Ever wondered what a conflict of interest looks like?
Consider the Trudeau government’s decision to award a large contract to WE Charity. WE withdrew from the deal last Friday, but federal conflict-of-interest commissioner Mario Dion will be looking into it nonetheless.
He should, because Ottawa’s handling of this arrangement has been troubling from the day it was announced.
For starters, the contract was untendered. Even small government procurement jobs are put out for competitive bids; this was a deal to oversee and administer a $912-million program. Why no competition?
Then there is the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his mother, Margaret Trudeau, his brother Alexandre and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, have a long relationship with WE Charity and its founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger.
Over the years, all have appeared on WE stages in front of massive, WE-provided audiences – events that are a cross between political rallies and pop concerts.
Ms. Grégoire Trudeau played host to WE Day in Montreal in 2012 and has since become an official WE ambassador. She travelled in March to a WE event in London, which is when she contracted COVID-19.
As for Mr. Trudeau, WE Day’s marriage of celebrity inspiration and progressive politics fits his brand to a T. He appeared at the first WE Day in 2007, before he entered politics; his very first speech after he was elected Prime Minister in 2015 was to a 16,000-person WE Day audience in Ottawa.
In 2017, the Trudeau government allowed WE Day to be held on Parliament Hill and provided $1.5-million in funding. Later that year, Mr. Trudeau spoke at another WE Day in New York, along with Whoopi Goldberg.
In 2019, Craig Kielburger was named to the advisory board of the Leaders’ Debates Commission, a body created by the Trudeau government to oversee election debates.
But back to that contract to oversee a $912-million program. The government said WE wouldn’t turn a profit, but that’s a bit of an empty statement. WE shouldn’t turn a profit – it’s a not-for-profit organization.
The Trudeau government eventually said that WE would be paid $19.5-million to administer the program, but it refused to spell out how that compensation was to be arrived at. That left journalists and the opposition unable to determine if the amount was accurate or justified.
WE was hired to quickly recruit tens of thousands of student volunteers and place them with organizations across Canada in a COVID-19-era program called the Canada Student Service Grant. That sounds like a perfectly reasonable program, so long as you look no further than its title. Scratch beneath the surface and you begin scratching your head.
It’s a “volunteer” program, but the quotation marks are there because, as originally designed by the Liberals, it involves a chain of people getting paid. The money trail was to start with WE, although left unsaid was whether WE was being paid for every student recruited, and if so, at what rate – hence the opacity of the $19.5-million administration fee.
What immediately did become clear, however, was that to secure all of those volunteers, WE intended to turn teachers into recruiters, offering up to $12,000 to educators for signing up and managing students. Summer camps were reported to be in line to get up to $25,000 for signing up campers.
Who knew the business of unpaid work could be so lucrative? But then, this is not a plan for unpaid volunteering. Even the students themselves are to be remunerated – but for some reason, at less than minimum wage. WE was itself looking for the project to fund the hiring of 450 “volunteers.”
The whole thing raises questions about the Trudeau government from start to finish – questions that aren’t put to rest just because WE Charity is no longer administering the program and has said any government funds it has received will be returned.
The Trudeau government initially said that WE was the only body in Canada capable of running the program and that’s why it was chosen.
In the end, the program will continue, but it will be managed by the federal bureaucracy, which must now somehow muster the competence that Mr. Trudeau once insisted could only be found in a private organization that has given him a valuable platform throughout his political career.
That’s what a conflict of interest looks like.