Hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $912-million student volunteer program on April 22, WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger sent the senior civil servant responsible for the program an unsolicited pitch to run the initiative, MPs were told at a House of Commons finance committee hearing.
Over the course of more than an hour of testimony Thursday, Rachel Wernick, senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), backed up claims by Liberal ministers that she and her department recommended WE as the only organization capable of getting such a large new program up and running within weeks.
The testimony capped a day that featured several new developments on the file, including:
- Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion announced that his office is launching an investigation into whether Finance Minister Bill Morneau contravened the federal Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the WE contract by not recusing himself, even though one of his daughters works for the charity.
- Youth Minister Bardish Chagger revealed WE Charity could have received up to $43.5-million for administering the program. Until Thursday, the federal government had only said that WE would have received at least $19.5-million and that the final amount would be based in part on the number of participating students.
- Officials confirmed that contribution agreements like the one with WE can be put to public competition, but the government chose not to do that in this case in the interest of speed.
The controversy over the decision to outsource the massive program to a charity with close ties to the Prime Minister, his family and the Finance Minister has led to two Ethics Commissioner investigations over the now-cancelled arrangement. Opposition parties have joined forces to launch two committee probes into the matter. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have apologized for failing to recuse themselves from the debate and decisions related to WE.
The first day of testimony into the WE issue left MPs with unanswered questions about the nature and extent of the charity’s interactions with the Liberal government in the runup to the Prime Minister’s April 22 announcement.
Ms. Wernick told MPs that WE Charity had been circulating a similar proposal to the youth volunteer program before Mr. Trudeau’s April 22 announcement.
“[WE Charity] had already provided to several officials and ministers a proposal related to social entrepreneurship for youth and indicated it could be adapted as needed,” Ms. Wernick said. “On April 22, WE Charity sent me a detailed proposal to quickly develop tens of thousands of volunteer placements for youth within a few 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.”
Ms. Wernick said the new proposal e-mailed by Mr. Kielburger on April 22 was a modified version of WE’s earlier proposal. She said it had been adapted to “the new parameters set out by the government” earlier that day. Prior to the Prime Minister’s press conference, Ms. Wernick said she herself was not aware of the program’s details.
In a statement sent late Thursday, WE said it is incorrect to conflate the first submission – which it said was sent on April 9 - with the one for a student volunteer program.
“Like many charities, WE regularly submits proposals for consideration by the government. In the month of April, WE had been working on a proposal for a youth entrepreneurship program,” the statement said. It described its initial proposal as digital programs to provide youth with “entrepreneurship expertise.”
Earlier in the meeting, Ms. Chagger, the minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Youth, said she received a written recommendation from Ms. Wernick that administration of the planned $912-million program should be outsourced to WE via a contribution agreement.
“I accepted the recommendation and I brought it forward to cabinet,” Ms. Chagger told MPs.
Conservative, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs on the finance committee have indicated support for calling Mr. Trudeau as a witness during future hearings on the issue. Mr. Trudeau said Thursday that his office has received an invitation but remained noncommittal on whether he will appear as a witness during the committee study.
“We are looking at that,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Thursday.
Ms. Wernick said she had a conversation with Finance department officials in April about options for a student volunteer program and the Finance officials raised WE Charity with her as a potential option.
Ms. Wernick said WE was an “obvious” candidate, given the group’s experience, and she volunteered to call Mr. Kielburger on April 19 because she had dealt with the group in the past. During that call, she learned that Mr. Kielburger had already been circulating a similar proposal related to social entrepreneurship for youth to various ministers and departments.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre asked Ms. Wernick repeatedly to name the Finance official that raised WE Charity with her, but Ms. Wernick would only say that it was a team led by assistant deputy minister Michelle Kovacevic. She offered to provide more information later in writing.
“You’re very evasive,” Mr. Poilievre said, expressing his frustration. “We know we’re on to some trouble there.”
Ms. Wernick said she learned about WE Charity’s initial proposal from Mr. Kielburger, but she also said that she had been made aware that it was discussed by the offices of Ms. Chagger, Small Business Minister Mary Ng, the Privy Council Office and the federal Innovation department. Exactly who knew about WE’s original proposal and when was not made clear during the hearing.
Upon further questioning, Ms. Wernick later confirmed that WE was the only organization to submit an unsolicited proposal to administer the program after the Prime Minister announced it on April 22. She also said her team looked at the possibility of the civil service administering the program itself as well as at charity Volunteer Canada. The group has publicly raised concerns about the program.
“The question is whether or not WE got the inside track?” asked NDP MP Charlie Angus Thursday. “So when you call three days later, Craig Kielburger’s all ready, he’s got the ideas, he’s set to go.” Ms. Wernick said she would decline to speculate.
Speaking to the committee after Ms. Wernick’s testimony, Paula Speevak, the chief executive of Volunteer Canada said officials from the federal government never asked her organization if it was interested in administering the program. But she said Volunteer Canada had contacted officials in late April to raise some concerns about the initiative.
Noting that these discussions were going on in the height of the pandemic in April, Ms. Wernick said Service Canada was “completely consumed with other emergency measures” and the Canada Service Corps was “struggling to deliver” its existing programs.
For the first time on Thursday, officials also confirmed that the student volunteer program was outsourced to WE Charity without an open competition.
“There was no call” for proposals, Ms. Wernick said in French.
Canadian Heritage associate deputy minister Gina Wilson said an open call would have taken two to three months.
“We needed to get this program off the ground very quickly,” she said.
The Globe is a media partner of WE Charity.
Mr. Dion, the Ethics Commissioner, said in a statement posted on Twitter that the Morneau investigation is in response to several requests from parliamentarians. He noted that the average time for his office to complete an investigation and issue a report is about seven months.
One of Mr. Morneau’s daughters works for WE and another has been involved in volunteer activities with the organization.
“I will fully co-operate with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, and moving forward will fully recuse myself from discussions related to the WE organization,” Mr. Morneau said in a statement after Mr. Dion’s announcement.
The WE organization announced Thursday that it will launch a restructuring of its organization, including winding down some of its domestic programming like WE Days, and focus on international development work.
On July 3, WE and the government announced that the arrangement had been cancelled amid conflict-of-interest accusations. It was later revealed that Mr. Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother had been paid to work for the charity.
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