- WE Charity got “no preferential treatment” when it was put in charge of a $912-million student grant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told MPs Thursday, adding that he didn’t even know WE was proposed for the job until May 8. He said it would have been better to recuse himself, but instead he “pushed back” to make sure public servants had more time to consider a choice he knew would be controversial. Read his full opening statement here.
- Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, backed up his version of events in testimony later in the afternoon, and acknowledged that the Prime Minister’s team “could have done more” to avoid perceptions of favouritism. Read her full opening statement here.
- Mr. Trudeau is also under investigation by the federal Ethics Commissioner for potential breaches of the Conflict of Interest Act, as is his Finance Minister, Bill Morneau. The commissioner expanded his probe of Mr. Morneau on Wednesday at the request of the New Democrats and Conservatives.
What Trudeau said
Since last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been enveloped in a new controversy over potential conflict of interest, this time related to the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant. The project, now cancelled, was meant as a form of pandemic relief that would pay young people for volunteer work. To administer the grants, the federal government contracted WE Charity, an education and international-aid group. But Mr. Trudeau later apologized for not recusing himself from the decision because his wife, mother and brother have been paid thousands of dollars over the years to speak at WE Charity’s signature events, WE Days.
It’s taken weeks to flesh out the timeline leading to cabinet’s decision, and Mr. Trudeau gave his own account to the House finance committee on Thursday. This is the full text of his opening statement. Highlights of his testimony include:
- On who chose WE, and when: Mr. Trudeau said he initially expected that the CSSG would be run by the Canada Service Corps, a federal youth initiative launched two years ago. But public servants concluded that a third-party administrator would get the grants out faster, and they chose WE Charity. He said he learned that only hours before a May 8 cabinet meeting, where he pulled the item off the agenda so it could be studied further, in part because he knew his family’s WE connections might make it controversial. He said he was briefed again on May 21 and told the public service’s due diligence left WE Charity as the only logical choice: “The choice was not between providers. It was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program, or not going ahead at all.” Cabinet then approved WE Charity’s role on May 22.
- On not recusing himself: The Prime Minister reiterated past apologies for not recusing himself. In hindsight, he said, it would have been better to step aside from the decision-making process in May, but instead “I put the brakes on it” by pressing public servants to take more time and make sure WE Charity was the correct choice. He denied doing this to benefit his family.
- On his own contacts with WE Charity: Mr. Trudeau said he knows the Kielburgers, WE Charity’s founders, but denied being close with them, and denied knowing about recent upheaval on its board of directors. He also said neither he nor his chief of staff had interactions with WE Charity before the May 8 cabinet meeting. “WE Charity received no preferential treatment: Not from me, not from anyone else.”
- On his family’s contacts with WE Charity: Mr. Trudeau said that, when the CSSG issue came up at cabinet, he knew that his wife “had an unpaid role as a WE Charity ambassador and ally” and that WE sometimes covered her travel costs, but said the Ethics Commissioner had approved this arrangement. He said he also knew his mother and brother had worked with WE before but denied knowing details about their compensation. “These were things that I would only learn after the program launched publicly.”
What Telford has said
Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, spoke to the committee directly after him, and reiterated his account that WE’s role was the public service’s idea and “this was a choice between going forward with the program or not.” Here is her full opening statement. Other highlights include:
- On who was in touch with whom: Ms. Telford said there may have been “a handful” of interactions between WE and staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office after March 1, but she says it wasn’t until May 8 that she learned for the first time that WE had been recommended for the contract. She didn’t identify staffers who may have contacted WE, or the dates they were in contact, prompting Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre to put forward a motion calling on the PMO to supply that information.
- On her regrets: “Obviously, this didn’t happen as we intended to, and this is not what we had envisioned, and I share in that responsibility,” she said in her opening statement. “... while we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better” to avoid the appearance of favouritism in WE’s selection.
Who else has testified to MPs so far?
- Craig and Marc Kielburger: The founders of WE Charity spent four hours on July 28 defending their organization, telling MPs that WE didn’t stand to benefit financially from running the grant program. The Kielburgers also said they didn’t get the contract because of ties to the Liberals, but “we regret that we didn’t recognize how this decision would be perceived” when they accepted.
- Michelle Douglas: Just before the Kielburgers spoke, the former chair of WE’s Canadian board of directors said she had been kept largely in the dark about its internal operations and the large array of non- and for-profit corporations it controlled. She said she quit in March after being asked by Marc Kielburger to do so, which she said resulted from a “breakdown in trust” over the lack of financial transparency.
- Bardish Chagger: The Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth testified on July 16, telling MPs the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t order her to make the deal with WE Charity. She also said Mr. Trudeau’s family ties to the group came up when she brought the recommendation to cabinet.
- Bill Morneau: The Finance Minister told the committee on July 22 that he had just reimbursed WE Charity for $41,366 because it covered his family’s travel expenses for journeys to WE humanitarian projects in Kenya and Ecuador in 2017. “I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips, and it was my responsibility to make sure that was done,” he said. Previously, Mr. Morneau also apologized for not recusing himself from the cabinet decision.
- Ian Shugart: The Privy Council Clerk, Canada’s top public servant, told the finance committee on July 21 that no one, as far as he knew, raised “any red flags” about WE Charity before cabinet considered the issue. He also said “he could not imagine” how Mr. Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau could not be involved in a major program decision like this despite the concerns over conflict of interest.
- Rachel Wernick: In her testimony on July 16, the senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, said WE sent her a new proposal in April to set up “tens of thousands of volunteer placements” within weeks. “Given the need for speed and scale, I determined with my team and colleagues that their draft proposal was the best available option in the time we had to work with.”
What is the Ethics Commissioner doing?
Federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion is investigating whether Mr. Trudeau’s (and, separately, Mr. Morneau’s) actions in the WE affair violated the Conflict of Interest Act. It’s Mr. Dion’s second major probe of the Prime Minister, following his decision last year that Mr. Trudeau crossed a line by pressing the former attorney-general to settle the SNC-Lavalin case out of court. Mr. Dion’s predecessor, Mary Dawson, also ruled three years ago that Mr. Trudeau violated the act by accepting a family vacation from the Aga Khan, a close friend and the spiritual leader of Ismaili Islam.
Commentary and analysis
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Kristy Kirkup, Marieke Walsh, Bill Curry, David Milstead, Paul Waldie and The Canadian Press
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