Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted on Monday that he “made a mistake” in not recusing himself “immediately” from discussions about whether WE Charity should administer a federal student volunteer grant program.
Trudeau said he should have done so given his immediate family’s relationship and financial ties to the WE organization.
During a scheduled news conference in Ottawa, the prime minister apologized for not having stepped away from the decision to award the now-cancelled contract to WE Charity to manage the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant.
“I’m sincerely sorry (for) not having done that,” Trudeau said.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t — 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.”
Controversy over WE Charity’s contract has dominated debate on Parliament Hill for weeks. It was additionally fuelled last week with news that several of Trudeau’s close relatives have been paid large sums by a WE affiliate to speak at WE events in recent years.
WE Charity confirmed last week that Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, had been paid $312,000 for speaking at 28 WE events between 2016 and 2020 through a speakers’ bureau. Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau, was paid $40,000 for eight events in the 2017-18 academic year through the same speakers’ agency, which took a 20 per cent commission in both Trudeaus’ cases, according to WE Charity.
The organization said most of those speaking fees were covered by WE’s for-profit arm, ME to WE Social Enterprises, and that it has “corrected” instances when Margaret Trudeau was paid in “error” by the charity.
Reporters on Monday asked the prime minister to clarify whether he knew his relatives were paid by WE and how much. Trudeau responded several times that he knew his mother and brother work as “professional public speakers” and have worked with “a range of organizations,” but he maintained he wasn’t aware of the sums they were paid.
“It is not surprising to me that they got paid by WE, but I did not know the details,” he said.
“And as I said, I should have known the details and I regret that.”
The prime minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, was also once paid in 2012 by the charity and she currently hosts a podcast on well-being for WE, for which she isn’t compensated, according to the charity.
The federal ethics watchdog is investigating whether the prime minister violated conflict-of-interest rules in the matter, representing the third ethics probe into Trudeau’s conduct during his tenure as prime minister.
WE Charity confirmed Trudeau — who has participated in WE events himself — has “never” been paid for those appearances.
Asked in French whether any cabinet member or Liberal official “raised concerns” about awarding the grant program contract to WE Charity, Trudeau responded: “There was some reflection carried out by myself and others in terms of the fact that the connections with the family meant that we had to be careful and made sure we did things right.”
The “independent recommendation” from the public service to select WE Charity “reassured us,” the prime minister continued in French.
“But as we see now, I should have gone further. I should have completely withdrawn from that discussion to allow students right across the country to benefit from those opportunities that now will come later.”
Trudeau’s apology comes the same day the WE organization ran full-page ads in several newspapers in an effort to “set the record straight.”
Under the agreement between the federal government and WE, the charitable organization would have been paid around $20 million to cover the costs of administering the program. That money would not have provided WE Charity with a profit, said the ad, signed by the organization’s co-founders.
“The funds were used for the program or returned to the government,” the ad continued. “All was subject to government audit.”
Last week, the opposition Conservatives said they believe the controversy warrants a criminal investigation and asked RCMP to launch a probe into whether the Liberal government breached the law, citing the payments WE made to Trudeau family members and also recent contracts and grants the federal government has awarded to WE Charity in recent years.
Asked whether it will investigate the matter on Friday, 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.”
Finance minister also issues apology
The prime minister isn’t the only senior Liberal official whose family has close ties to the WE organization. The charity also confirmed last week that two of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughters are connected to the group, one of whom is a paid contract employee.
Morneau’s office confirmed the finance minister also didn’t recuse himself from cabinet discussions about the WE contract. Hours after Trudeau, Morneau also issued an apology for this in a brief statement posted to Twitter, saying he “now” realizes he should have recused himself “in order to avoid any perception of conflict.”
“I apologize for not doing so, and moving forward, I will recuse myself from any future discussions related to WE,” the statement read.
On Sunday, Tory finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the Conservatives want both Trudeau and Morneau to testify in front of the House of Commons finance committee, which is studying the WE contract controversy.
Trudeau wouldn’t confirm on Monday whether he would accept the invitation, saying he will “look at any invitations that come in and discuss them with my House leadership team.”
The Conservatives are also calling for the parliamentary ethics committee to hold an emergency meeting to discuss Trudeau’s failure to recuse himself from the WE contract discussions.
The Liberals currently hold a minority government. Asked on Monday whether Canadian voters will forgive him for this latest ethics blunder whenever they return to the polls, Trudeau reiterated that he should have recused himself from the WE contract discussions.
“Canadians will make their judgments about what we were trying to do and what I should have done instead of staying involved in these conversations,” he said.
The WE Charity controversy prompted the leader of the Bloc Québécois last week to call for Trudeau to step down temporarily as prime minister until the ethics commissioner’s investigation is complete.
Responding to this on Monday, Trudeau said: “Obviously, the opposition parties have their job to do and they will keep doing it. I have my job to do as well, which is to make sure the Canadians are well supported through this pandemic and we have economic restart that goes smoothly.”
The Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) offers one-time payments to students volunteering in their communities’ COVID-19 response this summer, based on the number of volunteer hours completed. The public service is now managing the program’s roll-out.
In a statement on Monday, WE Charity confirmed to Global News that it had to terminate the contracts of contractors it hired “specifically to support the administration of the CSSG program” — but the group didn’t specify how many contractors were let go. Those contractors were paid for the time they worked and were given “additional pay based on tenure,” WE Charity said.
“WE Charity made the decision to not take any of the funds that were allocated to pay for the work delivered for the CSSG program,” the statement said. “All sunk costs and remaining payments to contractors and vendors are being paid for by WE Charity.”
—With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman, David Lao, Kerri Breen and Rachael D’Amore