Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau have both apologized for failing to recuse themselves from cabinet’s decision to award WE Charity a now-cancelled contract to administer a $900-million program despite their close family ties to the organization.
The government has been dogged by questions about a possible conflict of interest between the Prime Minister and the charity ever since WE’s role with the Canada Student Service Grant was announced on June 25. After the contract was cancelled on July 3, more information has come out about the many connections between WE and the Prime Minister and other senior Liberals.
The controversy landed Mr. Trudeau in his third ethics investigation and opposition parties have called for a similar investigation into Mr. Morneau, the federal Finance Minister.
Mr. Trudeau’s family members have been paid for their participation in the charity’s events and Mr. Morneau’s daughter works for the charity.
“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions given our family’s history and I’m sincerely sorry about not having done that,” Mr. Trudeau said Monday at a press conference in Ottawa.
His comments mark a change from the government’s previous messaging on the issue. When asked about the payments to Mr. Trudeau’s family last week, his spokesperson deflected and instead spoke about the value of the program, saying “What is important to remember here is that this is about a charity supporting students.”
Mr. Trudeau said cabinet ministers and senior public servants will appear before a parliamentary committee this week to answer questions from MPs about the controversial program.
On Thursday, WE Charity said the Prime Minister’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, received about $312,000 in speaking fees and his brother, Alexandre, received about $40,000. Both figures include a commission to their speaking agency that represents them. The Prime Minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, was paid $1,400 for an event in 2012, according to WE Charity. Mr. Trudeau has appeared at WE events but has not been paid, his office said.
Mr. Trudeau said he was aware his mother and brother are involved with WE. “I didn’t know the details of how much she was getting paid by various organizations but I should have and I deeply regret that,” he said.
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In addition to one of his daughters working for the charity and another volunteering with it, Mr. Morneau and his family also travelled with WE in 2017. His office said the Morneau family covered all associated expenses.
“I did not recuse myself from the discussions on this topic and, given the fact that my daughter works for the organization in an unrelated branch, I now realize I should have in order to avoid any perception of conflict,” Mr. Morneau said in a statement. “I apologize for not doing so, and moving forward, I will recuse myself from any future discussions related to WE.”
Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau reiterated that the decision to award the contract to WE was based on the advice of the public service. So far The Globe and Mail has not received an explanation from the government about the process that led to that decision, despite repeated requests.
The opposition parties dismissed Mr. Trudeau’s apology as meaningless, citing his two previous breaches of the Conflict of Interest Act. The Ethics Commissioner has previously found Mr. Trudeau breached the federal ethics law when he went on a free family vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island and for his involvement in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“Apologizing isn’t enough when the apology is only because you got caught,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Twitter. “Saying sorry in front of cameras means nothing when you keep doing the same thing behind closed doors.”
On the weekend, Conservative MPs said they want Mr. Trudeau to testify before a parliamentary committee on the government’s relationship with WE Charity.
Both the House of Commons finance committee and the committee on government operations and estimates have voted to review the issue. Mr. Trudeau did not rule out appearing before a committee.
“Handing an almost $1-billion contract to a charity that paid your family more than $300,000 is far more serious than a mistake,” Conservative MP and the party’s ethics critic Michael Barrett said in a statement.
On July 3, WE and the government said the charity would no longer manage the Canada Student Service Grant. The government has said it will now be run by the public service, but no details have been announced.
The program was meant to address concerns that students would have limited options for summer jobs due to the pandemic. It will pay students up to $5,000 for 500 hours of volunteer work.
WE would have been paid at least $19.5-million to run the program, with $5-million of that going to other organizations.
WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger issued a statement on the WE website and via newspaper ads on Monday, including in The Globe.
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“We have made mistakes that we sincerely regret. It has led us to more closely examine our own internal structures, governance and organization,” they said. “We did not accept any reimbursement for the work that we had done to establish the program. WE has not profited from this contract in any way.”
The Globe is a media partner of WE Charity. The agreement has included offering advertising space to WE Charity for the promotion of charitable events such as WE Day. The WE organization paid for Monday’s ad, which included a statement that no charitable funds were used for the message. The Monday ad was unrelated to the media partnership.
Mr. Trudeau also said he regretted his mother was involved in the controversy, which he said was “really unfair to her,” and apologized for the delays the scandal has brought to the actual program.
“I’m particularly sorry because not only has it created unnecessary controversy and issues, it also means that young people … are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve, and that’s frustrating,” he said.
Further evidence of close ties between senior Liberals and WE Charity has emerged in recent days.
The Globe reported Monday that Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for WE Charity prior to the Liberals forming government. Their fundraising was unpaid and done through a separate organization called Artbound.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Ms. Telford disclosed the connection to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion. Mr. O’Regan’s office said it had “nothing further to add” when asked the same question.
In 2016 and 2017, WE Charity named Ms. Telford and the Prime Minister’s then-principal secretary, Gerald Butts, among their “outstanding partners and supporters.”
The charity said the list “recognizes all kinds of individuals and businesses that have supported what we do, in all kinds of ways.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said Ms. Telford’s name was added to the documents “without her knowledge or permission.” In an e-mail, Mr. Butts said “I have no idea what it refers to.”
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