According to Justin Trudeau, the reason his government handed a sole-source contract to WE Charity to run a $912-million student-grant program is a pretty simple one.
WE Charity was the only organization in Canada capable of doing the job, the prime minister has said repeatedly.
“We needed to have a partner to help establish the networks and to deliver,” Trudeau said, shortly after his government waived any requirements to obtain competitive bids, delivering the deal directly to WE.
The contract unravelled soon after concerns were raised about WE’s personal connections to Trudeau and his family.
Trudeau and his government were rocked by revelations that his mother and brother received hundreds of thousands of dollars in lucrative speaking fees to appear at WE events. Now Trudeau is under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner for his handling of the contract.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is under investigation, too, following revelations his daughter works for the organization and that he refunded more than $41,000 in travel benefits he received from WE.
As the investigations continue, Trudeau is clinging to the explanation that the federal civil service recommended the exclusive deal with WE.
“As the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organization that was capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it,” Trudeau said.
“That was the WE program.”
It’s an explanation that draws a blunt response from the union representing 140,000 federal employees.
“It’s insulting,” Chris Aylward, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said.
“This could have been done by the federal public service. There was absolutely no need to contract this out.”
Aylward said federal civil servants already manage programs similar to the one that WE was contracted to run.
The Canada Student Service Grant program — now stuck in limbo as the WE scandal rages — was supposed to pay students to perform voluntary charity work.
Trudeau said WE Charity was well-positioned to manage the program because of its years of charitable outreach in Canada.
“The WE organization is the largest national youth service organization in the country,” Trudeau said. “They have networks in every corner of the country.”
But existing government programs — like the Canada Service Corps and the Canada Summer Jobs Program — are also established and connected across the country, Aylward counters.
“There are literally hundreds of grant programs already administered by the federal public service,” the union leader said.
“From arts and culture to research and scientific stuff, the infrastructure already exists. It’s very capable, accountable and transparent.”
But that was still not good enough for Trudeau, who emphasized the need for speed in getting the new student-grant program up and running this summer, to provide financial relief to students struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Only the WE organization had the capacity to deliver the ambitious program that young people need for this summer that is so deeply impacted by COVID,” Trudeau said.
But Aylward had an answer to that, too, pointing out it was the federal civil service that quickly built and delivered other COVID-19 relief efforts from scratch, like the $60-billion CERB program.
“That was done in very short order,” the union leader said.
“It proved the public service is capable of adapting to meet new demands and moving quickly to do so.”
In fact, Aylward argues, if Trudeau had simply tasked the existing civil service to deliver the student-grant program, hundreds of millions of dollars would be flowing right now through Canadian charitable organizations and into the hands of unemployed youth volunteers.
Instead, the money now sits in suspended animation, as Trudeau presses forward with his weak and thoroughly unconvincing explanations for the WE Charity debacle.
Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews.