Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Wednesday he did not recuse himself from the final decision made by cabinet to award a now-scrapped $900 million contract with WE Charity that would provide student volunteer funding — despite his family’s ties to the organization.
He said the recommendation to outsource the new Canada Student Service Grant to WE was made by the non-partisan public service, but the decision to award the organization was ratified by cabinet.
When asked if he recused himself from that discussion and decision-making, Trudeau replied: “No, I did not.”
“I have long worked on youth issues, both before I got into politics and since I’ve been in politics as youth critic,” he said.
“Getting young people involved in serving their country, recognizing their desire to build a better Canada, particularly due to through this time of crisis, is something that I believe in deeply.”
The move to approve the WE contract has been heavily criticized by Conservatives and NDP MPs who have called it a conflict of interest, adding it circumvents Parliament’s ability to monitor the program and hold the federal government accountable.
Members of the Trudeau family have regularly appeared at WE fundraising events, including the prime minister, his mother and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who hosts a podcast with the charity called WE Well-Being. Trudeau has insisted that there is no conflict of interest as neither he, nor his family are paid for their appearances.
The agreement with WE Charity came to an end on Friday, though the federal government said they will still be administering pandemic-related grants. Several days before, Trudeau told reporters WE Charity was the country’s “best and only” organization capable of administering the $900 million program.
Minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger said in a statement Friday that the cancellation was “mutually agreed upon” by both the Canadian government and the charitable organization.
“The government of Canada and WE Charity will work together to ensure that the volunteers who have applied and been placed won’t be adversely affected,” the statement read. “WE Charity has also decided to return any funds that had already been received.”
The program was slated to allow recent graduates and students access to up to $5,000 for a maximum of 500 hours of volunteer work with non-profit organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic and was expected to position up to 20,000 students in volunteer posts between June and October.
That same day, the federal ethics commissioner launched an investigation into Trudeau’s conduct after both NDP MP Charlie Angus and Conservative MP Michael Barrett wrote letters alleging the prime minister had breached three subsections of the Conflict of Interest Act, which forbids elected officials from giving preferential treatment, making decisions where there is a conflict of interest and requires them to recuse themselves from votes or decisions if one is found.
“This is not to question the work of WE or their dedication to young people. It is a question of whether or not the Prime Minister’s decision was influenced by his close family connections to this organization,” Angus wrote in his letter to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.
A spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office said in a previous statement to Global News that Trudeau will “of course, collaborate with the commissioner and answer any questions he may have.”
This is the third time in three years Trudeau has been suspected of breaching the Conflict of Interest Act. In August of last year, Dion ruled that Trudeau had exercised improper political influence during the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
In April 2019, he was found in violation of the Act after accepting a free vacation in the Bahamas with billionaire philanthropist Aga Khan.