Documents suggest Bill Morneau’s office played key role in WE decision

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Liberal minister, Treasury Board pushed back on WE deal
WATCH: The thousands of pages of documents the feds released about the WE Charity deal also reveal who had serious concerns about it. Abigail Bimman explains – Aug 20, 2020

Editor’s Note: The headline of this story has been updated for clarity. 

Thousands of pages of documents are shedding new light on how the office of former finance minister Bill Morneau played a central role in the government’s decision to award the now-cancelled multi-million-dollar contract to WE Charity.

Click to play video: 'Documents shed new light into WE Charity affair; Conservatives accuse Liberals of coverup'
Documents shed new light into WE Charity affair; Conservatives accuse Liberals of coverup

The 5,000 pages of documents released Tuesday to members of the House of Commons finance committee include dozens of emails and memos from Morneau’s office in relation to the $912-million student volunteer program.

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The emails from April show public servants from Morneau’s office pushing the idea of WE Charity’s involvement in administering the area and portray a friendly relationship between Morneau and co-founders of WE Charity Craig and Marc Kielburger that was so close Morneau’s department referred to them as “besties.”

They include three emails that Craig Kielburger sent directly to Morneau on April 10, April 22 and April 26 in which he addressed the former minister by his first name.

Click to play video: 'RCMP ‘examining’ Ottawa’s WE Charity contract'
RCMP ‘examining’ Ottawa’s WE Charity contract

The controversy over the now-cancelled program has spawned investigations by the federal ethics watchdog into possible conflict of interest on the part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose family has received over $500,000 in speaking fees and reimbursements from WE Charity, and Morneau. The former minister and his family previously accepted trips, which were later repaid, to visit WE Charity projects in Ecuador and Kenya, and his daughter works for the charity.

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Trudeau and Morneau have both apologized for not recusing themselves from the government’s decision to award the WE Charity contract.

Global News reached out to the Ministry of Finance for comment with a list of questions about the emails and communications between Morneau’s office and Craig Kielburger, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

WE Charity has maintained that it would not have profited from the agreement and Craig Kielburger testified last month that they would never have taken the call from the civil service if they’d known how controversial the program would be.

The charity said in a statement that the CSSG was awarded on merit and was first approached by the Trudeau government on April 19.

“WE Charity was first approached regarding the CSSG by [Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada] on April 19,” the charity said. “The documents confirm that the WE Charity was recommended by public servants.

The documents reveal that in early April, Craig Kielburger approached Morneau, Small Business Minister Mary Ng and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger about a $12-million Social Entrepreneurship Initiative designed to help 8,000 young people become engaged in the non-profit sector.

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In an April 10 email from Craig Kielburger, which opens with “Hi Bill,” he offers details to Morneau about a plan to scale up a “youth social entrepreneurship program … with the purpose of mitigating economic struggles and preparing for a post-pandemic world.”

“You once told me that you sought public office to make a difference – and this is certainly the most defining impact that you will ever have for the country,” Kielburger wrote.

(Handout). (Handout)

Morneau testified last month that on April 7, roughly a dozen organizations, including WE, were contacted by officials as part of an “engagement effort” to help students amid the ongoing pandemic.

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Chagger, his former cabinet colleague, would later speak with Craig Kielburger on April 17 to discuss the charity’s original pitch for a youth social entrepreneurship program. This pitch was ultimately rejected.

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By April 18, Morneau said he had been advised that a partnership with a third party might be needed to help deliver the massive program and that WE was raised as an option.

“This was the first time that I’d been involved with any discussion related to WE Charity and what would become the Canada Student Service Grant,” Morneau told a parliamentary committee.

Morneau said he “verbally approved” the grant program on April 21, but said that WE hadn’t been chosen at that point.

The newly released documents show that on April 22, Craig Kielburger emailed both Chagger and Morneau at around 11:30 a.m.

Click to play video: 'WE scandal: Craig Kielburger says hiring Bill Morneau’s daughter not considered lobbying'
WE scandal: Craig Kielburger says hiring Bill Morneau’s daughter not considered lobbying

In his email to Chagger, Craig Kielburger thanked her for listening to the proposal during the April 17 meeting and said WE had begun to rework the proposal to fit into the national volunteer program the government was planning.

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“Hi Minister Chagger, thank you again for your time Friday. We greatly appreciate you so kindly listening to our proposal… We appreciate your thoughtful offer to connect us with relevant members of your ministry,” he wrote in the email, which included the proposal with new options. “Our weekend team has also been hard at work to adapt your suggestion of a second stream focused on a summer service opportunity.”

Chagger said in a statement to Global News that she never told WE Charity to adjust their proposal on the April 17 call.

“As the minister responsible for the Canada Service Corps, I spoke about the importance of youth and service; I at no time directed WE Charity to amend or adjust or add any proposal,” Chagger said. “Furthermore, I did not speak about the Canada Student Service Grant, as I was not aware of plans for such a program at that time.”

Kielburger’s email to Morneau included the same proposal related to conversations to provide a “national program” to support young people during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Hi Bill, I hope that you’re doing well during times of enormous work volumes,” Kielburger wrote. “Attached is a proposal that summarizes both options that WE Charity can turn-key to launch this summer with hundreds of support staff ready to deliver.”

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A few days later on Sunday, April 26, Morneau called Craig Kielburger directly. Morneau has previously said that neither of them talked about the Canada Student Service Grant program on the call. Craig Kielburger also testified that he only brought up the youth business proposal and not the grant program.

“During that call [Morneau] did ask general questions about Mr. Kielburger’s view of the non-for-profit sector and youth,” WE Charity said in a statement. “There were no discussions of the CSSG program during this call.”

After the call, Craig Kielburger sent an email thanking Morneau.

“It was incredibly thoughtful of you to call,” Kielburger wrote in a longer email, which was heavily redacted. WE Charity released further portions of the email Thursday which details about projections for a second wave of COVID-19.

Following calls to Chagger and Morneau, Amitpal Singh, a policy adviser in Morneau’s office, emailed Michelle Kovacevic, an assistant deputy minister at Finance, on April 27 to say it was “best if we view WE’s role in three key areas,” which included being a service provider for the volunteer program.

“Had a talk with the Minister this morning on national service, he is concerned the government will drop the ball if our department doesn’t proactively pursue this project and engage with Employment and Social Development Canada,” she wrote.

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Kovacevic also wrote that that “ESDC thinks that ‘WE’ might be able to be the volunteer matching third party.”

“The mission of WE is congruent with national service and they have a massive following on social media,” she wrote.

Kovacevic wrote in a separate email that the Prime Minister’s Office had been “weighing in” on the latest student grant proposal, which had become “bit of a sh-t show.”

“There has been a lot of back and forth on a student package, as you well know, and PMO has been weighing in on a version we shared with our minister on Saturday,” she wrote.

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Trudeau originally announced a $9-billion assistance package for students on April 22, which included an outline for the $912-million volunteer grant program.

“The Canada Student Service Grant — bit of a sh-t show and the way it is positioned right now is not exactly how we will go forward, there is positive communication with WE to be a partner here and discussions are encouraging on that front. (but just discussions, no agreement),” Kovacevic wrote.

In another e-mail, she thanked her co-workers for “keeping the relationship with WE strong.”

“I think this is the right organisation for a call to action for national service. They are pretty snazzy. Like me,” she wrote.

Earlier this week, Morneau resigned as minister amid ongoing questions about the WE Charity controversy and reports of friction between him and Trudeau.

“I met with the prime minister today to inform him that I did not plan to run again in the next federal election,” Morneau told reporters Monday evening. “It has never been my plan to run for more than two federal election cycles.”

In July, just hours before testifying before a parliamentary committee probing the WE controversy, Morneau said he cut a cheque to WE for more than $40,000 to cover expenses for trips he and his family took with the organization in 2017 to Kenya and Ecuador.

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“Today, I wrote a cheque in payment of $41,366,” he said. “I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips and it was my responsibility to make sure that was done.

“This was a mistake on my behalf.”

Click to play video: 'Bill Morneau stepping down as Federal Finance Minister'
Bill Morneau stepping down as Federal Finance Minister

Morneau, who was part of cabinet meetings where the agreement with WE was discussed, told MPs that he should have recused himself.

“I provided approval on the final revised funding decision for the program on June 3,” said Morneau. “That was my last direct engagement with the program’s development.”

Conservative MPs, meanwhile, have accused Trudeau of a “coverup” after Trudeau announced he was proroguing Parliament until Sept. 23, which suspended the committee work of MPs probing the WE Charity student volunteer grant controversy.

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Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre told reporters that Trudeau was attempting to avoid scrutiny of his government’s role in the ongoing scandal.

“It’s clear Justin Trudeau has something to hide,” Poilievre said. “He does not want Canadians to know what’s in these documents, and that’s why he shut down this parliamentary investigation.”

Trudeau has said proroguing Parliament will allow his government to present a long-term economic recovery plan for Canada post-pandemic and an opportunity for the House of Commons to vote on whether it has confidence in the government to move forward on that plan.

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