Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing growing demands for transparency and accountability from opposition parties angry over a now-cancelled contract with the WE Charity, which has paid members of his family hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees.
But he would not commit to answering calls from the Conservatives and NDP for him to appear at a parliamentary committee to face questions about the evolving WE Charity scandal.
“We have received the invitation. We will consider it,” he said in question period on Tuesday.
“I should have recused myself from that discussion. I did not and I’m sorry.”
Trudeau’s appearance came after he faced criticism on Monday for taking a personal day as the House of Commons returned from several weeks’ suspension under a continuing cloud of scandal.
The matter is now being studied by the parliamentary finance committee as well as the federal ethics commissioner and opposition parties are continuing to put pressure on the minority Liberal government with demands for answers as more and more questions emerge about the contract.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Tuesday slammed the decision as “gross and disgusting,” accusing the government of prioritizing giving money to Liberal “friends” when they should have used the Canada Summer Jobs program to roll out its proposed new student grant initiative.
The NDP and the Bloc Québécois both held morning press conferences on Tuesday to raise their concerns and highlight their calls for action.
“In a pandemic, people are worried about what’s going to come next,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“To deal with all of these concerns — not having a job, worrying about the future — people need to have confidence in the government and what this scandal has done is rocked confidence in the government.”
The NDP is demanding that Trudeau waive cabinet confidence regarding discussions on the contract, that he agree to appear before the House of Commons ethics committee, and that he release all documents related to the decision to give the program to the WE Charity.
At issue is the question of how and why the government decided to grant control of a student program worth more than $900 million to the WE Charity, which has close ties to the Trudeau family.
The WE Charity has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of speaking fees to Trudeau family members in recent years, yet Trudeau has admitted he did not recuse himself from discussions about allowing the organization to handle the program.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is also under fire for not recusing himself from those talks given one of his daughters works for the charity while another has repeatedly spoken at WE events and received a blurb from one of the charity’s founders for her self-published book.
Both Trudeau and Morneau are now under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.
But while Trudeau has apologized, the investigation into his behaviour marks the third such ethics investigation into his actions during his tenure as prime minister and has prompted calls from the Bloc Québécois for him to step aside.
“We must ask ourselves whether the prime minister is able to do his work: does he have the mental space available to play the role of prime minister?” asked Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet during a press conference on Tuesday morning.
“In order to have the Canadian government function properly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must step aside for the moment and hand the reins to the deputy prime minister.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did not speak to journalists on Tuesday but did address the controversy on Monday, arguing that Trudeau was hiding from accountability by not showing up in the House of Commons that day.
“Justin Trudeau cannot hide from this scandal,” Scheer said.
“He didn’t make a mistake — he made a choice.”
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre has also said he plans to add the prime minister to the witness list to the finance committee, which is chairs, as well as Morneau.
The Conservatives have made the case that the government failed both to act ethically and to do due diligence in looking into the WE Charity, which has been dogged by accusations of internal problems and more recent questions about the organization’s finances.
The government, however, has insisted the public service made the decision to grant the handling of the student grant program to the WE Charity.
Questions are set to continue throughout the day on Tuesday as Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart appears before the House of Commons finance committee on the matter.