Almost anything would have been better than the contract the PM gave WE - Rivers suggests a Basic Income or pay their tuition fees.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

July 15th, 2015



From all we know the WE organization does pretty good work. And despite recent complaints by some staff, this charity has been seen as a huge success. After all, the founding brothers have both earned the Order of Canada for their efforts to improve the lives of young people worldwide. So it is unsurprising that key political figures, like those around the PM and his finance minister are linked to this organization.

Rivers Mario Dion

Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion

And so, nobody should be surprised when Canada’s Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion, again sanctions the PM. This time the conflict of interest revolves around the PM planning to grant a billion dollar contract to WE when his family had a history of working with them. That includes his mother earning a quarter of million dollars over the last few years.

The Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion, reports to Parliament but is otherwise virtually unaccountable so he can pretty much call the shots as he sees them. And it is patently obvious that Mr. Dion has no love for this PM. Dion’s criticism of Trudeau over the Lavalin fiasco had been challenged by some as inappropriate. But there was no question that Trudeau’s accepting a paid vacation by the Aga Khan, who is a recipient of federal dollars, was inappropriate.

This WE mess is almost inexplicable for a seasoned politician. Surely there is someone working in the Prime Minister’s office who could advise Trudeau when he is about to step into it – another conflict of interest? Are they afraid to tell the emperor that his new suit of clothes will only leave him naked?

The PM argued passionately that WE was the only organization capable of delivering such a broad reaching program. Clearly that is not really the case, as the regular public service has now stepped up to the task of putting this fragmented and complicated aid program into action.

But it’s not just the involvement of WE that should consume our attention. The student grant program, harkens back to the problematic 1960/70’s Company of Young Canadians. In the end it was Justin’s father who axed that experiment in cultural revolution, and for good reason. Channelling youth into doing good things, like everything else in life, requires a lot of coordination and effort as well as money. And that makes it expensive, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

If the goal is youth engagement, an option would be a program of national service. For example, there is talk south of the border of doing just that. However, if the objective of Trudeau’s project is to help students get tuition money, there is a much simpler solution. Just pay a portion of the students’ tuition bills? What could be more progressive policy for the Trudeau Liberals than making access to post secondary education less costly and thus more of a human right and a public good?

Trudeau’s student grant program would have worked out to an average of $700 per university student had it been totally allocated to paying tuition fees. That amount would be even less if other post secondary students are included in the calculations. But since tuition fees vary among provinces with a national average around $6000, we are talking about just a small fraction of the costs facing students.

Sadly the flaws in the design of this federal emergency student grant program are typical of what’s wrong with all of the other federal COVID emergency programs. CERB, the showcase emergency package. is now demanding that 130,000 recipients return their cheques. Recipients who thought they were in compliance of emergency aid now find themselves being accused of dis-honesty. And in many cases the blame lies with the eligibility criteria or other aspects of CERB program design.

CERB application

The government saw the CERB as something that would meet an immediate need – has it?

The wage subsidy program should make everybody scratch their heads. Why should the government pay employers to pay employees three quarters of their regular pay while they sit at their work stations with no work? They would be better off receiving a job furlough and staying at home on EI/CERB payments, or taking up a part-time job. It is little wonder that the uptake is well below expectations. And if the goal of this program is to discourage major lay-offs, there are 20,000 former employees at Air Canada who would dispute that notion.

Most economists support the Prime Minister putting money into the pockets of Canadians who have lost their jobs. But playing Santa for every special interest group is awfully close to what was once called pork barrelling. Indigenous communities, farmers, and even seniors have been treated to money which eventually comes out of their own pockets.

The alternative is a universal basic income (UBI), guaranteed annual income, (GAI) or negative income tax program, any of which would end up costing Canadians less money in the long run. Indeed instituting a $1000 per month UBI would cost about the same in gross terms as this year’s expected deficit. Though $1500 or even $2000 might be more realistic and could be an eventual program goal.

UBI becomes far less costly overall when the potential exists to replace a myriad of socio-economic support programs, such as old age security, employment insurance, and even general welfare. Since every adult would be eligible there would need no scamming, game playing or breaking the rules. And because the UBI would be taxed back or clawed back at tax time, only those in real need would truly benefit. This should be a no-brainer for a truly progressive government.

UBI graphic

Universal Basic Income has been researched. No movement though.

And yet, there are members of all political parties who would support UBI and keep the minority government in power. So the question is why Mr.Trudeau, who talked of big change during his first election, has rejected UBI? What could be more important for a progressive politician than ensuring basic income security for all Canadians? What better way to soothe the minds of Canadians worried about how the government will pay for its extravagant COVID period spending than knowing they’ll be mostly alright when it comes to paying their bills?

This is not going to be the last pandemic nor major crisis we will experience in this country. Indeed we are far from seeing the end now, despite a recent downturn in the infection numbers. An income security program, like UBI, would allow governments to take the kinds of important actions they need to do to wipe out the virus, rather than trying to juggle virus control with economic consequences.

And since post secondary students would also receive UBI, the PM might be able to avoid embarrassing situations, like that ill-fated WE charity contract.

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes regularly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers



Background links:

WE Charity Mess –    WE Charity –     Student Grant Program –     US National Service –   How WE expected to manage they contract

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7 comments to Almost anything would have been better than the contract the PM gave WE – Rivers suggests a Basic Income or pay their tuition fees.

  • Michael Hribljan

    I’m going to try to keep this short it a complex topic and not for lack of ideas. As Ray points out if the objective is to help with tuition, just provide support for that.

    Constructing a program in the midst of a pandemic to provide student volunteer opportunities in a meaningful way is problematic to begin with for many reasons, just think back to closures and rules and guidelines that we were following in May for example. If it is still desired to have a program, and federal staff is not equipped/available, I would have transferred money to the Provinces and then to local municipalities and regions. Why, there are many volunteer opportunities in local communities, foodbanks, meals on wheels, support for seniors that local governments are connected to. This keeps students local which needs to be key during a pandemic. Also, every municipality has parks and recreation departments and are connect with youth that way. Local municipalities also had staff that were furloughed in some way, so there was a readily pool of resources available. The IT and financial infrastructure is already in place, they know EH&S and can manage that training. We also have MP’s locally that can sponsor these programs.

    There are 430 federal departments, agencies and sub-agencies. I would think leveraging this kind of horsepower could easily have provided some kind of volunteer opportunities. Certainly overall coordination is required, but what we’re looking for is less precision and more speed.

    I could go on, but trying to keep it short

    In my day job, I’m an executive that works globally for a large multinational corporation, I work to bring essential business into Canada that is highly technical and environmentally conscious (and other countries abroad). I like to think I’m being creative and provide benefit in these uncertain times.

  • Michael Hribljan

    I am writing on the basis that Mr. Barker’s comment was in response to the comment that I posted as it appears indented to mine.

    I am disappoint that the editorial staff approved this comment as it’s a sarcastic personal attack. I offered a nonpartisan thoughtful opinion backed by factual information.

    I would comment, that the subject at hand is in fact the bungled WE contract. Mr. Rivers is a liberal supporter and writes and opinion column which is absolutely fine. His article attempts to soften and apologizes for this situation. He references the Aga Khan and SNC incidents and “softballed” some of the facts. I’ve done my research, followed these situations closely at the time, and am challenging his presentation.

    What upsets me about this situation as you pointed out are students that could have benefited for sure. I am also upset by the fact that we are in a crisis situation, our government is spending billions, putting the country deeper in dept, and tries to pull, what appears to be a “fast one”.

    • david barker

      My first reply was certainly not intended as a personal attack. I do not believe I directed any comments of a personal nature at you. I’m sorry if you feel I did. That was not my intent.

      My point is in raising SNC, or any other “scandal” (directed at both you & Mr Rivers) you distract from the real issue of how to get fair compensation to current and just graduated students for their volunteer work. Whether or not WE was or was not a valid solution, WE will not now be involved. So please put your mind to finding another solution.

      As to your concern over the, yes, huge amounts being spent to either help employers keep employees on or to assist those employees who were let go, I ask what alternative course of action would you have taken ? It’s easy to be a nay sayer and disagree or tear down. But it us way more difficult to put forward viable and considered alternative strategies.

      I look forward to hearing what you would have done differently..

  • Michael Hribljan

    I agree with Ray, there are several other ways that would be much more efficient to ease tuition costs on students (and their parents). Unfortunately that is not the primary objective of this government in this matter. WE, in spite of all the good work, in my observation as become in part a promotional arm of the Liberal party. This is why they have hired Corn Ferry to help them get back to their roots – they need to back out of this quickly and manage their brand.

    I think our Ethics Commissioner sees this as does the opposition, no one is quite saying it yet. So much information has come out, been corrected or retracted from our government in their dealings with WE and ME to WE. It’s a good thing we have an nonpartisan Ethics Commissioner and I’m pleased that there is no love loss – that’s kind of the way it should be. This is not about PC, Liberal or any other party, its about honesty, transparency and integrity.

    Let’s be clear on the Aga Khan issue, it was not an invite from the Aga Khan the Ethics Commissioner found that in fact it was a blatantly asked for the “hand out” and it was found out that the Aga Khan was not family friend as was promoted.

    Also, our PM may not like the ruling on SNC, but again the line of ethics and conflict of interest were clearly crossed (violation of the Act) as reported by our Ethics Commissioner.

    I don’t believe any advice was needed by the bureaucracy to our politicians on the WE matter, our minority government clearly knew what was going on and what their end game was.

    Let’s wait for the facts and truth’s from the Ethics Commissioners report on this one.

    • david barker

      Well that was a nice anti liberal spiel. Thank you for that. I’m sure you feel better. But maybe you might like to use that energy to comment on the subject at hand – how to get students, both those still enrolled and those that just graduated, into some meaningful work experience with some amount of financial compensation attached.

  • I have a couple of reactions to this. In primary school the nuns preached that Mankind must go through terrible suffering before it will come to the realization of god, etc. I didn’t buy the god stuff, but I later began to feel that people don’t change their ways when times are good. When a government is openly corrupt, you change it. But what if you don’t feel it is hurting you? When your spending habits get you in a hole, you change them. But what if someone always bails you out?

    But these, then, are reactions to bad times – not to good times. So why not let people experience the results of their stupidity, from electing corrupt officials to buying new smart phones and every damned television streaming channel on earth? As parents we learned that a little painful consequence is a better teacher than just protecting children from bad outcomes of their behavior.

    Here in the United States there is a big push to extend the monthly payments supplementing unemployment insurance. For years I worked field epidemiology in some of the hardest and most dangerous poverty areas in the country. I’m painfully aware of the children who suffer. But until adults who can rise up and do something get to a level they can no longer tolerate they will not do anything except collect the next stay at home check. It’s a damned tough call, but we are being brought to the edge of the fire by the corruption, greed, and outright malice of the government these people were either dumb enough to vote in or too carefree enough to go and vote against.

  • dave turner

    Neither paying tuition fees or a basic income allowance would put these students to work and gain them valuable work exoerience they need !