From the moment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his student grant program last month, he and those close to him have battled to defend the Liberal government from allegations that have all but erased the goodwill Trudeau earned with his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, Trudeau and Katie Telford, his chief of staff, will take that battle to the House of Commons finance committee where they will face questions from MPs about the decision to task WE Charity — which has ties to the Trudeau family — with running a $900 million student grant program.
The contract awarded to WE Charity was arranged as a contribution agreement between WE and the federal government and not through a competitive process and has since been cancelled. The charity was to be paid $43.53 million to administer the program.
The end of that partnership came almost as swiftly as the outcry from opposition MPs, who said the contract raised conflict of interest concerns given the Trudeau family’s long relationship with the charity. Trudeau and his mother, Margaret, have appeared at a number of WE Day events, while Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the group called WE Well-being.
Margaret Trudeau was paid approximately $250,000 for speaking at 28 events, while Trudeau’s brother Alexandre spoke at eight events and received about $32,000 in speaking fees.
At committee on Tuesday it emerged that on top of the fees, Margaret Trudeau had been reimbursed $167,944 for expenses and Alexandre had been reimbursed $19,576. Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has also been reimbursed $25,326 for expenses related to her unpaid work for the organization.
Here are three questions some observers say Trudeau will likely face as he faces the committee.
1. Why was WE Charity the only partner the government could find to administer the program?
From the outset, Trudeau has insisted that the idea to have WE Charity administer the program came from the public service and not from any elected official. Bardish Chagger, the minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, told a committee last week that the recommendation came from senior assistant deputy minister Rachel Wernick.
Wernick told the committee July 17 that the federal government needed a third party to help deliver the program that had “massive reach and scale and the ability to mobilize the whole country.”
“They were an obvious option as the largest youth service charity in Canada, with high technological capacity and a Facebook following of four million youth,” she said.
Under questioning Tuesday, WE Charity co-founders Marc and Craig Kielburger said they were chosen because WE Charity had experience with large youth service programs in Canada and the United States.
“[We] were chosen because we were willing to leverage every part of our 25 years of experience to build this program at the breakneck speed required to have an impact for Canadian youth over the summer,” Craig Kielburger told MPs.
Conservative strategist Tim Powers says that argument has remained unconvincing for many. “His pitch is to Canadians, and I think where the doubt has been cast, is why weren’t there other options and I don’t think that Rachel Wernick has given that answer,” Powers told CBC News.
“Why was this the only option is the question he really needs to answer. It’s not going to be good enough to say the public service recommended it. You’re the prime minister, your cabinet is there, why wouldn’t they question the recommendation?”
2. Is the PM fully aware of the financial interests of his family members?
When it emerged that Trudeau’s family had received as much as $500,000 in speaking fees and reimbursed expenses it surprised many that neither Trudeau nor anyone in his office had declared a potential conflict of interest concerning the WE organization.
“Does the PMO have lists of all of the prime minister’s, and each staff person’s, private interests, family members, relatives, friends and all the businesses and organizations with which they are associated?” asked Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.
“If so, who checks those lists before each decision-making process begins to ensure that the PM and anyone else recuses themselves if they have a private interest that requires them to recuse themselves?
“If the PMO does not have these lists, why not?”
Conacher has asked Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion for investigations into both Morneau and Trudeau. Dion is already investigating both for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal.
Conacher has also written the RCMP asking for it to look into whether the prime minister violated the Criminal Code in his dealings with the charity.
3. What communications did Trudeau and Telford have with the public service about WE Charity?
While both Morneau and Trudeau have apologized for not recusing themselves from the May 22 cabinet meeting where the deal with WE Charity was approved, Trudeau should expect to be questioned about other discussions.
“Being at the final cabinet meeting, they (Trudeau and Morneau) shouldn’t have been there,” Conacher said. “They both apologized, but that’s a much smaller violation than intervening in the process and pushing it in any way in WE’s direction.”
Conacher says Trudeau will have to commit to providing every method of communication sent between the PMO and the public service concerning the deal in order to satisfy the committee.
The Kielburgers said under questioning at committee on Tuesday that they did not have communications with the Prime Minister’s Office.