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Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau testifies via video conference during a House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance July 30, 2020 in Ottawa, Canada.

DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good afternoon members of the Finance Committee. I’d first like to thank all of you for your important work and for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions on the implementation of the Canada Student Service Grant here today.

Let me start by saying this is a remarkable time, and from the day that we learned a Canadian had contacted COVID-19, to what is happening during the time period you’re interested in, this pandemic that we’re still fighting represents a once-in-a-generation challenge for our country. I started working for the Prime Minister after my mat leave and what a journey it has been. I ran his leadership campaign in 2012-13 and went on to lead the 2015 campaign, and I’ve been his chief of staff ever since. And unbelievably, my son just turned nine.

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So some of you may know that I’m a person interested in data, and data has always help me assess what we are doing well and what we need to do better. And these past few months, every day I was waking up to, we were all waking up to, some very alarming statistics. They were more than statistics. Hundreds of people dead because of COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands of people applying for the CERB because they lost their job, millions of families going through a really tough time.

Millions of women in lower wage jobs being especially hurt. Women’s participation in our economy is being set back. And every day daily projections were telling us and still tell us that if we weren’t and aren’t successful in slowing the spread of the virus, things would get much, much worse.

[Switches to French translation]

The Prime Minister’s work is to help Canadians in need. My work as chief of staff is to support him and everything he does. I have worked in the political sphere for quite some time now, and we’ve had to face challenges that are unprecedented and it’s so gratifying for me to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Canadians. Since the beginning of this crisis, we’ve announced a myriad of measures to protect the health of Canadians and to help people who have lost their jobs and prepare the recovery of our economy.

[Back to English]

We acted as fast as we could, knowing we might make mistakes along the way because people were really struggling, so we needed to move quick. Take the Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. We’d already announced these programs when we realized we needed to make them more accessible, more generous, simpler. The job one was get these programs out the door to help people. When we realize that improvements were needed, we made changes. The CERB and the wage subsidy has since helped millions of Canadians right across the country.

Back in April, our government announced a $9 billion plan to help young people get through the pandemic. It included measures such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, differing student loans and, yes, the Canada Students Summer Grant. I want to go back to the first time we discussed a potential aid package for students. On April 5th, there was a meeting by phone as they all were at this time between the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. It was a stock take on the entirety of our government’s ongoing economic response to the pandemic.

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There were 15 different decision points on the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy that Sunday evening, and it was being announced the next day that was the focus of the call. We also talked about an orphan well program for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland to help workers in the energy sector who have been hit especially hard by the crisis. At the end of that conversation, the Finance Minister spoke about gaps he had identified and existing programs like the CERB. We knew that some people were still falling through the cracks. People like seniors, seasonal workers and, yes, students.

At the time, the Ministry of Finance was thinking about some form of financial assistance, more Canada summer jobs and a moratorium on student loan payments. We also talked about using the Canada Service Corps to encourage and support young people who want a volunteer and help their community during this pandemic. That was a very brief part of a larger conversation, and everyone agreed that there was more work to do. Just a few weeks later, after a lot of hard work by many people across the government, the Prime Minister announced a $9 billion aid package for students, which included the items I just listed. The Canada Summer Student Grant (CSSG) program was 1/10 of that package.

[Switches to French translation]

When I think back to the period in question, it was at the end of April and the public service sent us a briefing note about the possibility that we could we could be calling on an external organization to implement the CSSG. Questions were raised in terms of the government’s ability to implement this program and whether we could directly pay students financial compensation. On April 8th, I learned for the first time at the same time as the Prime Minister, the proposal from the Minister of Diversity and Youth stating that the WE charity would implement this program. The recommendation from the public service was examined and approved by the cabinet, and we learned about it a few minutes before the cabinet meeting on April 8th that we would have to look at this recommendation when the as the Prime Minister said in his statement, we both had concerns.

And that is why on May 8th, we took the CSSG off the cabinet meeting agenda. The Minister and myself both had questions. We wanted more information about the efficacy of such a program and using an external organization for this program. And to be quite honest, we were also concerned about people’s perceptions in politics. It’s important to look at how students would be perceived, and we searched support from the public service who stated that the WE charity would be the only one that could implement this program, and without a doubt it would be a good partner for this initiative.

When the finance note was approved, the Prime Minister added an additional provision stating that a minister would have to go back to the president of the treasury board to seek financing for this project.

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[Back to English]

This proposal to help students was recommended by the public service. This was not a choice between different organizations to deliver the program. This was a choice between going forward with the program or not. I will add that we had previously received the ethics commissioner’s approval for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s work engagement with the WE charity. So I wasn’t aware of any conflict.

You have heard the Prime Minister say that he regrets not recusing himself. I have regrets about that, too. Obviously this didn’t happen as we intended to, and this is not what we had envisioned, and I share in that responsibility. Over the past few weeks, I have thought a lot about this program. I’ve thought about what we could do better and how we could apply lessons we’ve learned going forward. In hindsight, I recognize that while we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better. We could have done more. We could have added yet another layer of scrutiny to avoid any potential perception of favoritism.

Mr. Chair, I worked with a team of committed, hardworking individuals. We’re not perfect, but we are committed to being better and to doing more. And perhaps most importantly right now, we remain committed to serving and supporting as many Canadians as we can, as quickly as we can. As the daughter of retired public servants, I have the utmost respect not only for public service but for those who choose it as a career. And I want to take this moment to thank them and my colleagues for the work they continue to do under especially challenging circumstances.

I believe that we all get into public service to help others and what a time for all of us to be doing that. We thought renegotiating NAFTA was a challenge. Well, this pandemic, I am sure, is the challenge of our generation and of my life. To have the chance to take up this work during this time with this team under the leadership of this Prime Minister has been and remains a privilege. With that, I’m pleased to take your question.

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