The Conservative Party wants the RCMP to investigate the Liberal government’s decision to award a contract to WE Charity for a $900-million federal student grant program, following news that members of the prime minister’s immediate family were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees by the WE organization in recent years.
During a news conference on Friday, Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Michael Barrett — the party’s finance and ethics critics — said they believe the payment of those fees raises the issue to a potentially criminal level and represents “sufficient grounds to be investigated by police.”
In an open letter to the RCMP commissioner distributed later Friday, Barrett referenced a few subsections of the Criminal Code related to bribery of judicial officers and government fraud and suggested that “at first blush,” the financial transactions between the WE organization and Trudeau family members may have breached the law.
Barrett’s letter also cites government records that show seven grants or contributions to WE Charity totaling just under $5.2 million, as well as another five contracts awarded to the charity worth just over $120,000.
The records for WE Charity, which are available online, start in March of 2017 — about two years after the current Liberal government was first elected.
“I encourage the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the possibility of criminal offences arising from these disturbing facts,” Barrett wrote.
Asked whether the national police service would launch a criminal probe as requested, the RCMP’s media relations office said the force “generally does not confirm or deny if an investigation is underway unless criminal charges are laid.”
“We therefore cannot provide further information on this matter,” the statement from RCMP said.
WE Charity had been selected by the federal government to administer a $900-million grant program for students and recent graduates volunteering this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic. The agreement quickly provoked backlash, given the ties the prime minister and his wife have to the WE organization.
The government and WE Charity called off the deal on July 3, the same day the federal ethics watchdog announced that he would investigate whether the prime minister broke conflict-of-interest rules in the matter. The public service is now administering the program, called the Canada Student Services Grant.
Then on Thursday, WE Charity confirmed that the prime minister’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, had been paid a total of $312,000 for speaking at 28 WE events between 2016 and 2020. His brother, Alexandre Trudeau, was paid $40,000 for eight events in the 2017-18 academic year, according to the charity.
The WE organization includes both WE Charity, a registered charitable organization, and a for-profit arm, ME to WE. According to WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprises has been a corporate sponsor of the charity’s WE Day events and has covered fees for speakers to participate.
ME to WE covered the majority of the payments to the Trudeaus, who were paid via a speakers’ agency, which took 20 per cent of the fees as a commission, WE Charity said. The charity admitted it directly paid Margaret Trudeau is some cases in “error.”
The prime minister, who has participated in WE Day events himself, has “never” been paid “for any speeches or other matters,” WE Charity said. His wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, currently hosts a WE podcast on well-being.
WE Charity said Thursday said Gregoire Trudeau isn’t compensated for the podcast and was once paid a $1,400 speaking honorarium for an event in 2012 by the group.
Trudeau admitted Thursday he didn’t recuse himself from the discussion and decision by the Liberal cabinet to approve the contract with WE Charity, which was to be paid $19.5 million to run the student volunteer grant program. The prime minister said the deal was recommended by the non-partisan public service.
Canadian advocacy group Democracy Watch also said it was filing its own complaint with the RCMP on Friday over WE’s contract.
In an email to Global News, co-founder Duff Conacher said that the group was specifically looking into possible violations of Section 122 of the Criminal Code, which they say applies directly to the prime minister and or anyone who’s acted on his behalf.
According to Conacher, Trudeau’s admission to taking part in the Cabinet meeting that approved the contract proves four out five requirements for the contract to have been in violation.
“…If it can be proven that the PM or anyone acting on his behalf attempted to influence anyone’s decision to favour recommending that a sole-source contract be handed to WE, then part five will be proven as well,” he wrote.
In a media statement on Friday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the revelation of the speaking fees paid to Trudeau’s family members “disturbing.”
“The (prime minister), his office and cabinet need to cooperate fully with the Ethics Commissioner and must waive cabinet confidentiality so the Commissioner can truly get to the bottom of this,” Singh’s statement said.
Asked whether the Bloc Québécois supports the idea of a criminal probe into the WE contract process, leader Yves-François Blanchet said in an email: “Whether or not there is a police investigation, it is not a political decision or command.”
Bloc calls for Trudeau to step aside, Tories wants answers from cabinet
Blanchet earlier had called for Trudeau to step aside as prime minister until the ethics commissioner’s investigation is completed and for the deputy prime minister to fill in in the meantime.
Given Thursday’s revelations, the amount of money involved and the “gross appearance of a conflict of interest,” it is “impossible” for Trudeau to continue his job as prime minister, Yves-François Blanchet argued in a media statement, noting the party isn’t calling for him to resign because of the “context” of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Asked by reporters on Friday whether he agrees with Blanchet that Trudeau should step down temporarily, Barrett wouldn’t say.
“There’s still a lot more information that’s coming out. Certainly, that question will be renewed once we have a determination from a police force whether or not a criminal investigation is being undertaken,” the Conservative MP said.
Right now, Barrett argued, it’s more pressing to “hear from the cabinet (members) who were all party to this decision.”
“Did they know that the prime minister’s family was receiving significant cash to do these events? Were they aware?” he said.
“What did the ministers know and when did they know it?”
Pressed on whether the situation makes it “impossible” for Trudeau to fulfill his function as prime minister, as claimed by the Bloc, Barrett said that’s a question for Liberal MPs.
“They need to make a decision about whether or not there is confidence in the leader of their party,” he said.
In an interview with Global News Friday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that they were pleased that the ethics commissioner’s investigation was underway, but reiterated worries over the results of the previous SNC-Lavalin investigation.
“Justin prevented many people from testifying,” said Scheer. “He did not grant a full and complete waiver of cabinet confidences.”
The announcement of an ethics investigation last week would mark the third one to be launched by the watchdog into the current Trudeau government.
The last two investigations found that Trudeau broke ethics rules after taking his family to a private island owned by Aga Khan, as well as his government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.
At an event related to Canada’s COVID-19 response in Oshawa on Friday, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains cited cabinet confidentiality in declining to comment on whether cabinet discussed the ties between WE and the Trudeau family.
In a panel interview scheduled to air on The West Block on Sunday, NDP MP and health critic Don Davies told guest host Robin Gill he’s “not so sure” the controversy is at a point that warrants calling for a criminal investigation or for the prime minister to step aside temporarily.
Tories still don’t want to force election over controversy
Two days after the WE contract was scrapped, Poilievre said the Conservatives weren’t looking to force an election over the deal, saying what the party wanted was to see the contract cancelled and that’s what happened.
Asked on Friday whether that’s still the party’s position, Barrett said: “We’re not looking to bring down the government on this issue.”
“We’re looking to get the get the truth and get accountability for Canadians,” he said. “We’re starting to use the tools that are in the toolbox and one of those is that we’re calling for Parliament to resume, as we have been for months.”
Scheer echoed that sentiment on Friday as well, saying that the Liberals had won a plurality of seats in the last election and they have a right to govern Canada, but said that there was nothing preventing them from replacing Trudeau as their leader.
“And if they want to show Canadians that the Liberal Party does not tolerate these types of ethical violations, they have a chance to do something about it,” said Scheer.
“And if they don’t, then the message is that the Liberal Party is very comfortable with these of ethical breaches.”
Federal officials have said the Canada Student Service Grant will pay students $1,000 toward their schooling costs for every 100 hours of volunteer work they complete through approved charities and non-profits between now and early fall.
When he announced that WE would manage the program in late June, Trudeau said that it was the only organization in the country that had the reach and expertise required to run it properly.
Speaking on the West Block panel interview, Barrett argued the Canada Student Service Grant program is “redundant” because of a pre-existing federal summer jobs program.
In the same interview, Arif Virani, Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and Attorney General, defended the intention of the grant program to provide “financial stability” to students during the pandemic. But he conceded that “the way the program (was) rolled out obviously has been disappointing.”
“It has not gone the way it should have gone,” he said.
Referencing conflict-of-interest concerns, Virani emphasized the federal government partnered with a not-for-profit organization to roll out the grant program and noted the prime minister has “indicated he’s willing to comply with all aspects” of the ethics commissioner’s investigation.
— With files from Global News’ Kerri Breen, Maham Abedi, David Lao, the West Block and the Canadian Press