People keep asking Justin Trudeau to do ethically dubious things. Whether it’s requesting he attend private fundraising dinners with Chinese billionaires, or inviting him to vacation on their private Caribbean islands at the same time as they are seeking money from his government, or seeking his help in avoiding prosecution for bribing foreign dictatorships, people keep getting him – him, who only wants to help people – into trouble. People really ought to know better.
In the latest of these unfortunate solicitations, by the Prime Minister’s account, certain members of the public service came to him with a request that the federal government give an untendered contract for $912-million to an organization called WE Charity to set up and run the new Canada Student Service Grant, intended to encourage student volunteers, on the grounds that it was the “only organization in Canada” capable of handing out money on this scale. (The Globe and Mail is a WE Charity media partner.)
Details of this “transparent and open” process, as the Prime Minister calls it, have not been revealed: neither the terms of the contract, nor which other organizations were considered, nor what precisely made WE the “best and only” (the Prime Minister, again) choice to administer the program, and not either the public service – which I gather has some experience at this sort of thing – or one of the many other reputable charitable organizations across the country, from Volunteer Canada to the United Way and beyond.
Nevertheless, we have it on the Prime Minister’s authority that the decision to award the contract to WE – whose revivalist gatherings for socially conscious youth have featured not only himself as a guest speaker, but his wife, his mother and his brother; which helped promote him early in his political career and which has received millions in grants and contracts since his election – had nothing to do with him or his office.
To be sure, we have it on the authority of Marc Kielburger, co-founder of WE with his brother Craig, that it was the Prime Minister’s decision – that, as he was recorded saying last month on a video call with other youth organizations, “the next day” after the program was announced in April, “the Prime Minister’s Office kindly called us and said: ‘You know that announcement we just made, would you be interested in helping us actually implement?’ ”
But that was then. Mr. Kielburger has since said he “misspoke” – that when he said “the Prime Minister’s Office” he meant “a Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Skills and Employment Branch, at Employment and Social Development Canada.” I can’t imagine he would lie about such a thing. So it must be that the political activist, long-time friend of the Prime Minister and veteran government grantsman got the two mixed up.
Rather, as the Prime Minister has said, “this was a decision that needed to be made by our professional public service,” and “as the public service dug into it,” when “our public servants looked at the potential partners,” “they came back” with “only one organization” – the one that he and his family have been intimately associated with for many years.
Well, what was he supposed to do: Say no? Say, “I have an obvious conflict of interest here, based on my long history of personal involvement with this organization”? Say, “are you quite sure there’s no one else who could do this”? Say, “why not put it out to competitive tender, if only for appearance’s sake”?
He must have said something: Civil servants make recommendations, but a billion-dollar program isn’t something they would decide all on their own. Or if they did, you’d think they’d have had a few questions about the Kielburgers’s business plan.
As it has emerged in news reports, it appears to have been built on the Mary Kay cosmetics model: The kids get paid to “volunteer,” their teachers get paid to recruit them, and WE takes a cut of whatever’s left. Or at least it would have, had it not abruptly withdrawn from the program last Friday, shortly before the Ethics Commissioner announced he was launching an investigation into the whole matter.
Or did it? Was pulling out really WE’s call? The Prime Minister has referred to it as “the decision taken by WE,” but perhaps he was using the royal “we.” The government, after all, would be quite desperate to starve this developing scandal of any oxygen, by any means necessary. Whereas WE, which like many charities has been hard hit by the pandemic – it has had to lay off much of its staff – could have used the $20-million or more it stood to be paid from the program.
If, then, one were to ask who had more reason to cancel the contract, it would seem less likely to be WE than THEY.
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