How the WE Charity scandal led to the cancellation of the Canadian Student Service Grant program

The impact of the WE Charity scandal on students, and why it is still relevant to Canadians today

Photo courtesy of Yahoo News Canada.

By Sara Wong, Peak Associate

On June 25, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a new initiative — the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program — which would offer paid volunteer jobs to post-secondary students and recent graduates. However, before the $900 million program could officially launch, the WE Charity Scandal came to light. Here is a timeline of events that highlight the depth of this political controversy:

July 3: The WE Charity relinquished its $19.5 million contract with the Liberal government to run the CSSG, as criticism continued to grow on the organization’s founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger, and their connection to the Trudeau family. Following the WE Charity’s announcement, Global News reported that Canada’s Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion, said “he would begin an examination [into the federal government’s handling of the WE Charity grant] and that he had notified Trudeau about it” on the same day.

July 9: Financial ties between the WE Charity and members of the Trudeau family were exposed. According to CTV News, “Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, spoke at approximately 28 events and was paid [a total of] $250,000 in speaking honorariums between 2016 and 2020. His brother, Alexandre Trudeau, also spoke at eight events from 2017 to 2018 and was paid a total of approximately $32,000.” CBC News would later add to this report, writing in an Instagram caption that “the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, attended seven WE events and was reimbursed a total of $25,326.”

July 16: The Ethics Commissioner launches a separate investigation into then-Finance Minister, Bill Morneau. Like Justin Trudeau, Morneau had familial connections to the WE Charity. His two daughters, Grace Acan and Clare Morneau, worked for WE; the former was a contract employee, while the latter spoke at several WE Day events. Similar to Trudeau again, Morneau did not recuse himself from the government’s decision-making process on which organization would run the CSSG program. 

July 22: Global News discovers that the contract the Trudeau government awarded WE was for their foundation, not their charity, which Trudeau advertised the money was going to. Reportedly, the WE Charity Foundation “was described by WE as inactive in August 2018 and only became a federally registered charity in April 2019. Its stated purpose was to hold tens of millions worth of WE Charity real estate.” Also on this day, Bill Morneau repaid $41,000 in incurred expenses from his family’s WE Charity trips to Kenya and Ecuador. 

July 28: Craig and Marc Kielburger testify (virtually) in front of the finance committee. The meeting lasted just under four hours. In a clip posted by @cbcnews on Instagram, Craig Kielburger is recorded saying the following: “I’ve never seen the prime minister or Sophie Grégoire Trudeau in a social setting [ . . . ] the McCain-Morneau family are very generous philanthropists and we have hosted them on humanitarian trips, and, you know, all of this is in furtherance of the cause [ . . . ] what we’re doing here is fulfilling the purpose of our charity and that is a difference than a personal relationship.”

July 29: CBC News publishes an investigative report revealing that in 2018, employees of the WE Charity in Toronto were pressured into attending a holiday party hosted by Bill Morneau. One past employee, who remained anonymous in CBC’s article, explains that they were instructed “to go after work to ‘fill the room’ and that [the celebration was described] as though it were a ‘WE event or a Craig Kielburger event’.” The reason why employees did not speak up sooner was because of their NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), which CBC learned “forbids staff from disclosing ‘business and/or personal information about Craig Kielburger, Marc Kielburger’ and ‘any person or company’ with which WE ‘enters a strategic alliance or any other partnering arrangement’.” 

July 30: Justin Trudeau testifies in front of the finance committee, also done virtually. He claimed, as quoted from Global News, “that he didn’t know anything about the decision to give the deal to the WE Charity until the matter was set to come before his cabinet in early May.” You can watch the full meeting on YouTube.

August 17: Bill Morneau resigns as Finance Minister and as a Member of Parliament (MP). During his press conference, Morneau stated that he wished “that, in hindsight, [the government, including himself] had done things different around the We Charity.”

September 9: Craig and Marc Kielburger announce that they will be leaving the WE organization and that the WE Charity will cease operations in Canada. The Globe and Mail points out that “the charity’s statement did not make clear the future of its operations in the U.S. or Britain and didn’t address the future of ME to WE.”

October 8: At the ethics committee meeting that occurred on this date, the Conservative party put forward a motion to “revive a push for documents from the speaking organization WE Charity used to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family”, CTV News’ Rachel Gilmore writes. These documents had been requested in late July, however “when Trudeau prorogued Parliament, the ask evaporated alongside all other committee investigations into the WE controversy.” Furthermore, the meeting was adjourned before the motion could be voted on. The next ethics committee meeting has not been scheduled.

With the WE Charity Scandal ongoing, the CSSG program has been completely abandoned. “I had a couple friends sign up. There were a lot of remote opportunities, but aside from taking applications nothing ever happened,” a user on an SFU Discord noted when I posed a question on the WE Charity Scandal’s effect on students. 

On the scandal itself, the user added: “We got increased student loans instead [now that the CSSG is not running], which should have been done from the start, but we instead spent all this money on starting something that logistically was never going to fit into a summer timeline anyways.”

Prior to its cancellation, approximately 35,000 students had applied to take part. 

“Personally: I was looking for a summer job in order to finance my education, but due to COVID-19, the job market was (and still is) tough with many places having closed down or having hiring freezes. When the student service program was announced, I hoped to join it as it would at least earn me some money and would let me put some experience on my resume, as well as get a reference,” one SFU student shared with me via Instagram. 

When asked how the cancelled program had affected them, the student said, “I’m currently using CESB money to pay for tuition and supplies, but I’m not exactly sure what my longer-term financial outlook is.”

The CESB program has now ended, leaving many students without any monetary support from the government. Since applications for the CESB closed, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been calling on Justin Trudeau to provide more financial aid to post-secondary students and recent graduates. 

As reported in The Gateway, the NDP Edmonton Strathcona Member of Parliament — Heather McPherson — “wants all the money [that was] allocated towards [the CSSG] program to be spent on extending the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).” 

This idea has been supported by cross-Canada student groups such as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). 

Similar to CASA and CFS, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) released a statement calling on the federal government to provide more financial aid to students. Notably, the SFSS published their statement while the CESB was still in effect and before the CSSG program was announced.