It’s possible, I suppose, for one to accept at face value the prime minister’s story for how events unfolded with WE Charity and the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program.
But at this point that would require one to be rather, shall we say, charitable.
We already know that neither Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nor Finance Minister Bill Morneau recused themselves from the decision to award the CSSG to WE Charity. Furthermore, we already know that Morneau accepted over $40,000 worth of free travel from WE Charity in 2017 and only reimbursed that money a few weeks ago.
The conflicts of interest already seemed quite apparent going into the prime minister’s testimony Thursday before the Commons Finance Committee.
But now we’re being asked to accept a version of events from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that is neither plausible nor credible.
So while Trudeau might have scored some political points for his willingness to appear before the committee, I’m not sure his testimony will help him in the long run.
First of all, it seems rather strange that the prime minister would have had so many concerns about this proposal — “pushed back,” as he said in his opening remarks Thursday — but that those concerns would have been so deliberately dismissed and disregarded by the public service.
It also seems strange that the same public service that was being shut out of administering this program would have been so insistent that the only possible option for the CSSG was WE Charity.
Then there’s the problem of the timeline. We know the dates of many of the key moments in this affair, but there are some troubling questions pertaining to many of them. The PMO’s explanations are rather hard to believe.
For example, Trudeau claims he first learned of the involvement of WE Charity on May 8, just hours before a planned cabinet meeting to discuss the program. But that leaves us with a month when, somehow and for some reason, the prime minister was kept completely in the dark.
On or around April 7, Morneau’s office contacted WE Charity and other groups looking for input on potential government programs. On April 9, WE Charity sent an unsolicited proposal for a youth program to Small Business Minister Mary Ng and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger.
Between then and April 22 — the day Trudeau announced a student aid plan that included the idea of a paid student volunteer program — WE Charity sent an updated proposal based on that announcement that made its way to Morneau, Ng and Chagger.
The following day, in a video call that leaked on June 12, WE co-founder Marc Kielburger claimed that the PMO contacted them directly about a volunteer program (Marc Kielburger later claimed that he misspoke on that call).
On April 26, Morneau spoke with Craig Kielburger (both claim the CSSG didn’t come up).
So it’s possible, I suppose, all of this talk about WE Charity administering this new program was kept from the prime minister. That’s hard enough to accept, but the events of May 5 make it even harder to believe.
Previously released documents show that WE Charity began working on the CSSG on that day — three days before the prime minister supposedly knew anything about this, and 17 days before cabinet finally voted to approve the program.
Also on May 5, Rick Theis, director of policy and cabinet affairs for the prime minister, spoke directly to WE Charity. In her testimony Thursday, Trudeau’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford struggled to reconcile those two developments.
So now we’re expected to believe that the PMO spoke directly with WE Charity on the very same day they started working on this program and that still at this point the prime minister knew nothing. That’s a lot of the benefit of the doubt being expended here.
This is a serious political scandal the government finds itself embroiled in and there’s the very real prospect of the ethics commissioner finding for a third time that the prime minister has violated the Conflict of Interest Act.
The finance minister may also find himself on the wrong end of a similar finding from the commissioner. So clearly, there’s some incentive for the PMO to try and put the best possible spin on the process and the decision.
As such, we have good reason to have serious doubts about their version of events.