“There was never any direction by or attempt to influence from me or my staff that the public service recommend WE Charity,” he said. “Getting young people to serve has been a goal of mine well before I ever got into politics, so I deeply regret how this has unfolded,” he added.
Trudeau conceded the grant program is “unlikely” to be part of the government’s $9 billion aid package for students this summer.
“And that is something that I regret,” he said.
Watch: Tory MP says WE deal is part of a bad pattern
Trudeau went before MPs Thursday to answer questions about his government’s since-scrapped deal with WE Charity to manage the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program, which had a budget of $912 million.
The new national program was designed to pay students between $1,000 to $5,000 for up to 500 hours of volunteer work related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WE Charity was originally responsible for recruitment, training, and finding more than 20,000 volunteer placements with non-profit organizations across the country.
The prime minister said he initially envisioned the Canada Service Corps would run the program. When he learned on May 8 that WE had been selected, Trudeau said he “pushed back” and hit “pause” before a cabinet decision, wanting to ensure that WE was the best choice and “the right and only partner to deliver the program.”
Two weeks later, Trudeau said he was briefed that the public service believed WE was the only organization with the reach needed to administer the program in a timely way.
“If we wanted the program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity,” Trudeau said he was told.
He also said he knew the decision would face extra scrutiny. The prime minister reiterated that he made a mistake by not recusing himself from discussions about WE and the program, given his family’s connections to the charity. Trudeau is now facing an ethics investigation over the controversy that has rocked his government as it grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.
Trudeau appeared at several WE events over the years and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an “ambassador” for the charity and hosts a podcast for the organization.
After reports from Canadaland and CBC News, WE Charity said this month that Margaret Trudeau, the prime minister’s mother and a mental-health advocate, received “a total of approximately $250,000 in speaking honorariums” for speaking at 28 WE Charity events between 2016 and 2020. Alexandre Trudeau, the prime minister’s brother, received $32,000. Those figures do not include a 20 per cent commission to their speaking agency.
WE Charity also said Grégoire Trudeau received a “one-time speaking honorarium of $1,400” in 2012.
WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger told the finance committee this week that the charity reimbursed the Trudeau family members for travel-related expenses. Though the Kielburger brothers did not come to committee with a detailed breakdown of travel-related reimbursements paid to the Trudeau family, Marc revealed the “average” expenses during their four-hour appearance Tuesday.
The average expense for Margaret Trudeau to attend 28 “WE Day” rallies between 2016 to 2020 was $5,998, he said. The average expense for Grégoire Trudeau’s seven WE Day events over three years was $3,618 he said. “Alexandre Trudeau came to eight WE Days over a span of two years, and the average expense was $2,447,” he said.
That adds up to possible reimbursements of $167,844 to Margaret Trudeau, $25,326 to Grégoire Trudeau, and $19,576 to Alexandre.
PM says wife’s volunteer work with WE cleared by ethics watchdog
Trudeau told the committee that his wife’s volunteer activities with WE and the repayment of her expenses were cleared by the ethics commissioner.
Federal Conservatives have called for a separate ethics investigation into those reimbursements to determine if they violate section 11 of the Conflict of Interest Act. It states “no public office holder or member of his or her family shall accept any gift or other advantage” that “might reasonably be seen” to have been given to influence that public office holder in the exercise of their duties.
Trudeau also said he was aware of his mother and brother’s roles with WE Charity, but did not know about their speaking fees until after the CSSG program was launched publicly.
“My mother’s connection to WE Charity and the other connections in my family could leave some people to wonder whether those connections have played some role in the decision to select WE Charity,” the prime minister said.
WE Charity did not receive preferential treatment, Trudeau continued. “Not from me. Not from anyone else.”
Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, later told the committee that she was aware of the prime minister’s wife’s work with WE and had only recently learned about Morneau’s family trips with the organization.
“We knew the facts as we knew them at the time,” referencing knowledge about the prime minister and his wife’s ties to the organization and the ethics commissioner’s greenlight of Grégoire Trudeau’s WE work.
“There wasn’t a discussion about conflict at the time.”
3 strikes, you’re out?
Opposition MPs noted Trudeau is now facing his third ethics probe in three years. In 2017, then-ethics commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by accepting family vacations on the Aga Khan’s private island. Last year, watchdog Mario Dion ruled the prime minister improperly pressured his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Conservatives have called for Trudeau to step down given the WE Charity controversy and, much like during the SNC-Lavalin affair, have also asked for a police investigation.
Tory finance critic Pierre Poilievre said after two strikes, the prime minister has admitted to a third with a failure to recuse himself on the matter. The Tory MP said Trudeau has likely violated the act again.
“What happens in baseball when you have three strikes?” Poilievre asked.
The prime minister struck a conciliatory tone.
“As I’ve said to Canadians a number of weeks ago, I should have recused myself knowing the connections with my family and the perceptions around this issue,” he said. “However, I did not intervene to make this recommendation happen.”
“It is so obvious, Mr. Trudeau, that these conflicts were there. Why did you think it didn’t apply to you?”
Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett asked Trudeau how many times one of his ministers would need to be found to have broken conflict rules before being fired — a dig at the prime minister’s track record on ethics issues.
Trudeau initially dodged the question by saying he has confidence in his cabinet formed of “extraordinary individuals” who want to serve their country. After Barrett kept pressing, Trudeau said anytime a minister contravenes the act, it’s taken seriously and the “gravity of the situation” is considered.
NDP MP Charlie Angus referenced Trudeau’s past ethics breaches and the concerns the prime minister said he raised about the optics of the WE deal.
“We’re not talking about perceptions. We’re talking about breaches of the law,” Angus said. “In your due diligence, why did you not bother to talk to the conflict of interest commissioner? It is so obvious, Mr. Trudeau, that these conflicts were there. Why did you think it didn’t apply to you?”
Trudeau again said the public service came to cabinet with a “binary choice” to either move forward with WE Charity or nothing at all.
“I did not influence the public service to choose this organization. And indeed, when the public service came forward with this organization, I said, ‘you know what? Let’s put the brakes on it. Let’s make sure that it’s done absolutely everything right because there are going to be questions because of the connections with my family on this,’’’ Trudeau said. “Yes, in hindsight, I should have recused myself.”
Angus fired back that Trudeau was throwing civil servants under the bus when the real issue is the prime minister’s judgment.
Watch the exchange:
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is also facing an ethics probe for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions about WE running the student grant program. One of Morneau’s daughters was an unpaid speaker at events. His other daughter is currently working on a contract with WE until the end of August.
During his appearance before the finance committee last week, Morneau revealed that he had repaid the WE organization $41,366 for travel expenses just before meeting with MPs. Morneau said he recently discovered the unpaid expenses in a review of two family trips to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017 to visit WE Charity’s school projects.
On Wednesday, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion announced that he was expanding his investigation into Morneau in light of his $41,000 repayment.
Trudeau told MPs that he was unaware his finance minister and his family had travelled with WE, and he was unaware Morneau’s daughter also worked for the organization.
During her testimony, Telford also said she did not know the extent of Morneau’s family connections to WE. She would not say if she thought Morneau broke conflict rules, nor would she weigh in on whether he ought to resign.
That’s a topic for the ethics commissioner “to spend time on,” she said.
“Minister Morneau has apologized, said he wished he recused himself from this cabinet decision and I obviously support that.”
Trudeau testified before MPs for roughly 90 minutes, though the committee had voted Wednesday for the prime minister to appear for three hours.
Note: HuffPost’s previous owner, AOL, sponsored and participated in WE Charity events and Free The Children trips.