“We sent a draft in and they sent a draft back and that’s when we saw these other positions and we asked to separate them,” he said of the 1,500 positions for online exercise regimes. ”And they said great. And we haven’t heard from them since all this has gone down.”

“These discussions (with the YMCA) took place quickly, given our short timeline for delivery, and some confusion arose around the two separate agreements,” WE said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

“That confusion contributed to a misunderstanding on our part which led to one group of service positions being posted, rather than the other group of service positions.”

It nonetheless means those advertised positions are not actually available.

The status of thousands of other positions apparently created by WE to meet the requirements of the volunteer program remains uncertain.

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger’s spokeswoman Danielle Keenan stood by the Canada Student Services Grant program on Wednesday, saying that while there will be delays in its rollout following WE’s departure, the government remains committed to it.

“The Canada Student Service Grants program provides opportunities for students who want to help with their communities COVID-19 response,” Keenan said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“Although the delivery of the program will change, our objective has not changed which is to ensure students, not-for-profits, and communities are supported throughout the pandemic.”

WE and the Liberal government announced last week that they were ending a sole-sourced contract to have the charity manage the grant program after questions were raised about a potential conflict of interest between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the organization.

Dinsdale said the YMCA did not know the 1,500 positions had been posted, noting the agreement with WE was never signed. At the same time, the 391 positions that the YMCA does want to fill have yet to be advertised. Dinsdale said the YMCA is waiting to hear from the government on those.

“The 391 that we’re actually putting forward, our Ys are ready and willing to engage in it and there are some really interesting opportunities that could exist for youth and our YMCAs and communities,” he said. “So we’re certainly hopeful those go ahead.”

Thousands of other positions posted on the federal website involve the creation of online content or the mentoring of other students on such topics as COVID-19’s impact on the environment, nutrition and cyberbullying.

Some of those are posted in huge batches, such as a call for 1,000 volunteers to be trained to hold one-to-one sessions with people on “the impact of COVID-19 on food security in your community.”

Another seeks 1,250 volunteers to devise “social-media assets” such as captions, memes and videos, for local and regional awareness campaigns to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

None of those postings includes the name of a hosting organization: they’re listed as “supporting local non-profits in your community” rather than with a specific agency.

WE did indicate that it was behind many of them as it sought to meet the government’s requirement that in order to be eligible for the student grant, positions must be linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The purpose of the CSSG was to engage tens of thousands of post-secondary students in service programs to assist with the impact of COVID-19,” WE said in its statement.

“COVID-19 has been in Canada for a relatively short period of time and there are limited new service opportunities related to addressing (it). This is partly why WE was brought in (to) develop and co-ordinate service roles that fulfil the program guidelines and deliver a meaningful impact.”

Employment and Social Development Canada, which will now administer the grant program instead of WE, did not respond to repeated questions about the positions, including whether they would move ahead or not.

Conservative employment critic Dan Albas said the questions about the federal website underscore the need for answers when it comes to the student grant program, including how positions have been chosen or created and what benefit they are expected to have.

“To find out that perhaps hundreds of positions have been put forward and in good faith maybe people have applied for those positions without having a correction from the government?” he said.

“This is public money. They need to come clean and clean up this program so that any dollar that is spent gets the maximum opportunities for young people and value for money for taxpayer dollars.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2020.

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