Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the federal Lobbying Act’s requirements for lobbyists to register their communications with public office holders.
WE Charity — the organization under scrutiny for a now-cancelled deal to deliver a federal student volunteer grant program — is now registered to lobby the federal government and has retroactively registered more than 60 communication reports for contacts with public office holders since early 2019.
The charity had been criticized, particularly by opposition MPs, for not being registered to lobby despite its communications with the government over delivering the multi-million-dollar Canada Student Service Grant and the organization’s ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s families.
Testifying before the House of Commons finance committee on Thursday, WE Charity’s executive director Dalal Al-Waheidi told MPs the organization submitted its registration with the federal lobbyist registry on Thursday.
She defended the organization’s choice not to have registered previously, saying that in “past years,” WE Charity’s engagement with government was about “one to three per cent of our overall budget and engagement.”
“We thought it was minimal. If I thought that registration was required, we would have done it,” Al-Waheidi said.
Craig and Marc Kielburger, the brothers who founded the organization, also defended WE’s decision not to register as lobbyists when they testified before the finance committee in late July.
WE Charity’s new registration online lists 18 different staff members, including Al-Waheidi, and contains 65 communication reports for contacts with public office holders across 19 government departments, dating back to January 2019.
More than half of those reports are for communications since March 2020.
The finance committee is one of four parliamentary committees probing some aspect of the government’s controversial partnership with WE to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant. The agreement fell apart in early July as questions about it mounted.
Trudeau and Morneau are now both being investigated by the federal ethics watchdog for possibility violating conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing themselves from cabinet discussions about the WE deal.
The employee formerly responsible for WE Charity’s government and stakeholder relations, Sofia Marquez, also testified before MPs on the finance committee on Thursday. Marquez, who no longer works for WE, confirmed she never registered to lobby the federal government.
“I understood I was not the person responsible for the compliance of the (lobbying) act at WE Charity,” she said.
The federal Lobbying Act requires an organization with in-house lobbyists to register their communications with public office holders within two months of the point when its combined lobbying activities, over a one-month period, amounts to at least 20 per cent of the work of a single, full-time employee.
Last month, the opposition Conservative party asked the federal lobbying commissioner to investigate whether WE Charity violated the act.
Scott Baker, WE Charity’s chief operations officer, told MPs that the charity’s board of directors “at no point… raised any concerns” about the issue of formally registering with the federal lobbying registry.
Al-Waheidi said WE Charity began working on the implementation of the student program on May 5, more than two weeks before its involvement was approved by the Liberal cabinet. WE Charity did so because it wanted to be ready given tight timelines, she said, and isn’t asking the government to reimburse any of the eligible expenses incurred.
Before the partnership ended, the government did pay the WE organization $30 million. Questioned about why WE Charity has only reimbursed $22 million so far, Baker reiterated that WE is “in the process” of returning the remainder “as quickly as possible.”
“WE Charity has repeatedly communicated to ESDC the desire to return the remaining funds as soon as the government is able to accept the transfer,” the charity said in a statement earlier this week.
ESDC refers to Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department that recommended WE Charity administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), which had a budget of $912 million.
Baker told MPs the funds weren’t touched after they were received and that the money remains in bank accounts, not accumulating interest.
Al-Waheidi and Baker testified the same day The Canadian Press reported that WE Charity is scaling back its operations and making dozens of layoffs at its offices in Canada and the United Kingdom. The charity is also looking to sell some of its real estate holdings in Toronto, The Canadian Press reported.
Al-Waheidi referenced those layoffs in her prepared remarks to the finance committee but didn’t provide specifics, only saying they were “incredibly difficult and emotional.”
“I could never have imagined that the combination of COVID-19 and the political fallout of agreeing to partner on the CSSG could be so devastating for WE Charity, our staff, and the communities we serve,” she said, adding that “a lot” has also been lost by the cancellation of the agreement to run the student volunteer program.
Al-Waheidi conceded that WE Charity is “not perfect, especially when pulling apart every choice over 25 years.”
“But I hope that Canadians are willing to give us a second look,” she said.
-With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and The Canadian Press