Last summer, as the pandemic was devastating Canada’s job market, the federal government announced a student grant program that they said would help ease the damage – but instead, it ignited another conflict-of-interest scandal around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and brought down the Canadian charity his government hired to run the program. On Thursday, the federal Ethics Commissioner cleared Mr. Trudeau of wrongdoing, but said his former finance minister, Bill Morneau, had breached the Conflict of Interest Act. Here’s a recap of the events leading up to that point.
WE Charity: The basics
What is WE Charity?
An education and international-aid group, WE Charity started life in the 1990s as Free the Children, founded by Canadian anti-child-labour activists Craig and Marc Kielburger. For 13 years, it was the organizer of WE Day, an annual youth-empowerment event that attracted prominent speakers, including Mr. Trudeau, his family and political colleagues (more on that below). The Globe and Mail used to be a media partner of WE Charity, which involved giving the group advertising space to promote WE Days and other events, but the agreement expired last August and was not renewed.
Why did Ottawa hire WE Charity for the student grant program?
In April of 2020, the federal government rolled out COVID-19 relief for youth that included the $543.5-million Canada Student Service Grant, which promised to pay students for volunteer work. WE Charity was chosen to administer it, Mr. Trudeau announced last June. But WE Charity’s strategy later raised red flags: Its grants were below the equivalent of minimum wage, it created 450 “virtual volunteering” placements at its own organization and it originally wanted to pay teachers $12,000 each for recruiting at least 75 student volunteers, seeming to blur the lines between volunteerism and paid work. All told, WE Charity could have received up to $43.5-million if the program continued to its conclusion, or $33-million by July 2, just before it was cancelled.
Who authorized this?
Mr. Trudeau told the House finance committee that WE Charity was the choice of public servants, who concluded that it had the experience and size needed to get the grants out faster than the federally run Canada Service Corps. Mr. Trudeau said he only learned that hours before a cabinet briefing on May 8, 2020, where he took it off the agenda so the public servants would have more time for due diligence. He says they again concluded WE was the only logical choice, so it was brought to cabinet and approved on May 22. Mr. Trudeau says he regrets not recusing himself from that decision.
What happened to the program?
The federal contract with WE Charity was cancelled last July 3 in what Youth Minister Bardish Chagger called a “mutually agreed-upon decision.” WE Charity laid off hundreds of people it had hired for the partnership. After months of upheaval in its board of directors and questions about its international activities, the Kielburgers announced last September that they’d step down and WE would halt Canadian operations completely. In testimony to the House ethics past March, the Kielburgers blamed the Trudeau government for letting them take the blame for the student services program.
Connections to Trudeau and his team
Mr. Trudeau and his wife’s work with WE Charity was already widely known before the group was awarded the contract, but afterward, media reports revealed even more connections to senior Liberals and Mr. Trudeau’s staff.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s family
- Sophie Grégoire Trudeau: The Prime Minister’s wife was an official WE Charity ambassador and hosted the WE Well-Being podcast. The Kielburgers told the House finance committee that Ms. Grégoire Trudeau attended seven WE Days over three years, with average expenses of $3,618 each, which would add up to $25,326 over all.
- Margaret Trudeau: The Kielburgers say Mr. Trudeau’s mother, a long-time advocate for mental-health issues, went to 28 WE Days over five years. They estimated the average expenses at $5,998 each, or $167,944 total.
- Alexandre Trudeau: The Prime Minister’s younger brother attended eight WE Days over two years with average expenses of $2,447 each, or , according to the estimates the Kielburgers gave MPs.
Ministers and staffers
- Bill Morneau: When he was Finance Minister, Mr. Morneau had several connections to WE through his daughters, Clare Morneau and Grace Acan (whom he and his wife sponsored to come from Uganda in 2010). Mr. Morneau travelled with Ms. Acan on a WE-related trip to Ecuador in 2017, and she took a contract job at WE Charity in 2019. Clare Morneau had a WE Charity connection through her work with schoolgirls in a Kenyan refugee camp; in 2017 she and her parents went to Kenya, and she later published a book about the girls’ experiences. Last July, Mr. Morneau paid the organization $41,366 to reimburse them for the travel costs. Weeks later, he quit as finance minister, and Mr. Trudeau gave that portfolio to Chrystia Freeland.
- Seamus O’Regan: The Natural Resources Minister was involved in raising $400,000 for WE Charity in 2010-11, when the Liberals were still in opposition and the group was still called Free the Children. Mr. O’Regan went to Kenya in 2011 to help build a school the charity would then manage. He, too, did not recuse himself from the cabinet decision.
- Katie Telford: Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff was a co-founder of WE Charity initiative Artbound and also raised money for WE Charity but she ceased to be involved in Artbound in 2012.
Election and leadership donations
- 2008 election: Marc Kielburger gave $350 to the Liberals in 2008.
- 2012 leadership race: Craig Kielburger gave $1,200 to Mr. Trudeau’s bid to lead the Liberals.
Who investigated this?
Federal watchdog Mario Dion launched an investigation on July 3 of whether Mr. Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act, as he and his predecessor found the Prime Minister to have done in two previous scandals, the Aga Khan and SNC-Lavalin cases. Mr. Dion’s findings, announced in May of 2021, cleared Mr. Trudeau of ethics violations in the WE affair, but found Mr. Morneau had breached the act and “gave WE preferential treatment by permitting his ministerial staff to disproportionately assist it when it sought federal funding.” In response, Mr. Morneau repeated his position that, in hindsight, he should have recused himself from discussions about WE’s contract.
The committees of finance, ethics and government operations and estimates each launched reviews of the WE Charity controversy that have heard from many of the key witnesses since last summer. In the videos below, you can watch some of the highlights from the past testimony of the Kielburgers, Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Morneau and others.
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Bill Curry, Marieke Walsh and Janice Dickson
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