Finance Minister Bill Morneau admitted on Wednesday he and his family have made “significant” donations worth tens of thousands of dollars to the controversial WE Charity and only just repaid $41,000 in what he says were previously unknown expenses due to the organization from family trips.
Morneau offered the bombshell testimony during a House of Commons finance committee appearance in which he was pressed over and over again about his role in the cabinet decision to award a now-cancelled sole-sourced contract to the organization to run a new student grant program.
Morneau told the committee that he and his wife has made “significant donations” twice to the WE Charity, both of which were worth $50,000. One of those was made in June 2018 and one in June 2020.
That June 2020 donation came the same month that WE Charity was named as the administrators of the now-cancelled $900-million student grant program on June 25, 2020.
He also said that the cheque he wrote to the organization on Wednesday was worth a total of $41,366 and was for expenses his family incurred on trips to visit WE Charity projects in Kenya and Ecuador.
“I have not seen the line-by-line,” Morneau admitted when asked about the details of what those expenses entailed, and said he expected they were things like accommodation and meals.
He said he had understood there were no further expenses incurred from those family trips and that his intention had been to cover any costs. However, government directions state that “ministers and parliamentary secretaries must not accept sponsored travel.”
Morneau said he only discovered the costs during “a thorough review of my records over the course of the last few days,” he said, before touting the perceived benefits of the planned program.
“This should’ve been something that we rectified sooner. It was absolutely an error. In looking through my records, I was completely surprised by the situation.”
In a statement released Wednesday evening, WE Charity said it invites potential supporters to “see the impact of its global projects” on a complimentary basis.
WE Charity said it extended the invitation to Morneau and his wife, Nancy McCain, because they are “well known philanthropists with a history of significant donations to international development programs.”
“Yesterday, the Morneau-McCain family reached out to ask if, in fact, their trip had been complimentary. We confirmed that it was,” the statement reads. “They then reimbursed WE Charity for what they would have been charged if they had paid at the time: USD $ 4,395 per person.”
Morneau said the decision to grant the contract to the WE Charity Foundation, which is the real estate holding arm of the organization, was the decision of Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger.
The revelations that the WE Charity has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to family members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has blanketed the government in yet another cloud of allegations of ethical violations.
Trudeau and Morneau have both admitted they did not recuse themselves from the cabinet discussions and vote on the agreement.
Morneau’s daughters have ties to WE — including one who works in an administrative arm of the organization. Both he and Trudeau are now under investigation by the ethics commissioner.
Morneau is the latest cabinet minister to be grilled over the aborted deal that would have seen WE receive more than $43.5 million to oversee a program with a budget of up to $912 million.
On Tuesday, Canada’s top bureaucrat said he couldn’t see not having the finance minister and prime minister involved in discussions about a program as big in scope and price as the Canada Student Service Grant program.
The program proposed paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs based on the number of hours they volunteer.
The Liberals have said the non-partisan public service recommended going with WE as it was the only organization in the country to administer a program as quickly and as broadly as what the government wanted.
In early July, the organization handed back control of the program to the government amid the controversy about its connections to Trudeau. The organization has paid speaking fees to his mother and brother.
The finance committee also heard Tuesday from the head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada that public servants could have delivered the program, while lawyer Joshua Mandryk raised concerns about effectively paying students below minimum wage and calling it volunteering.
The Canadian Federation of Students is calling on the government to abandon the program and push all the money into an emergency benefit for out-of-work students.
The group warns students may be unable to accumulate enough hours to receive grants because it’s almost August and there is no clarity on when the program will launch.
“Students have waited for this program to roll out since April and now they’re told they have to wait even longer,” national chair Sofia Descalzi said in a statement.
“This is unacceptable.”
With files from the Canadian Press.