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WE Charity hired a PR firm to help with student service grant in French-speaking Canada

Click to play video 'The timeline of Trudeau’s WE Charity controversy' The timeline of Trudeau’s WE Charity controversy
WATCH: The timeline of Trudeau's WE Charity controversy

WE Charity hired the public relations firm National to help manage part of the federal government’s Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) in Quebec and French-speaking parts of the country before the deal imploded amid controversy over connections between the charity and members of the Liberal Party.

The Quebec-based firm said in a statement it was hired by WE Charity to help with “outreach to not-for-profit and student organizations, French content development, media monitoring and social media content.”

News that WE Charity paid another firm for help with its federal contract, first reported by French digital news outlet La Presse, calls into question previous statements by the federal government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal officials have repeatedly said that WE Charity was the “only organization” capable of delivering the $543.5-million CSSG, which would pay students for volunteer work.

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“(National) was mandated by WE Charity to support the organization for the implementation of the Canada Student Services Grant in Quebec and in Canadian francophone communities,” spokesperson Chantal Benoit said in a statement. “The mandate started on May 29 and ended on July 3, 2020, when the program was transferred to the federal government.”

Click to play video 'Conservative MP blasts Trudeau government over WE Charity deal' Conservative MP blasts Trudeau government over WE Charity deal
Conservative MP blasts Trudeau government over WE Charity deal

Benoit said National had done work for WE Charity in the past, for WE Day and other smaller events, but could not reveal details about how much the firm was paid citing “confidentiality” agreements.

WE Charity confirmed it hired National specifically to assist with “Quebec and Francophone communications about the program.”

“(This included) assisting with media inquiries, and stakeholder engagement, including assisting in outreach to the hundreds of not-for-profits across Quebec and Francophone communities to ensure wide awareness about the benefits to not-for-profits of participating in the program,” the charity said.

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Trudeau testified last week that the public service said only WE Charity was capable of carrying out the program.

“They said if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity,” Trudeau told a House of Commons committee. “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.”

Read more: WE Charity paid U.S. consultants who provide ‘combative media training,’ tax records say

It was not immediately clear how federal officials determined that WE Charity, which enlisted another firm to help implement the program in French-speaking communities, was previously considered by government to be the only one capable of handling the contract.

Global News reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office for comment and was directed to the office of Youth Minister Bardish Chagger.

“WE Charity offers French-language service learning programming and has a long-standing presence in Quebec, including work with over 450 French-language schools, educational institutions, and groups in Quebec,” Chagger’s spokesperson Danielle Keenan said in a statement.

“WE Charity worked with a team of advisors and not-for-profits organizations from across Quebec to ensure the program was responsive to unique needs within the province.”

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Quebec Conservative MP Alain Rayes questioned why the program was given to the WE organization, in light of the fact it contracted with another firm to help administer parts of the volunteer program in French-speaking Canada.

“The WE organization did not know a thing about Quebec nor francophone communities across Canada, so they contracted a public relations firm (National) to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant,” Rayes said in a statement.

Rayes also confirmed that National contacted his office asking for a list of community organizations in his constituency, information to which the federal government already has access through the Canada Summer Jobs program.

“Justin Trudeau stated that WE Charity was the only organization capable of delivering the program. This is such a lack of respect for Francophones. It’s also further proof that this deal was aimed at bailing out the Prime Minister’s friends.”

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Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin confirmed that National called the office of his party leader, Yves-François Blanchet, to discuss the program. He also said that Chagger’s office had sent emails to MPs asking for suggestions of local non-profit organizations that could assist with the program.

“It’s like looking at the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Every day we see more and more and we are wondering what is under the water.”

He reiterated calls for Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau to resign over the controversy.

Charity lawyer Mark Blumberg also said that revelations about the National contract provides further evidence that WE Charity was not the sole organization capable of administering the program and the government could have sought other avenues.

“From the beginning it was clear to many in the charitable sector that the notion that WE Charity was the only charity in Canada that could implement such a program made little sense,” Blumberg said in an email. “Far more information is needed to be known.”

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Read more: 5 takeaways from Trudeau’s testimony in WE Charity scandal investigation

WE Charity and Trudeau’s Liberal government have been embroiled in controversy after it was revealed in June that the charity, founded by Marc and Craig Kielburger, would be administering the massive volunteer program and could receive as much as $43.53 million.

The agreement was cancelled on July 3 after it was revealed Trudeau’s family has received over $300,000 from WE affiliated organizations in speaking fees and that Morneau‘s daughter worked for the organization.

It was later revealed in testimony before a parliamentary committee that WE had paid over $500,000 in speaking fees and reimbursement costs to Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, his mother Margaret Trudeau and his brother Alexandre Trudeau.

Morneau testified on July 22 that he had recently paid the organization $41,366 to reimburse the organization for travel costs for a 2017 trip to Ecuador and Kenya.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee probing the government’s now-cancelled deal with WE Charity heard Thursday from charity watchdog organization Charity Intelligence Canada, which has previously raised red flags about WE’s finances, including that WE was in breach of its bank covenants in 2018.

Read more: WE Charity agreed to run student grant program as ‘favour’ to Canada, Kielburgers say

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Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence, said Thursday that she had previously found issues after just two days of reviewing WE’s financial data, which prompted her to contact the charity.

“I would really hope that if someone were making an investment of this size, that the government would have felt confident to ask questions and pick up the phone and seek clarification on anything that they were unclear about,” Bahen said.

In her opening remarks, she said several charities have seen major declines in revenue and donations due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Craig and Marc Kielburger, who testified before the committee last week, repeatedly denied allegations the charity was in any financial trouble. Former board member Michelle Douglas testified last week that she was asked to resign after demanding to see financial statements, which the Kielburger brothers denied.

“This program was developed in the midst of a global pandemic, when governments and the private sector were scrambling,” Craig Kielburger said. “Some have suggested that WE Charity was in dire financial straits prior to the (CSSG) and that somehow motivated our actions. It simply isn’t true.”

The charity has also previously said it has not violated any conditions of loan agreements with lenders.

Opposition parties are still hoping to hear from a list of key witnesses, including WE Charity’s chief financial officer, Victor Li, and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

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Qualtrough has said she won’t be available until next week and Li isn’t available until sometime in September, according to committee chair Wayne Easter.

—With files from Mike De Souza