WE Charity told federal MPs it had registered Thursday with the federal lobbying registry, months after receiving a $543.5-million contract to run the government’s student grant program.
Dalal Al-Waheidi, the executive director of WE Charity, told the House of Commons finance committee that the organization did not register previously because it didn’t think it was necessary under lobbying rules.
“If I thought that registration was required, we would have done it,” Ms. Al-Waheidi told members of Parliament.
Ms. Al-Waheidi testified on the same day that WE announced it was cutting 67 full-time and contract staff in Toronto and closing its office in London, putting another 19 employees out of work.
She testified alongside Scott Baker, chief operations officer of WE Charity, and Sofia Marquez, who previously worked as WE Charity’s director of government and stakeholder relations.
MPs questioned Ms. Marquez about her lobbying efforts and why she didn’t register. Lobbying rules require corporations to register when the cumulative lobbying activities of all employees adds up to a “significant part of duties,” which has been defined as the equivalent of 20 per cent or more of the working hours of one full-time employee, over a one-month period.
Ms. Marquez said the time she spent lobbying different levels of government “varied” and that she is not able to provide MPs with a percentage of how much time she spent lobbying.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre questioned Ms. Marquez about her communication with the Prime Minister’s Office and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office. Ms. Marquez said she has communicated with staff in Mr. Morneau’s office and e-mailed a staffer in the PMO. She also had a half-hour phone call with a policy director in the PMO on May 5 about the “current state of the proposal.” Ms. Marquez said she was also on a phone call with Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger and WE co-founder Craig Kielburger.
The contract was signed on June 23 but came into effect on May 5, 2020. WE has said the May 5 date reflects when it began working on the project and incurring eligible expenditures to design, build and prepare to deliver the program. However, cabinet’s final decision was made more than two weeks later.
Mr. Poilievre asked Ms. Marquez repeatedly whether the PMO said WE could begin implementing the program, given May 5 is the date WE began its work. She said she was not aware of the contract being implemented and her conversation was not about the project’s implementation.
“Well it’s an incredible coincidence that WE, that your organization, has suddenly registered to lobby all of these months after all of the lobbying happened,” Mr. Poilievre said.
In its filing to the federal lobbyist registry, WE Charity disclosed 65 communications with federal officials or ministers in 19 different departments or federal institutions, dating as far back as January, 2019. It lists 18 individuals, including Ms. Al-Waheidi, as in-house lobbyists for the organization. Craig and Marc Kielburger, the brothers who founded WE Charity, are not listed even though they have talked to ministers.
Opposition parties last month asked lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger to investigate whether WE Charity violated the Lobbying Act.
Members of Parliament questioned the three committee witnesses Thursday about who in government gave WE the green light to implement the program. No one provided a name, and Mr. Baker said the organization never felt it had the green light, but understood that to deliver the program, it had to build it in May and June.
WE has been embroiled in controversy over a $543.5-million federal volunteer program called the Canada Student Services Grant. The government gave WE a contract to administer the program, which included up to $43.5-million to cover expenses. The agreement was cancelled on July 3 amid conflict-of-interest allegations involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose family members have been paid to speak at WE events. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have both apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision around WE. The charity received $30-million in expenses and has promised to pay back the full amount although $8-million remains outstanding.
The controversy erupted amid a pandemic that has dried up donations and forced the charity to lay off more than 200 workers in March. The layoffs caused dissension among WE’s board of directors and led to the resignation of chair Michelle Douglas, who said she and other members quit in late March over concerns about the lack of financial transparency.
Ms. Al-Waheidi told the committee Thursday that the combination of the pandemic and the controversy had been devastating and forced WE to scale back.
WE plans to keep its 43,000 square-foot Toronto headquarters, called the Global Learning Centre, but Ms. Al-Waheidi said in a statement it is “actively assessing which real estate holdings could be sold.” That includes buildings in Toronto that were supposed to be used to provide free space for not-for-profit social enterprises.
WE holds roughly $40-million worth of property in Canada, which includes around 10 buildings in Toronto. The organization has already cancelled all WE Day events, the organization’s annual celebration of volunteers, and suspended partnerships with most corporate sponsors. It is also assessing all of its operations.
Britain had been a major centre for WE and the group has had a separate British charity for 10 years.
Ms. Al-Waheidi said that while WE’s British operations will be centralized in Toronto, the organization will continue to have a registered charity in Britain overseen by a British board of directors. That arrangement will be reviewed in a year, she added.
The Globe has a sponsorship partnership with WE Charity. The agreement expires on Aug. 31 and will not be renewed.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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