Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strongly denied that he attempted to influence the controversial $900 million WE Charity deal during a testy parliamentary committee appearance today.
During his hour-and-a-half testimony, Trudeau was tasked with responding to questions about a recent scandal over the decision to hand a $912 million student grant program over to WE charity, an organization the Trudeau family has ties to.
Over the years, Trudeau’s mother and brother have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from the charity, Trudeau’s partner Sophie hosts a podcast for the charity, and Trudeau himself has participated in numerous WE events (although he has not been personally paid). Questioned by Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre about a hard figure of how much money his family has made from the charity, Trudeau said he “does not know.”
In his opening statements, Trudeau said the program’s development and roll out plan was rushed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trudeau said that the government first thought to use the Canadian Service Corps to deliver the program but found it wasn’t possible.
Trudeau said the Public Service recommended WE Charity come in as a third party to handle it and he didn’t learn of the decision and recommendation until a briefing on May 8, after the recommendation was already made. But he did admit some of his staff knew. Furthermore, he said that the bureaucracy were bullish on their recommendation.
“In effect, they told us if we wanted this program to happen it could only be with WE Charity,” said Trudeau. “The choice wasn’t between providers, it was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or not going ahead with the program at all.”
It is exceedingly rare for a sitting prime minister to go before a parliamentary committee to answer questions about an ongoing scandal. Previously Trudeau apologized for not recusing himself saying he realized he made a “mistake.” Trudeau also said he was not aware of the amount of money his mother had been paid for speaking at WE events. However, Trudeau was adamant there was no nepotism or corruption took in the decision.
“WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me nor anyone else,” said Trudeau. “The Public Service recommended WE Charity and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation.”
Trudeau said he regrets how the scandal impacted the program which he doesn't believe will be available for students this summer.
Near the end of the committee, Liberal MP Wayne Easter, the committee chair, had his power go out and he was dropped from the online meeting. Easter's disappearance occurred during a particularly tense exchange between Poilievre and Trudeau over how much his family had made from WE. Other MPs cut in to try to suspend the meeting.
“I suspected that might be the problem,” said Poilievre. “It’s very convenient timing for the lights to go out. I hope you don’t pull the fire alarm now.”
Poilievre, the vice-chair of the committee, took control and continued to question Trudeau until Easter came back minutes later.
The Liberal government claims the decision to grant WE this project came from the public service and not Trudeau. It was not a competitive process as only WE Charity was offered the gig. As a result of the scandal, WE is no longer in control of the program and ethics commissioner Mario Dion said he will be examining Trudeau’s role in the decision. Two parliamentary committees, including the one Trudeau testified at today, have been formed to investigate the affair.
WE Charity, with its celebrity-filled WE Day affairs, was one of Canada’s most successful charity organizations, in terms of brand recognition. Its finances, and workplace, has come under criticism in recent years after reporting from Canadaland.
The charity has been criticized for its lack of transparency and confusing financial situation which involves multiple companies and revenue streams. WE, which has faced hard times during the pandemic, including layoffs, was set to make up to $43.5 million from it’s handling of the student grant program.
During his testimony, Trudeau was pushed hard by Poilievre, Conservative MP Michael Barrett and NDP MP Charlie Angus, the latter of which said the scandal made him “question” Trudeau’s judgement. Barrett questioned the prime minister about who he was going to “fire” for the decision, and if he thought WE was a good choice to run the program.
“We’ll never know because they pulled out of being able to deliver the program. Partially because I hadn’t recused myself and created complications here and that’s something I deeply regret,” said Trudeau.
Earlier in the week, the other central figures in the scandal, WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, testified for about four hours before the same committee. The lengthy testimony was plagued by softball questions from the Liberals, arguing, questions about “motorized canoes,” and lots and lots of politicking. The Kielburgers said they weren’t expecting to make money from the deal with the government.
The testimony, which at times got heated, allowed the Kielburger brothers to push back on the media and recent coverage of the charity. In recent months, WE have been under scrutiny for their labyrinthine financial systems, and the lengths it will go to build and defend its polished image.
This is the third ethics investigation into Trudeau. The other two being the trip he took with the Aga Khan and the SNC Lavalin scandal. In both incidents, the ethics commissioner found Trudeau committed at least some form of wrong-doing.
Canada’s finance minister Bill Morneau is also facing scrutiny as his daughters work for the charity and took more than $41,000 in travel expenses from WE. Morneau paid back the expenses when they came to light. Like Trudeau, Morneau is likewise being investigated by the ethics commissioner.
Both face calls for resignation from opposition MPs.
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