In a year of rare and unexpected twists, Parliament Hill is about to see another: a sitting Prime Minister testifying in the midst of his own government’s controversy.
On Thursday, Justin Trudeau will speak at the finance committee to address his cabinet’s decision to award WE Charity the now-cancelled contract to run the Canada Student Service Grant. The only examples the Library of Parliament could find of sitting prime ministers testifying at a parliamentary committee were Joe Clark on spending estimates and Stephen Harper on Senate reform.
Neither of them was testifying while at the centre of a growing controversy.
It has been more than a month since the government first announced WE Charity would run the $912-million program. The close ties between the charity and Mr. Trudeau and his family prompted accusations of conflicts of interest and the arrangement was cancelled on July 3. Since then, revelations in the press have laid bare much deeper connections between the organization and senior Liberals, with immediate relatives being paid by the charity and WE covering travel expenses for Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s family in 2017. He paid the $41,366 back last week.
In the case of the Prime Minister, his wife, mother and brother have all been paid for their participation in events with WE. His mother, Margaret Trudeau, and brother, Alexandre Trudeau, were both paid while the Liberals were in government. Since 2016, Ms. Trudeau has been paid $312,000, including a commission to the agency that represents her.
The question, according to the opposition, is whether the Liberal government gave WE Charity the inside track on a government contract. Mr. Trudeau and his Finance Minister have both apologized for failing to recuse themselves, and Mr. Morneau issued a second apology for his “serious oversight,” in failing to immediately pay for his family’s travel with the charity. But both men maintain the decision to award WE the contract was above board and based on the advice of the civil service, with Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger ultimately responsible for the file.
Contradictory statements are also emerging between the charity and the government as to how WE became involved. The group’s co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger will testify at committee on Tuesday. In a statement, the charity said they are “eagerly anticipating the opportunity to set the record straight and clarify a number of matters.”
Since the program was first announced in April, public figures on how much the program was to cost taxpayers and how much WE would be paid to run it have changed substantially: from a $912-million program to a contract that shows the government had agreed to spend “up to” $543.5-million on the initiative, and from WE receiving at least $19.5-million to run the program to as much as $43.5-million.
Testimony from Ms. Chagger, Mr. Morneau and senior civil servants as well as reporting from The Globe and Mail have so far revealed that WE made multiple program pitches to ministers’ offices and the Privy Council Office in April before the new student service program was publicly announced and was being consulted by the government ahead of the announcement.
What remains unclear in the awarding of the contract is the role of political staff and cabinet – in particular the Prime Minister’s Office – in directing the policy development and decision to outsource the program rather than run it in-house. Similarly, the government has not said who championed WE to run the program and when cabinet decided to award WE the contract. So far Mr. Trudeau’s office has held back from disclosing key pieces of information. For example, requests from The Globe for information about who in the Prime Minister’s Office spoke with officials at WE remain unanswered except to clarify that his chief of staff Katie Telford did not have direct contact with WE. And Mr. Trudeau’s office has not answered whether it too received proposals from WE.
A timeline of key events in WE Charity, Trudeau government contract controversy
The information below is collected from The Globe and Mail’s reporting, statements from the Prime Minister’s Office and WE Charity and testimony at the House of Commons finance committee from Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart, assistant deputy minister in the Finance Department Michelle Kovacevic, and senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) Rachel Wernick.
March 4: Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau and her daughter Ella-Grace attend a WE Day event in London. Ms. Grégoire Trudeau is an ambassador and ally with the WE organization and her travel expenses were paid for by WE. The Prime Minister’s Office says her “involvement with WE has been cleared by the Ethics Commissioner.”
April 5: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau speak by phone about the need for new measures to help students during the pandemic.
April 6: Mr. Morneau instructs his political staff and departmental officials to start brainstorming ideas. Finance officials reach out to colleagues at ESDC to discuss options for supporting students.
April 7: More than a dozen organizations, including WE, are contacted by federal officials as part of an effort to develop potential programs to help students. International Trade and Small Business Minister Mary Ng meets with WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger. The charity says Ms. Ng encouraged the organization to send a proposal related to their discussion. Ms. Ng’s spokesperson Ryan Nearing previously told The Globe Ms. Ng “did not meet with WE to discuss this proposal.”
April 9: Offices for Mr. Morneau, Ms. Chagger and Ms. Ng receive a proposal from WE for a social entrepreneurship program for youth. The pitch would give youth training in entrepreneurship and mentorship. It includes paying participants a $500 cash grant. It would cost taxpayers between $6-million and $14-million, depending on the scale of the program.
April 16: In a discussion with Finance and ESDC officials, WE Charity is raised as one possibility for delivering volunteer opportunities across the country. WE Charity was raised by officials at ESDC, Ms. Kovacevic said. The call included Ms. Kovacevic, ESDC associate deputy minister Benoît Robidoux and Ms. Wernick. Ms. Kovacevic said she agreed with looking at WE as an option. “This wasn’t about bringing in WE. This was about the fact that we could partner with a company like WE to do volunteer matching,” Ms. Kovacevic told the committee.
April 18: Ms. Kovacevic briefs Mr. Morneau’s office on progress on the file and tells them “that ESDC had informed us that WE Charity may be an option.” Her team also has a phone call with officials at ESDC. “I cannot recall who actually raised the idea to speak with WE, but I can recall that we all agreed to it,” Ms. Kovacevic said. Ms. Wernick said at committee that to the best of her recollection WE was first raised by Finance officials.
April 19: Ms. Wernick speaks with Craig Kielburger to get input on the program concept. In the phone call, Craig tells her about the April 9 proposal that WE had sent to ministers’ offices.
April 20: Mr. Morneau’s office speaks with WE Charity to discuss its ability to deliver volunteer opportunities. Notes provided by the minister’s office said WE Charity would “rework” its initial proposal to the government to “fully meet the policy objective of national service,” Ms. Kovacevic said. That same day the Privy Council Office receives a proposal from WE.
April 21: The Finance Minister’s office receives another proposal from WE that includes a volunteer service element. The Finance Minister verbally approves his department’s recommendations on the “broad parameters” of the Canada Student Service Grant, including the potential involvement of a third party. “To be clear, no third party such as WE was chosen or directed within this approval,” Mr. Morneau said. His comment was reiterated by Ms. Kovacevic.
April 22: The Prime Minister announces support for postsecondary students and new graduates, including the Canada Student Service Grant. Ms. Wernick learns for the first time the specifics of the program from the Prime Minister’s announcement. On the same day, Craig e-mails her a “detailed proposal to quickly develop tens of thousands of volunteer placements for youth within a few weeks.” The Privy Council Office also receives a proposal from WE. The charity says the proposal is also sent to Ms. Chagger, Mr. Morneau and Ms. Ng. Mr. Nearing did not mention the second proposal his minister received in a previous statement to The Globe. Ms. Wernick said officials determined WE’s “draft proposal was the best available option in the time we had to work with.” Ms. Wernick said the proposal was unsolicited and she received no other unsolicited proposals for the program. WE has said the proposal sent to Ms. Wernick was in response to a request from her on April 19.
April 23: Finance and ESDC officials discuss the possibility of WE Charity running the program and delivering volunteer placements.
April 24: ESDC and Finance officials speak with WE Charity to better understand the organization and its capacity. “No commitments were made other than ESDC would follow up,” Ms. Kovacevic said. She said further development of the detailed program proposal was turned over to ESDC.
April 26: The Finance Minister calls Craig. Mr. Morneau said this was done in the context of understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the ground, and he had spoken to other business and labour leaders as well. “He did not raise the Canada Student Service Grant, nor did I,” Mr. Morneau said.
May 2: Ms. Grégoire Trudeau’s podcast with WE, called WE Well-being, launches.
May 5: Ms. Chagger presents the special COVID-19 cabinet committee with a proposal for the Canada Student Service Grant. Mr. Morneau does not attend the meeting.
May 7: Mr. Morneau is briefed by officials on the missed cabinet meeting and is told the issue is going to the full cabinet for a decision on May 22. ESDC officials provide the Finance Department with a copy of a May 4 proposal from WE Charity to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant for the government. Ms. Kovacevic said this was the first time Finance officials saw a proposal where WE Charity was a viable option to run the program.
May 22: The full cabinet signs off on the grant program. “I should not have participated in that discussion and I regret that I did not recuse myself at that time,” Mr. Morneau would later tell MPs on the committee.
June 3: Mr. Morneau approves the final funding plan for the student grant. “That was my last direct engagement with the program’s development,” Mr. Morneau said.
June 23: WE Charity is told it has been approved to run the student service grant. The deal is struck through a contribution agreement with no open competition.
June 25: The Prime Minister announces the details of the Canada Student Service Grant. A background document says it will be run by WE Charity.
June 26: Controversy erupts over the decision to award the contract to WE Charity. The Prime Minister and his family’s regular appearances at WE events prompt accusations of cronyism from the opposition.
July 3: WE’s contract is terminated and Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion launches his third investigation into Mr. Trudeau.
July 8: The Prime Minister concedes for the first time that cabinet decided to award WE the contract to run the student service grant and he did not recuse himself from the decision. Mr. Trudeau tells reporters he didn’t recuse himself because “getting young people involved in serving their country … particularly through this time of crisis, is something I believe in deeply.”
July 9: News breaks that Mr. Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother have all been paid for their participation in WE events. In statements to CBC and The Globe, the Prime Minister’s Office and WE had previously denied they were paid for their participation.
July 10: News breaks that one of Mr. Morneau’s daughters works for WE and another daughter participates in WE events on a voluntary basis. His office also says Mr. Morneau and his family travelled with WE, but said the Morneau family paid for all associated expenses. On July 22, that was revealed to be wrong.
July 12: The Globe reports that Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, were part of an organization that helped raise $400,000 for WE Charity when it was called Free the Children and before the Liberals were in government.
July 13: Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau apologize for not recusing themselves from the cabinet decision to award WE the contract.
July 15: The WE organization announces it will restructure its non-profit and for-profit entities, wind down some of its domestic programming, focus on international work and launch a second review of its board in one year.
July 16: Ms. Chagger says the amount WE stood to be paid for administering the contract was more than double what her government first reported, from at least $19.5-million to $43.5-million. Officials say the contract did not follow a competitive process. The Ethics Commissioner announces he will also investigate Mr. Morneau. This is the second investigation into the Finance Minister.
July 21: Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart says he can’t imagine how Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau couldn’t have been part of the decision-making process on such a large program. Mr. Shugart tells committee that to his knowledge there were no red flags raised about the charity when the public service conducted its due diligence on the organization.
July 22: Mr. Morneau announces he neglected to pay $41,366 to WE for trips his family took with the charity in 2017. The costs covered seven people. Mr. Morneau said he was “completely surprised” that the expenses hadn’t been paid and he only learned about the “serious oversight” while reviewing his receipts in recent days. WE says the trips were offered to the Morneau family on a complimentary basis. Mr. Morneau tells the committee he had always intended to pay for them. “Not doing so, even unknowingly, is not appropriate. I want to apologize for this error on my part,” he says. Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Telford agree to testify at committee.
July 23: The Globe reports that some of WE Charity’s biggest sponsors have begun to reassess their ties to the organization including Telus Corp., which dropped its multiyear sponsorship, and a charity connected to Prince Harry that has questioned WE officials about the federal government outsourcing scandal.
July 27: The Globe reports that the former chair of WE Charity’s board of directors, Michelle Douglas, left the organization in March amid “concerning developments” at WE and that she did “not resign in the ordinary course of matters.” The charity says its board turnover earlier this year was part of a long-planned change, stemming from a 2019 review. The contribution agreement between the government and WE Charity is released.
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