Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Tuesday that Conservatives are playing politics by pushing for a special anti-corruption committee to examine the WE Charity controversy while his government focuses on helping Canadians through the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a press conference in Ottawa, alongside Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, Trudeau was asked what he thought about the Tories’ proposal for a new committee to probe the government’s since-scrapped decision to have WE Charity administer the Canada Student Service Grant program. The arrangement fell apart amid questions about Trudeau’s ties to the charity, including speaking fees paid to members of his family, as well as those of his former finance minister Bill Morneau.
Watch: Trudeau says fate of WE Charity ‘unfortunate’
Trudeau said his attention is on the COVID-19 crisis and suggested he has said all he intends to on the controversy that dogged his government throughout the summer, and contributed to WE Charity’s decision to close its Canadian operations.
“We are entirely focused on the second wave of COVID-19. We are working to support Canadians, to support workers, to support families, to support small businesses as we get through this second wave,” he said. “We will continue to stay focused on what we need to do to support Canadians facing a very difficult time right now.”
He suggested the opposition is fixated on the wrong issue.
“The Conservatives continue to want to focus on the WE Charity. So be it. But I appeared at committee myself months ago, we released thousands of pages of documents, we’ve been open and transparent on these questions,” he said.
“But the Conservatives continue to want to focus on that. They certainly can. We will stay focused on Canadians while we let committees do their work independently.”
Asked directly if he opposes the creation of a new committee dedicated to the issue, Trudeau ducked the question but again implied he has bigger fish to fry.
“Our government is focused in almost all our ministries, all our departments, and all the public servants on trying to contain and prevent further spread… of this virus, to prevent further Canadian deaths,” he said.
The opposition can focus on “whatever it is they want,” he said. “We will stay focused on Canadians.”
The prime minister faces an investigation by the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner over his role in the controversy, as does Morneau, who stepped down as a minister and MP in August. Trudeau has apologized for not having recused himself from the cabinet decision to tap WE Charity to run the student grant program, given his family connections, but has maintained it was federal public servants who recommended the organization.
Trudeau appeared before the House of Commons finance committee in July for roughly 90 minutes to answer questions about the ill-fated program. The government released thousands of pages of partially redacted documents that suggested public servants were nudged in WE’s direction by Youth Minister Bardish Chagger.
When Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August, which, he said, was needed to plot a new throne speech reflecting the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, it shut down committee work, including investigations into the scandal by both the finance and ethics committees. Conservatives blasted the move as a “coverup.”
On Monday, as Canadians were celebrating Thanksgiving, Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Michael Barrett called a press conference in Ottawa to announce their proposal for a distinct committee focused on further probing the WE issue. New Democrats and the Bloc Québecois support the move, which the Tories say will free up the ethics and finance committees to focus on other matters.
Barrett, his party’s ethics critic, said Conservatives want to know what is in the redacted documents that were given to MPs.
“There has to be something pretty significant, pretty explosive in those documents, to shut down Parliament, to stop their release and then, once Parliament resumes, to filibuster committee for days on end to prevent their further release,” he said.
“The Conservatives continue to want to focus on the WE Charity. So be it.”
On Friday, Liberal MPs on the finance committees stymied the opposition’s attempt to pass a motion calling on Speakers’ Spotlight to share details of speaking fees paid to Trudeau, his mother Margaret, his brother Alexandre, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, since 2008. Trudeau was first elected to the House that year in the Quebec riding of Papineau.
The office of Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez told The Canadian Press Monday that the prime minister, his chief of staff Katie Telford, and various public servants, including the clerk of the Privy Council, have already appeared at committee to answer questions about WE.
Rodriguez’s office told HuffPost Canada Tuesday he had nothing further to add to Trudeau’s remarks.
He would not say if Liberal MPs would be instructed to oppose any motion establishing a special anti-corruption committee.
With files from The Canadian Press and Althia Raj