Beyond the conflict of interest, beyond the details of WE Charity’s payments to members of the Trudeau family, beyond recusals from cabinet discussions, there is one key thing we need to know: Whose idea was this?
The “this” in question is the Canada Student Service Grant, the $900-million program that WE Charity was, for a time, entrusted to run – a plan to pay post-secondary students who do volunteer work grants of $1,000 to $5,000.
We already know that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in a conflict of interest when he took part in the cabinet decisions that approved it. He admitted it. Finance Minister Bill Morneau conceded he should have steered clear of it, too.
But there is still a riddle that needs answering: How did this begin? We need an origin story about the WE deal. Or rather, about the program at its heart.
This isn’t an ordinary program. It is not as simple as a sole-sourced contract, either, though that’s how some opposition politicians describe it. It is far more unusual. Its concept was innovative. Its execution was unprecedented. And it should have been stopped at many points before it ever saw the light of day.
Looking back, it’s hard to fathom how it got so far. Maybe that puzzle will be easier to solve if we knew how it began. Did it come from WE? The charity has contested that notion. Was it bureaucrats who came up with it? Was it spit-balled around Justin Trudeau’s supper table?
There are now three parliamentary committees looking into the agreement. Let’s hope one of them goes looking for the origins.
Certainly, Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada who testified at the Commons finance committee on Thursday that she was the official who recommended the program be administered by WE Charity, wasn’t the progenitor.
Ms. Wernick said she was given a heads-up in April that there would be some kind of volunteering component in a package of pandemic support measures for students, and contacted WE to discuss it. But she said he didn’t know how the program would work until a few days later, on April 22, when Mr. Trudeau announced the details.
That timeline is significant. Once the PM announces a program, it’s happening. Ms. Wernick’s job was just to execute. So who pushed the idea forward in the crucial period when the decision on whether to go ahead with the student-grant project was really made – before it was announced by the PM? And did they already have WE in mind.
The student service grant sounded nice. With summer jobs scarce in a pandemic, why not pay grants to those who volunteer in their community? It is Trudeau-esque: The PM was chair of the Katimavik youth program.
It wasn’t an efficient way to fund students, but there were already emergency benefits. It had conceptual problems; Some argue it made volunteering low-paid work. But the big issue was it wasn’t a simple matter of rewarding volunteers, which might have been administered, for example, by having colleges give tuition rebates to certified volunteers.
The government – again, we don’t know who in the government – wanted massive participation in a short time. WE was really paid to recruit; it was planning to pay teachers to recruit students and NGOs to make volunteer places available.
Ms. Wernick testified about the mad rush to figure out how the “ambition” of the program could be met. Usually, someone in the civil service should have asked, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But by then, the PM had announced it.
In fact, the PM had announced a $912-million program, enough for more than 180,000 volunteers, but that wasn’t going to happen. Bardish Chagger, the minister responsible, testified that WE would have received up to $43.5-million for two batches of 20,000 volunteers, plus a “supplemental cohort” of an unknown number. Let’s say 50,000 in all. That means the charity might have received $43.5-million to administer $250-million in grants.
Of course, WE’s part and the conflicts of interest are important. But the key decisions about this program happened long before the details were approved at the cabinet table. A review must ask about more than recusals. It has to ask examine when WE got involved, and even before that, how the whole program was born.
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