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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on July 13, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Like all good scandals, the WE mess is not just one thing but several. It is only one part abuse of process, though that has been the focus of most attention: the rank cronyism, the failure to seek competing offers, the multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, the casual unregistered lobbying of a government that seems almost to invite it by those who stand to profit by it.

But it is also the elaborate, multitiered design of the program WE was hired to administer, the Canada Student Service Grant, a $912-million scheme to recruit and pay student “volunteers” whose purpose, so far as it can be discerned, seems to have been as much helping students as pumping as much money as possible through the WE sluices, as sloppily as possible.

And it is the many questions surrounding the WE empire and its founders, the social entrepreneurs Craig and Marc Kielburger: from its reportedly authoritarian management to its byzantine organizational structure, a Janus-like amalgam of non-profit (WE Charity) and for-profit (ME to WE) enterprises with indistinct and porous borders between them.

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Any one of these – process, program or participants – would seem to be enough on its own to call the whole thing off. But put all three together and you’re really going places.

Let’s just revisit that process, first. Far from a disinterested recommendation – indeed, “decision” – of the “professional public service,” as the Prime Minister first claimed, the program appears to have originated largely in the minds of the Kielburgers. The brothers were pitching something similar-but-different to various cabinet ministers, we now know, in early April, weeks before the unveiling of the actual grant details, which precisely matched those in the revised proposal WE submitted the same day.

Prime Minister Trudeau and WE Charity: The story so far

The civil service seems to have been cast as unwitting go-betweens, gauging the Kielburgers’ interest in plans they had already discussed with ministers, then submitting recommendations to cabinet for decisions that would seem to have already been made. That various members of cabinet, notably the Prime Minister, have now admitted familial conflicts of interests around the organization; that none of them either declared their interests or recused themselves from the decision; and that WE was deficient in recording its activities on the lobbyist registry – all of this only adds to the unsavoury mix.

Then there is the plan itself. The basic idea was dodgy enough: to pay students to volunteer, though not enough to live on, a maximum of $5,000 for 500 hours worked. As the details have emerged, it appears WE was in line to receive as much as $43.5-million if it could recruit and place 40,000 student volunteers.

Accepting that some of that money would have been passed on to other non-profits, that still adds up to program costs of more than one dollar for every five dollars in benefits delivered. And it leaves unanswered the question of what the other $668-million in the program’s budget was for.

Of course, the more fundamental question is why such a program was needed in the first place. The country is not noticeably short of volunteers, while there are numerous programs already in place to deliver financial aid to students. The program did have the inestimable value, however, of making work for WE.

Which takes us back to the organization at the heart of the scandal. The more closely you look at it, the more baffling its business model appears. ME to WE is supposed to return profits to WE Charity, yet the flow of funds, the Canadaland website reports, appears also to go in the other direction. Between them, WE Charity and ME to WE have real estate holdings reported to be worth more than $50-million – unusual even in a much larger organization – for reasons that remain unclear.

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What is clear is that the charity was going through immense turmoil immediately prior to pitching the government for public funds, laying off hundreds of staff and replacing much of its board of directors. How fortunate, then, that the Kielburgers should have invested so much time and money over the years in cultivating relationships with Liberal Party higher-ups, and the Trudeaus in particular, of a kind that might pay dividends in a crisis.

And that’s the issue here. Maybe we’ll find WE’s purposes were above reproach. But what if they hadn’t been? With so much money flooding out the door in Ottawa these days, so little public scrutiny, so few controls, and such light penalties for violators, what’s to prevent this or any government from rewarding its supporters and enriching – or bailing out – its friends?

This is the third serious breach of ethics involving Justin Trudeau that we know about, after the Aga Khan and SNC-Lavalin affairs. Given what we know of this case, one has to suppose there were others.

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