In full-page ads in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star on Monday, and in a statement on their website, the organization’s co-founders told readers they agreed to take on the $900-million student volunteer program “because we have 25 years of experience building youth service programs that are in 7,000 Canadian schools engaging students to support 3,000+ charities and causes.”
Craig and Marc Kielburger laid out four “answers” to “valid questions” they say have persisted since the contract for the Canada Student Service Grant program was first announced in June. The program is aimed at helping students having a hard time finding summer work amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s personal and family ties to the organization drew questions and criticism.
“The public service has openly stated that it was their recommendation for the WE Charity to receive the contract for this program,” the ad reads. “Over the years we have received grants from and worked with federal and provincial governments led by a diversity of political parties for our youth and school programs.”
The contract, according to the charity, would reimburse expenses it acquired to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant program, but it “did not provide the charity with a ‘profit.'”
“The funds were used for the program or returned to the government,” the ad continued. “All was subject to government audit.”
WE has since backed out of the deal, which offered grants to students for volunteer work amid the COVID-19 crisis. The federal employment and social development department has taken over the program.
The charity claimed in its statement that it did not accept any reimbursement for the work it had done thus far to establish the program before pulling out, nor did it profit from the contract “in any way.”
Trudeau’s personal ties to the charity came under heightened scrutiny last week after the organization confirmed it made payments to both his brother and his mother.
Margaret Trudeau spoke at 28 WE events and was paid $250,000 over the last four years. The prime minister’s brother, Alexandre, spoke at eight WE events and was paid $32,000 between 2017 and 2018. Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, also received a $1,400 payment for taking part in a youth event in 2012, the organization said in a statement.
In the ad, the co-founders said they “respect the public concern” surrounding payments to Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau but said “no charitable funds were intended to pay their honorarium, as costs were sponsored by ‘ME to WE Social Enterprise.'”
“Once we learned that the charity did pay for their speeches, the error was identified, and the charity was reimbursed,” they wrote in the ad. “Yet, the error should not have happened, and we apologize.”
The charity said Trudeau himself has never been paid.
In an address later Monday, Trudeau said he was aware his mother and brother had worked with the organization. He said he knew his mother and brother had a “source of revenue” from various organizations as “professional public speakers,” but said he did know how much either was getting paid, though the payment from WE didn’t surprise him.
“But I should have known, and I deeply regret that,” he said. “I also deeply regret that I’ve brought my mother into this situation in a way that is really unfair to her.”
Trudeau is already facing an investigation by the ethics commissioner for potentially violating conflict-of-interest rules. Trudeau has said federal public servants had recommended the organization and that it was considered the only one capable of delivering the program.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is facing similar criticism. One of Morneau’s daughters has spoken at WE events, while another does contract work for the organization.
On July 8, both Trudeau and Morneau confirmed they did not recuse themselves from the vote that approved giving the contract to WE.
Trudeau added on Monday that not recusing himself was “a mistake.”
“When it came to this organization, this program, the involvement that I’d had in the past, and that my family has, should have had me remove myself from those discussions. And I’m sorry that I didn’t,” he said.
“I’m particularly sorry because not only has it created unnecessary controversy and issues, it also means that young people who are facing a difficult time right now, getting summer jobs, contributing to their communities, are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve. And that’s frustrating.”
The controversy has spurred scrutiny from opposition parties, who have accused the prime minister of cronyism and conflict-of-interest violations.
On Monday, they requested to recall the House of Commons ethics committee in order to review what safeguards are in place to prevent conflict of interest in government procurement. The parties are asking to look at records related to the Trudeau family’s speaking engagements back to 2008.
This is not the first time Trudeau has found himself tangled in a potential conflict of interest.
Trudeau was found to have breached the federal conflict of interest rules when he and his family took a now-notorious holiday on the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. Another involved the SNC-Lavalin controversies.
When asked how he felt the third possible violation would affect his party’s support, he said reiterated that he should’ve recused himself, but hopes Canadians will “make their judgments about what we were trying to do and what I should’ve done.”
— With files from the Canadian Press