Skip to main content

The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is investigating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here in Gatineau, Que., on July 3, 2020, for his role in the affair and whether he broke ethics laws.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government used a “transparent and open” process to award the now-cancelled contract with WE Charity but three days after that comment, the government has not yet said what that process entailed.

The Prime Minister’s Office also has not clarified whether the contract was a cabinet decision nor said whether Mr. Trudeau was part of the decision to award a contract to an organization with close ties to his family.

The contract with WE to administer the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant was cancelled on Friday and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is investigating Mr. Trudeau’s role and whether he broke ethics laws – given he and his wife participate at WE Charity events and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is an ambassador for the charity.

“This was a decision that needed to be made by our professional public service, they made the decision in a transparent and open way, and in a rigorous way,” Mr. Trudeau said Friday when asked whether he or anyone in his office contacted WE directly about the program.

Ethics commissioner launches investigation into Trudeau over the WE Charity contract

Internal shakeup saw most of the WE Charity board replaced earlier this year

Editorial: The Trudeau government’s WE Charity deal was troubling from the start

The new program will compensate students for volunteer work, at a rate that breaks down to less than any province’s minimum wage. It was first announced in April, but WE’s role was only revealed when the program launched last month. The program offers students $1,000 for each 100 hours of volunteer work completed between June 25 and Oct. 31, 2020, to a maximum of $5,000.

The Globe and Mail is a media partner of WE Charity.

The Globe asked the government for a description of the decision-making process on Friday. As of the end of day on Monday, no explanation was provided. The Globe was directed to previous statements that outline the charity’s selling points for delivering the program but didn’t explain who was making the decisions.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the government should turn over all documents relating to the decision. The New Democrats will try to force the government’s hand by calling for that information release at Tuesday’s finance committee.

“If they actually had a credible process, they would show you what that credible process is,” Mr. Angus said in an interview Monday.

Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton, said Monday it is inconceivable that the civil service would have moved ahead with such a massive program without the Prime Minister or cabinet giving approval.

“There’s no way under any circumstances,” Prof. Savoie said.

He also said it would be out of step with standard practice for the civil service to provide only one option to government for administering the program, as the Prime Minister has said.

“As the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organization that was capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it, and that was the WE program,” Mr. Trudeau said last month.

“It’s not just normal, it’s expected the public service will present options,” Prof. Savoie said.

The charity was to be paid at least $19.5-million to deliver the program. Of that, the government said $5-million was for not-for-profit partners.

The government has not clarified how the program will be managed now that WE is no longer part of it, but on Friday Mr. Trudeau said it would go ahead and with government delivering the grants directly.

In his 2019 mandate letters to cabinet ministers, Mr. Trudeau told each of them to “raise the bar on openness, effectiveness and transparency in government.”

Conservative MP Michael Barrett said the government hasn’t lived up to that standard. ”We’ve seen quite the opposite,” he said.

Given the speed and scope of government spending in the last three months, Prof. Savoie said it would be unrealistic to expect an “error free machinery of government.”

But, he said, whether the cancelled WE charity contract falls into the honest mistake category or something else will only be determined once the ethics investigation is complete.

With a report from Bill Curry

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.