Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
June 25 may have been a little more than a month ago, but it feels like a year has passed. That’s the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, amid the pandemic, announced that WE Charity would administer a federal grant program designed to connect students with paid volunteer opportunities. That’s also when the alarm bells started ringing: Was the Prime Minister really telling us that WE Charity, an organization with public ties to his family, would be getting a sole-sourced contract to distribute up to $912-million?
The story has dominated the news, in large part because it keeps evolving. Initially, WE Charity’s founders, Marc and Craig Kielburger, mentioned receiving a call from the PMO before correcting themselves to say it was from the public service. Then critics noticed that the grant would have paid recipients less than the minimum wage.
Then, of course, there were the ethical hazards. The Prime Minister’s mother and brother have received multiple payments from the organization, apparently totalling more than $300,000; Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his family took trips with WE to Africa in 2017, and on July 22, he cut a cheque for more than $41,000 to pay back expenses. Canada’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and parliamentary committees are now investigating the government’s ties to WE Charity. But even after Mr. Morneau’s testimony to the House of Commons Finance Committee (along with that of the Prime Minister, his chief of staff, Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, the Kielburgers, WE’s departed board chair, the Clerk of the Privy Council, and other senior public servants), there is still debate and confusion over whether the WE drama meets the threshold of a “scandal.”
Mr. Trudeau testified that instead of attempting to facilitate a contract with WE, he pushed back on it. He barely broke a sweat during the appearance, and he sold the plausible-seeming narrative that the process that led to the decision to have WE administer the program was unusual, but aboveboard. The politicians insisted the decision came on the advice of the public service, that cabinet took the advice and that there was no political interference – just a failure on the part of Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau to recuse themselves from the cabinet decision, for which both have apologized repeatedly. The Prime Minister’s Thursday committee appearance didn’t do any further damage, but he wasn’t able to kill the WE story. And despite the reasonable narrative, the optics remain bad. That this is the third time the Prime Minister has been investigated by the Ethics Commissioner – after a holiday on the Aga Khan’s island and alleged inappropriate pressures on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin – does not help.
What ties the other two ethics investigations together with this one is how the Prime Minister’s individual prominence affects him as a holder of public office. All ministers are bound by the Conflict of Interest Act, which is not a comprehensive regime but rather a mechanism for helping ministers manage their private interests to avoid conflict with the public interest. For many ministers, this is not a complicated process, but it has been a bumpy road for Mr. Trudeau – and this represents the biggest threat to him and, perhaps more crucially, to his position.
To quote former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, Mr. Trudeau seems to have developed a “blind spot” with respect to ethics. He viewed his island trip as a holiday with friends rather than as a business meeting, but he must understand that as a celebrity in his own right, he must consider the possibility that others might wish to keep his company to advance their own causes. Ignoring that fact threatens the reputation of his public office. If the Prime Minister doesn’t understand that this is a problem, there’s little hope the WE episode will teach him anything.
Regardless of how damning this is for the government, the WE organization has been devastated by the investigation so far. For years, WE has been lauded for the opportunities it has created for youth around the world. But now, its financial stability, business practices and future are all in question. The Kielburger brothers’ cavalier attitude to their joint committee appearance – laced with virtue signalling, snickering and name-dropping – made them look like celebrity hangers-on. The Prime Minister must rise above this if he hopes to protect the integrity of his office.
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