Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the hot seat Thursday as he testified to the House of Commons finance committee about his role in the decision to give WE Charity a sole-sourced deal to administer a $912-million student grant program.
Trudeau and his chief of staff Katie Telford both expressed regret that the prime minister did not recuse himself from the decision, given the charity’s long history with members of both Trudeau’s and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s families.
The nearly four-hour testimony featured new revelations of when Trudeau knew about WE’s selection by the public service to administer the program, while opposition members took the opportunity to grill the prime minister on his history of conflict of interest violations.
Here are five takeways from the testimony.
No influence in choosing WE despite family ties
The prime minister told the committee that he first learned “hours” before a May 8 cabinet meeting that the public service had recommended WE administer the program.
“WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation,” Trudeau said.
“When I learned that WE Charity was recommended, I pushed back.”
Telford was repeatedly pressed on the exact timeline of when Trudeau learned about WE’s selection, given the charity had indicated it began incurring expenses for the administration of the program on May 5, the same day Trudeau’s director of policy spoke with someone from the organization.
Trudeau also stressed he never spoke with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger during the approval process, and when he learned of the public service’s recommendation to contract WE, he knew there would be questions about his family’s ties to the organization.
“I wanted to make sure all the Is were dotted and all the Ts were crossed,” he said, “because of the connections with my family.”
Family ties not seen as conflict
Despite the knowledge of those family ties, Trudeau and Telford said the ethics commissioner had previously cleared wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s work with the group, including hosting a podcast and having travel expenses reimbursed for speaking engagements with them.
Telford said she and Trudeau believed moving forward would not be a conflict based on that earlier finding.
“On that basis, we decided to proceed,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of any conflict.”
Trudeau said he didn’t know the amounts the WE Charity was paying his family, and pointed members asking for exact dollar amounts to media reports.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said “nobody believes” that Trudeau did not know what his family was being paid.
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, and Trudeau himself has attended WE Day events.
‘Binary choice’ between WE or no student program
Trudeau repeatedly stressed that the public service did not provide a list of charities and other organizations for cabinet to choose from. Rather, he said WE was presented as the only choice possible given the size of the $912-million program.
“The choice was not between providers, it was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or not going ahead with the program at all,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau said he had originally expected the Canada Service Corps to deliver the program, which would have given grants to students and graduates for volunteering to help with lost job opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown.
However, the public service advised the Canada Service Corps, a youth volunteer service program created by the Liberals in 2018, was unable to scale up fast enough to deliver the emergency grant program in time to help students affected by the struggling economy this year.
That’s why the public service came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus didn’t buy Trudeau’s framing of the choice, however.
“The fact is the Kielburger brothers carefully cultivated their relationship with you and your brand after you became prime minister,” Angus said, adding the charity put Trudeau and his family “on the stadium circuit.”
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.
Speed due to coronavirus pandemic partially blamed
Trudeau and Telford said the government was working fast to get the program up and running as soon as possible, pointing to other decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic to get financial aid to Canadians quickly.
Yet the prime minister pointed out that he still insisted the proposal be slowed down to try to get more information — though he admitted he still didn’t recuse himself because of his long involvement with youth services.
“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.
After cabinet approved the WE deal on May 22, staff in his office recommended additional oversight measures for the dispersal of the approved funding, he said.
Trudeau agreed. A process was implemented mandating Youth Minister Bardish Chagger to provide a written update to the Treasury Board president on the grant program each time funds were disbursed.
Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos asked whether there are now measures in place to ensure similar mistakes aren’t made again, given more decisions will need to be made quickly as the pandemic drags on. Trudeau didn’t answer.
No answer on accountability for scandal
While Trudeau and his fellow Liberal MPs largely focused on his regret over how the student grant program imploded, opposition committee members sought to paint a picture of a prime minister who doesn’t think conflict of interest issues apply to him.
Poilievre and Angus both brought up Trudeau’s previous violations under the Conflict of Interest Act: first for accepting a free vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas, and then for improper political influence over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
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. He told Angus that he insisted WE be further scrutinized because of his past experience with the ethics commissioner.
Yet Trudeau would not answer Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett’s question of who in cabinet should be held accountable for approving the recommendation.
“Cabinet is responsible for decisions, not the public service,” Barrett said. “A major mistake was made. Someone in cabinet should be held accountable. Which minister will you fire?”
Both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois have called on Trudeau and Morneau to resign as a result of the WE Charity controversy, which Trudeau has refused to acknowledge. Barrett suggested Chagger as a candidate to be fired.
Trudeau and Telford were both criticized for putting the onus for WE’s selection on the public service, but Telford insisted they weren’t “throwing anyone under the bus.”
“We relied on the public service and their recommendation,” she said.
—With files from Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press