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Finance Minister Bill Morneau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on July 20, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In a normal government – one susceptible to shame, subject to real consequences, humbled by its occasional fallibility – Finance Minister Bill Morneau would be made to walk the plank.

It wouldn’t simply be that someone, anyone, would need to be sacrificed to demonstrate the government’s contrition for its phenomenal screw-up of the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, after all, are out an opportunity to earn some money at a time when jobs are desperately scarce – and the charitable sector is still waiting for its promised volunteer placements – all because the government decided to toss a contract worth upward of $43-million in administrative fees to a charity with close ties to the Prime Minister, his family and his cabinet.

But in a normal government, where leaders wouldn’t even try to wash away the stink of this scandal with a mere apology, Mr. Morneau would be simply too noxious to keep in cabinet.

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Through a trickle of revelations, we now know that this Finance Minister has overseen the distribution of millions of dollars worth of grants and contracts to an organization that has employed one of his daughters, partnered with the other and provided his family with free trips to the tune of $41,366. Mr. Morneau has not recused himself from past or recent cabinet discussions about awarding contracts to the WE organization, even though Section 21 of Conflict of Interest Act quite plainly required him to do so, and Section 11 prohibits the accepting of gifts that “might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder.” In a normal government, no finance minister could survive such a flagrant ethical breach.

The very least one could say for Prime Minister Justin’s Trudeau’s entanglements with WE is that, prior to handing the charity the reins to the $912-million CSSG program as announced in June, his connection to the organization was pretty much already out in the open. Indeed, the public has long known that the Trudeau family has made good use of the WE Day stage – and WE promotions, and the WE Instagram account – to enamour thousands of soon-to-be-voters to Mr. Trudeau’s unique brand of vacuous political sloganeering.

What the public didn’t know – and in fact, what it was initially misled about – was that some members of the Trudeau family were paid for their speaking appearances. But the involvement of money only exacerbated what was already an obvious conflict between a Prime Minister who has long enjoyed WE’s systematic boosting and the organization that won, with no competition, the right to administer a massive new student grant program. It’s all very sleazy, certainly, but the Prime Minister can at least claim that he never really hid his connection to WE.

Mr. Morneau, however, cannot say the same. It was only after this recent contract was awarded (though this government handed WE plenty of cash in the past, including $1.5-million in funding to play host to WE Day on Parliament Hill in 2017, and a $3-million entrepreneurship grant in 2019) that the media started digging into other possible cabinet connections. It then was uncovered – not disclosed – that both Mr. Morneau’s daughters have connections to WE, and that members of the Morneau family went on two WE trips in 2017.

Initially, Mr. Morneau’s office said that the Finance Minister paid in full for the trip to Kenya in July and Ecuador in December. But in his opening statement before the House of Commons finance committee Wednesday, Mr. Morneau revealed that he had just learned the day before that he did not, in fact, pay for the WE-sponsored part of his travels, and noted that he had just cut the organization a cheque for $41,366.

Mr. Morneau remarked in his address that he was “completely surprised” these expenses were not charged to him, as if it would never occur to him that an organization keen on continued government partnerships would decline to slip the bill for the family trip under the Finance Minister’s door. WE released a statement Wednesday evening confirming that the Morneau family trips were indeed intended to be complimentary.

The Finance Minister has been found in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act before, when he failed to disclose his ownership of a corporation that owns a villa in France. In that case, he was fined a mere $200, which is a rather meaningless penalty for someone who can cut a $41,366 cheque at a moment’s notice. Indeed, for a government that has long championed its connection to the middle class, a Finance Minister who can’t keep track of his holding corporations, his French villa and his $40,000 vacations should be seen as a distinct liability – to say nothing of what ought to be an intolerable and disqualifying ethical breach.

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In any normal government, Mr. Morneau would be positively radioactive. In this one, for now, he remains the Minister of Finance.

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