With the amounts of money being tossed around in Ottawa these days, $900 million doesn’t quite seem as significant a figure as it might once have.
While it may pale in comparison to the price tags of some other recent government initiatives, it’s still the sort of expenditure that ought to require scrutiny and oversight.
So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced just over a week ago that WE Charity had been selected by his government to administer the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program, there were some immediate and obvious red flags.
No other charity was considered for this contract, and this particular charity has some rather close ties to Trudeau himself.
After a week of controversy, the deal between the Trudeau government and WE Charity has imploded, but that doesn’t mean these questions have gone away.
Fortunately, it might not be so easy for the government to sweep this mess under the rug.
We learned late yesterday afternoon that the ethics commissioner has agreed to look into this matter. Given that the ethics commissioner has twice found Trudeau guilty (on the SNC-Lavalin affair and on the controversial trip to the Aga Khan’s island), this is likely unwelcome news for the prime minister.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett posted a copy of the letter he received in which the commissioner confirms he will be investigating Trudeau’s conduct as it applies to three sections of the Conflict of Interest Act.
Those sections pertain to public office holders not making decisions on matters in which they have conflict, the requirement to recuse oneself from votes or decisions on matters where a conflict exists and not giving preferential treatment to any individual or group.
So this is an obvious starting point in ultimately getting some clarity and transparency around this whole arrangement. Canadians should expect no less.
Even as word emerged Friday that the partnership would not proceed, there was some confusion about what had happened. The charity described it as a “mutually agreed” parting of the ways, but the prime minister stated that WE Charity had made the decision to withdraw.
The end, therefore, is not unlike the very origins of this arrangement. A video emerged on Tuesday of WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger telling a conference call that the Prime Minister’s Office had reached out in April to see if the organization would administer this program.
Kielburger then claimed he “misspoke” on that call and that it was lower-level public sector bureaucrats who had reached out.
That’s an odd blunder to make.
Furthermore, given that the CSSG program will still proceed, it also calls into question Trudeau’s previous insistence that only WE Charity could administer this program. If the prime minister was telling the truth, then WE Charity’s departure should have meant the demise of the program.
So if WE Charity’s involvement was not a requirement for this program to proceed, then why was the government so quick to select this particular partner?
This isn’t the first time, either, that this charity has been on the receiving end of such favourable treatment. The National Post revealed this week that over the last three years, the government has awarded WE Charity a number of exclusively sole-source contracts, though none as large as what the CSSG program would have represented.
Over that same period of time, both the prime minister and his wife have appeared at and hosted numerous WE Charity events. While they may not have been compensated for doing so, there’s clearly a close relationship that exists, and such a relationship should not be influencing government decisions, especially on a nearly billion-dollar government program.
Canadians, I suspect, are prepared to cut the government some slack when it comes to making quick decisions in how to respond to the pandemic. But the government should be very careful about abusing that trust. Sweetheart deals for friends of the prime minister would certainly be something that would fall into that category.
Therefore, Canadians deserve to know if that’s what happened here.