Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he didn’t know anything about a decision to give a sole-sourced deal to administer a $912-million student grant program to the WE Charity until the matter was set to come before his cabinet in early May.
Trudeau is the latest and most high-profile witness asked to come before the House of Commons finance committee to explain why the government thought it was a good idea to give the controversial charity a sole-sourced deal to run a student grant program, despite its close ties to his family.
“I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation. I didn’t even know it had been made until May 8,” Trudeau said in his opening statement to the committee. “When I did, I pushed back.”
His chief of staff, Katie Telford, also testified later in the afternoon.
Trudeau defended what he described as a focus on getting money out the door as quickly as possible to Canadians in the midst of the emergency response to the coronavirus crisis.
The prime minister said his intent had been for the newly formed Canada Service Corps to “scale up” in order to run the student grant program and said he had no idea the public service had already pushed ahead to give the administration deal to WE Charity.
Trudeau said when he learned of that plan on May 8, he had the proposal pulled back from the cabinet agenda and asked for more due diligence to be done because he knew giving the deal to the charity might prompt questions given the close ties his family has with it.
“We knew the selection of WE Charity would be closely scrutinized,” he said.
However, he said members of the policy team in his office did know about the plan to give the deal to WE Charity ahead of that May 8 date.
Trudeau said after he asked for a more thorough review of the decision to give the deal to the WE Charity, he was informed that the Canada Service Corps would not be able to scale up quickly enough to run it and that if he wanted the program to go ahead, the only option was WE Charity.
“They said if we wanted this program to happen, it had to be through WE Charity,” he said.
“The choice was not between providers. It was between WE Charity and not going ahead at all.”
He rebuffed repeated questions from NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus on whether he recognizes that the close ties between his family and the group raise concerns about a conflict of interest.
Angus sharply questioned Trudeau on who arrived at the conclusion that WE was the only group that could deliver the program in Canada.
“The fact is the Kielburger brothers carefully cultivated their relationship with you and your brand after you became prime minister,” Angus said.
“They put you on the stadium circuit. They hired your family members to the tune of half a million dollars.”
Trudeau shot back saying Angus was “misleading people” and that it was all the choice of the public service, which he accused Angus of “impugning” in his questions.
“This is not something that cabinet selected. Cabinet was presented a choice by our professional public service, saying, ‘if you want to deliver this summer volunteer program it’s going to have to be with this third party organization,’” the prime minister said.
“They didn’t give us a choice of two or three different organizations.”
Telford was also questioned why the government moved forward with WE Charity despite flagging the recommendation on May 8 for additional review.
She said given the ethics commissioner had previously cleared the work that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was doing with the group — hosting a podcast and having travel expenses reimbursed for speaking engagements with them — she and Trudeau believed moving forward would not be a conflict.
“On that basis, we decided to proceed,” she said of the separate clearance by the ethics commissioner for Gregoire Trudeau’s activities.
“I wasn’t aware of any conflict,” she said.
“You have heard the Prime Minister say that he has regrets about not recusing himself. I have regrets about that too. Obviously this didn’t happen as we intended to, and this is not what we had envisioned, and I share in that responsibility.”
Telford was asked repeatedly about the timeline of events, including why Trudeau was only made aware of the recommendation for WE Charity on May 8 when his director of policy spoke with someone from the organization on May 5.
Telford also said there were “a handful” of interactions ahead of the program launch in which members of the PMO spoke with WE Charity officials. Opposition MPs demanded she reveal the names of the individuals and Telford agreed to share the names with the committee after her testimony.
“There was some back and forth, that is perfectly normal and actually expected around the time of the launch of the program,” Telford said.
Telford said that individual directed the WE Charity to talk with officials at Employment and Social Development Canada, the department running the proposed program.
Conservative MPs said WE Charity had indicated it began incurring expenses for the administration of the program on May 5, before Trudeau said he was aware they were being positioned to run it and weeks before it was formally signed off on by cabinet on May 22.
Green Party MP Elizabeth May asked Telford why that would be the case.
“Did no one want to tell the prime minister — burst his bubble?”
“To be fair, that was a question he actually had on May 8 which is why it was pulled back,” Telford responded.
Trudeau also would not answer when asked by Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett who in cabinet would be held accountable for approving the recommendation, given it is cabinet — not the public service — that wields the power to set government policy in the country.
“The decision in cabinet was not into which organization should deliver the Canada Student Service Grant,” Trudeau said. “The decision in cabinet was, ‘should we have a summer grant program or not?’ That was a binary choice given to us by the public service.”
Barrett asked whether the prime minister was aware that the WE organization had laid off roughly 400 employees in March or that the charity’s former board of director resigned after asking for the charity’s financial statements.
“No, I was not,” Trudeau said.
“I want the Prime Minister to tell us what due diligence looks like,” Barrett said. “The government of Canada handed over a $500-million contract for them to administer?”
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau to trying to cast off blame onto bureaucrats.
“It’s time for the prime minister to stop blaming the public service,” Poilievre said. “He is an elected official who is accountable to Canadians.”
Telford, during testimony that followed Trudeau’s, was similarly questioned by Conservatives who suggested the government response unfairly puts the blame on bureaucrats.
“No one is throwing anyone under the bus here,” Telford said when asked about that.
“We relied on the public service and their recommendation.”
When pressed by the Bloc Quebecois’ Rhéal Fortin, Trudeau said he was not in any conflict of interest but apologized for not stepping aside from the decision because of the appearance it created.
“I was not in a position of conflict of interest,” he said in French.
Both Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have admitted they did not recuse themselves from cabinet discussions on the decision to give the deal to WE Charity, but should have done so.
Trudeau’s family is closely tied to the WE Charity: his mother, Margaret Trudeau, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the group for attending its fundraising events. His brother, Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau has also been paid to attend.
Trudeau said he didn’t know the amounts the WE Charity was paying his family, and blamed the rapid events of the growing pandemic and his government was rushing to get programs up and running, but insisted he slowed the proposal down to try to get more information.
“This proposal mattered to me and instead of encouraging it along, as some people say, because it was somehow connected to my family, I actually slowed it down, pushed back on it, to try and make sure that everything was done exactly right,” he said.
“I knew there would be questions asked because of the links to the family.”
Poilievre said that “nobody believes” that Trudeau did not know what his family was being paid.
Earlier this month it was revealed that Margaret Trudeau was paid approximately $250,000 for speaking at 28 events, while Alexandre spoke at eight events and received about $32,000 in speaking fees.
Marc Kielburger revealed on Tuesday that the WE organization had reimbursed Margaret Trudeau $167,944 for expenses and Alexandre had been reimbursed $19,576.
Meanwhile, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has also been reimbursed $25,326 for expenses related to her unpaid work for the organization.
Morneau’s adopted daughter works for the WE Charity while another daughter has spoken at WE Day events several times for the group, and received an endorsement from one of its founders for her self-published book.
The Morneau family has also made two trips to visit WE Charity facilities abroad, as well as making what Morneau described during his own committee testimony two weeks ago as “significant donations.”
Trudeau said he didn’t know “particularly” that Morneau had accepted trips from the charity.
“I did not know that he had made a specific trip with WE Charity,” Trudeau said in French.
“I knew that one of his daughters had projects with WE … I didn’t know he had another daughter who worked for WE Charity.”
Trudeau’s testimony came after an investigation into possible conflict-of-interest violations relating to the WE contract. This is his third ethics investigation since he took office in 2015.
The last time a prime minister testified before a parliamentary committee was in 2006 when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to speak about Senate reform.
The prime minister’s appearance also came two days after the co-founders of WE Charity, Craig and Marc Kielburger, also appeared before the committee.
The brothers said the government approached them to run the program and that they agreed to do so as a “favour” to Canada.
Both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois have called on Trudeau and Morneau to resign as a result of the WE Charity controversy.