You might have thought that everything about the WE Charity agreement would become clear once we heard from the civil servant who recommended that the organization handle a student grant program.
But she testified before a Commons committee on Thursday, and yet it still wasn’t really clear what was the genesis of the whole business. Or even if WE Charity’s involvement really started with her.
Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister with Employment and Social Development Canada, said she is the person who recommended that the student service grants be administered by a third party, and that it be WE. And that’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been saying: that the public service came up with the idea.
But somehow, it wasn’t the straightforward answer that cleared things up.
We learned, for example, that before Ms. Wernick sounded out WE about potential pandemic programs for youth, the charity had already circulated a proposal for a different project to cabinet ministers – a proposal that was rapidly tweaked to fit the student service grant idea.
And we heard the minister that brought the project to cabinet, Bardish Chagger, dodge questions about whether her aides were discussing it with the Prime Minister’s Office before it went to cabinet, giving answers in lawyerly language. “I did not personally have those conversations,” she said.
As a side note, it is a remarkable coincidence that Ms. Wernick, a senior official who has risen up the ranks in a long career, is the civil servant in the middle of this controversy involving Mr. Trudeau.
Only last year, it was her brother, Michael Wernick, then clerk of the privy council and head of the civil service, was a key witness in hearings about the SNC-Lavalin affair, and at the end of it, he resigned. After that, you’d expect Ms. Wernick to be nervous at these hearings. She looked it.
The question is about a $900-million program in which student volunteers would receive grants that were handed to WE Charity to manage, even though the organization has ties to Mr. Trudeau’s family, and paid his mother and brother for speaking at events. WE was to have been paid $19.5-million, or so we thought – on Thursday, Ms. Chagger revealed that WE might have received up to $43.5-million, depending on the number of grants.
Ms. Wernick’s testimony should be critical: It backs up Mr. Trudeau‘s assertion that the civil service recommended that WE deliver the program. But it seemed to raise questions about how it all happened, too.
Some of it was clear. It was a “mad rush.” The program wasn’t her idea, but with three weeks to figure out how to deliver it, and a civil service stretched by the pandemic, she felt WE had a network, a connection to youth, and was good with tech, and she recommended they handle it. But the programs origins were unexplained.
Ms. Wernick said that a few days before Mr. Trudeau announced the program in April, she was told there would be some kind of student service component in a package of pandemic programs for students. The civil service was up to its eyeballs in getting out pandemic aid, so officials started considering handing it over to a third party.
In discussions with officials, someone – perhaps Michelle Kovacevic, an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Finance – mentioned WE. Ms. Wernick had worked with WE on other programs, and knew co-founder Craig Kielburger, so she volunteered to call.
But she also noted WE already had a proposal for a pandemic program that it had circulated to cabinet ministers. And when the Prime Minister announced the student grant program a few days later, on April 22, WE quickly sent Ms. Wernick a new proposal to fit it.
It sounds oddly like other people in the government were working with WE even before Ms. Wernick got involved.
Ms. Chagger, the minister responsible, said she took the recommendation from her department, and didn’t talk to the Prime Minister or Finance Minister Bill Morneau – both of whom now face investigations by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion. But she dodged questions about whether her aides were discussing it with aides to Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Morneau.
So now, after we have found the civil servant who recommended WE, there are still questions about the origins. Was Ms. Wernick’s recommendation really what drove this program, and WE’s part in it?
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