Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he did not recuse himself from his government’s decision to award WE Charity a now-cancelled contract to administer a student volunteer grant program despite his family’s ties to the charity.
Mr. Trudeau made the admission at a news conference on Parliament Hill amid mounting questions about his involvement in the contract, which is now subject to an investigation from the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
The Prime Minister said his cabinet made the final decision to award the contract to WE, and followed the advice of the public service. Until Wednesday, the government had not acknowledged cabinet’s role.
Asked if he recused himself from the discussion and decision at cabinet, Mr. Trudeau said: “No, I did not.”
Mr. Trudeau told reporters he didn’t recuse himself because “getting young people involved in serving their country … particularly through this time of crisis, is something I believe in deeply.”
The Prime Minister and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, are frequent keynote speakers at events held by WE Charity, which focuses on international development projects and youth education programs. Ms. Grégoire Trudeau was in London for WE in March. She is an official ambassador for the organization and hosts a podcast for the charity. The podcast launched in May.
The Prime Minister’s Office said the two “have never been paid by WE,” but the charity pays Ms. Grégoire Trudeau’s travel expenses.
WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger donated $1,200 to Mr. Trudeau’s leadership bid in 2012. His brother and fellow co-founder Marc Kielburger donated $350 to the Liberal Party in 2008. According to Elections Canada filings, neither has donated to any other federal political party.
The Globe and Mail is a media partner of WE Charity.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said that, with his comments on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau “pretty much admitted he broke the Conflict of Interest Act.”
This is Mr. Trudeau’s third ethics investigation since he became Prime Minister. In the previous two, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner found he broke the law.
After requests from the NDP and Conservatives, Commissioner Mario Dion is investigating whether Mr. Trudeau breached three sections of the act.
These sections prohibit public office holders from giving preferential treatment, bar them from decisions that would put them in a conflict of interest, and require them to recuse themselves from “any discussion, decision, debate or vote” that would put them in a conflict of interest.
The act says a conflict of interest occurs when a public office holder exercises a power that allows them to further their own interests or those of another person.
WE was to be paid at least $19.5-million to administer the program, with $5-million of that going to partner organizations. The program was announced in April. WE’s role was revealed when the program launched last month. It offers students $1,000 for each 100 hours of volunteer work completed between June 25 and Oct. 31, 2020, to a maximum of $5,000.
That amounts to less than the hourly minimum wage in any province.
The government announced last Friday that the contract had been cancelled. At the time, Mr. Trudeau said the Liberals would continue the program, but how it will be administered isn’t yet clear.
Citing the low wages for students, questions about whether the program meets provincial employment standards, and the overhead costs WE was to incur, Mr. Angus said, “what’s really twisted in all of this is that the Prime Minister is claiming that he’s doing this for his altruistic concerns for postsecondary students.”
The opposition parties are calling on the government to scrap the $900-million grant program, which Mr. Angus called “a very poorly put-together boondoggle.”
Adding to the questions about how the charity got the contract is a video obtained by the National Post. In a June 12 conference call with youth organizations, Marc Kielburger states that the Prime Minister’s Office contacted WE after announcing plans for the program in April and asked it to help implement it. The Post said WE Charity later told the newspaper Marc Kielburger “misspoke,” and that a senior public servant at Employment and Social Development Canada contacted him.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre asked five times whether anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office spoke to the charity about the contract before it was awarded.
Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger did not answer, and repeated several times that the government followed the advice of the public service.
When The Globe posed similar questions to the Prime Minister’s Office, only some were answered.
Spokesperson Alex Wellstead confirmed that Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, “has not been in contact with WE.” And he said: “No one from the Prime Minister’s Office asked WE Charity to administer the Canada Student Service Grant.”
When asked whether any staff working with the office contacted WE before the contract was awarded, Mr. Wellstead said he had “nothing further to add.”
Ms. Chagger also did not answer three questions from Mr. Poilievre on how many other charities were considered before the government chose WE.
The NDP and Conservatives say the $900-million fund should go toward existing initiatives such as the Canada Summer Jobs program.
On Wednesday, The Canadian Press reported that the federal website advertising the paid-volunteer opportunities lists positions that might not exist.
Among the jobs advertised are 1,500 spots with YMCA Canada to help create online exercise regimes for kids and seniors.
The YMCA says those positions were the brainchild of WE Charity, and the Y never agreed to host them. The YMCA and WE both blamed a miscommunication.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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