What should we do with $900 million for Canada student service grants?

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As Canadians, we should be truly grateful that the federal government took steps to respond to the looming crisis faced by young people. Back in April, the government announced a massive $9-billion fund to support young people. Buried in the fine print was a $900-million program to support student-volunteerism. 

On June 25, the announcement and details emerged about this program. On that date, we learned that students aged 15 to 29 were eligible for volunteer placements across the country, and to receive up to $5,000 as compensation. The program was to be administered by the WE Charity and designed to reach 40,000 young people. 

Strong and immediate critiques from the non-profit sector and members of the public regarding the program and the selection of WE Charity as the delivery partner sent a signal to Ottawa. By Friday July 3, WE Charity and the federal government announced that WE Charity would not continue to deliver this program, and would return all funds received to date. 

Fast forward to July 13: the federal government finds itself now having to reimagine and redesign the program, while thousands of young people await an answer as to how they may expect to serve the country. While the politicians continue to (rightly) ask for more accountability about how these decisions occurred, we need to turn our attention to making sure the government can deliver for young people. 

This near billion dollars could be unlocked to intentionally address many of the systemic issues that young people are holding us adults accountable for: systemic racism, income inequality, housing affordability and other forms of violence.  

Volunteerism by definition is about freely wanting to take on a cause. It is a beautiful act of service in communities, but such opportunities should also be understood for their costs and benefits. 

I caught the volunteering bug at a young age: I was 12 and started helping by being part of a child-care program at my local community centre in downtown Toronto. This kicked off a lifetime commitment to care work, and my career today in the helping sector. Now, in my middle years, I can see how the seeds planted in the early 1990s have borne beautiful fruit in my life. 

With the new Canada Student Service Grant, I was delighted to hear that opportunities at an incredible scale across the country were to be unlocked to help in the COVID-19 response: here was a remarkable chance for young people to be provided with placements to serve the country. 

Nearly one billion dollars will be invested to help young people get access to placements in the charitable and non-profit sector. Last week, as Trudeau was pressed on this announcement, he stated this was something that was going to help the charitable sector by creating an army of capacity, with young people getting to roll up their sleeves in service. 

While I think this creates an incredible opportunity for the sector, there are a number of elements in the proposed roll-out of this program that should give us all pause.  

  1. Will this program actually provide young people with meaningful, supported-learning and volunteering opportunities? 

  2. How will charitable organizations who are worried about keeping their doors open, while addressing critical urgent needs, be able to bring aboard and support an army of young people?

  3. What kinds of organizations and young people will be able to take on these opportunities?

Is this money going to help with the big hairy problems? 

In this time, when many Canadians are talking about systemic inequalities -- anti-Black racism, police brutality against Indigenous and Black communities, inadequate child-care strategies, lack of affordable housing, the opioid crisis -- there is an opportunity to invest funds of this magnitude into an intergenerational, innovative program to address these problems. 

Instead, I worry the current design means only a limited number of organizations will be able to create make-work opportunities that do not apply a systemic-solutions lens. We'll all lose out on the ability to have deep impact by scattering these resources without intention and design. 

Who will really have a chance to access volunteering? 

As a teenager, I was only able to volunteer because I could work part time, and had a roof over my head and food on the table. Volunteering is too often only accessible to those with sufficient means.

As many not-for-profits struggle to afford their current staffing, adding capacity in the form of young people may seem like a quick-win solution. But, with limited technology resources, no in-person onboarding to train and ensure harm mitigation, how can we send young people in to be truly helpful in this moment?

I fear this program will only reach middle-class Canadians who aren't having to additionally work and thereby further entrench the skills and class gap that already exists. 

A program where recipients receive funds upon completion of hours can only compensate those who don't need earnings immediately, and, as pointed out by many, ends up becoming more like an underpaid employment opportunity. What we should be moving towards is an intentional investment in young people by offering employment that contributes to building the new economy and not just a program that remains out of reach for certain parts of the population. 

Who is in charge?

The best practices in youth programming call for young people to be the drivers and authors of the programs they run. And while the primary delivery partner for this program has deep experience working with youth, their leadership and governance do not include young people as decision-making partners. 

I could imagine a number of other partners in Canada with expertise and infrastructure, such as Volunteer Canada, university or college partners, national employment skill-building organizations like Futurpreneur or youth leadership groups such as the G(irls)20 with more direct experience in the design of such a program. 

With the announcement last Friday that the Canada Student Service Grant will no longer be delivered in partnership with the WE Charity, there is a moment here to hopefully put more effective principles of community-ownership, youth learning and empowerment, and intergenerational thinking into these efforts. 

I hope that the young people who access these grants end up with a rich, empowering opportunity that plants seeds for a lifetime of community-building. I also hope that more service organizations, led by Black, Indigenous and people of colour are able to access students to help them continue to build their own efforts towards systemic change, and moving us more solidly into the new economy. 

Chi Nguyen has spent the past 20 years in the social change sector, and currently advises charities and non-profits. She has worn many hats: in government, public policy, charities, social enterprises and as a funder to build stronger, more resilient and equitable communities.

Image: Tumisu/Pixabay

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