Tories calling for criminal probe of PM's ties to WE Charity, halted federal contract
OTTAWA -- The federal Conservatives are calling for an RCMP investigation into the revelations that members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family were paid a total of nearly $300,000 to speak at WE Charity events, the organization that was granted a contract to deliver a now-halted $900 million COVID-19 student grant program.
“That revelation raises need for the police to take a look at it,” Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett said during a press conference on Friday.
The Conservatives are suggesting there could be criminal implications, but they aren’t sure and want police to investigate. The party has published an “open letter” to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki asking the national police force to determine whether the matter runs afoul of the Criminal Code section on government fraud.
“On the question of if it is criminal, that's for the RCMP to decide,” said Barrett, who authored the letter.
“Federal government proactive disclosures show that the Canada Student Service Grant is not the beginning of WE Charity’s dealings with the federal government. Government records confirm that, since 2017, WE Charity has received seven grants or contributions totalling about $5.2 million, plus another five contracts,” writes Barrett.
“I encourage the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the possibility of criminal offences arising from these disturbing facts. You and the very able members of the national police force possess the necessary skills, expertise and tools to get to the bottom of this,” he writes.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has called on the prime minister to "step aside" until the completion of the ethics commissioner investigation that is already underway, though the Conservatives are stopping short of demanding the same.
Barrett said he wants to wait and see whether a criminal investigation is launched.
“We're not looking to bring down the government on this issue. We're looking to get the truth,” he said.
The Conservatives are calling for all documents related to the contract to be made public, and already MPs have taken steps to dig into the issue using the parliamentary tools available to them, launching two separate studies into the sole-sourced contract with the intent, in part, of calling cabinet ministers to testify.
In an interview on CTV News Channel, Conservative MP and leadership candidate Erin O’Toole said he agrees with his caucus colleagues that “an examination by law enforcement is warranted.”
Fellow leadership hopeful Peter MacKay sent an email to supporters saying he was “deeply troubled” by the story and said Trudeau’s conduct is “part of a pattern as a serial ethical offender,” and potentially “far more” than an ethics breach. He said he supports the police looking into the matter.
“Justin Trudeau has yet to display any sense of contrition, guilt or humility in the face of all of the morally questionable and outright offensive actions he has committed throughout his adult and political life. The list is long, and it's growing,” he said.
WE CHARITY PAID PM'S FAMILY
On Friday, CTV News confirmed that WE Charity paid Trudeau’s mother Margaret Trudeau’s expenses to send her to Kenya in July 2019 to appear at the opening of “WE College.” The costs associated with the trip are estimated at $10,000. Former prime minister Kim Campbell was also in attendance.
On Thursday, WE Charity revealed that Trudeau's mother, Margaret Trudeau, spoke at approximately 28 events and was paid $250,000 in speaking honorariums between 2016 and 2020. The prime minister’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau, spoke at eight events from 2017 to 2018 and was paid a total of approximately $32,000.
More than $60,000 of that money, which WE Charity said is usually administered by corporate sponsors, was paid directly to Margaret Trudeau by the charity as the result of what WE Charity referred to as an "error" in billing and payment that was discovered through an “internal review.”
In addition to this, Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau — who is an ambassador with the organization and hosts a mental health podcast under its name — received a "one-time speaking honorarium" of $1,400 for participating in a youth event in 2012, before Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party.
The organization said all her other time spent participating in WE events and hosting a podcast series for the charity was "donated."
WE Charity said neither they nor ME to WE Social Enterprise have ever paid Justin Trudeau — who has spoken at a number of WE events — for any speeches or other matters.
In an emailed statement sent Thursday, Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office, said Trudeau's relatives "engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord."
Facing questions about what he knew as a member at the cabinet table, Industry Minister Navdeep Bains restated the government position that the advice to go ahead with WE Charities came from the public service.
“Clearly we are going in a different direction right now, but make no mistake, our government and our prime minister are absolutely committed to supporting students,” Bains said.
ETHICS PROBE UNDERWAY
Prior to the family payments being confirmed, Trudeau had already become the subject of an ethics investigation over the matter. The ethics commissioner is investigating a potential conflict of interest over his government's now-cancelled decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million federal program to set up placements and administer grants to students and new graduates for their volunteer work this summer.
"The Canada Student Service Grant program is about giving young people opportunities to contribute to their communities, not about benefits to anyone else," said the PMO in Thursday’s statement.
With the program halted, thousands of students are now in limbo without summer jobs and, for now, no chance for volunteer grants to help cover costs like fall tuition.
The grant to post-secondary students and recent graduates would provide one-time payments of up to $5,000 for volunteering in pandemic-related programs, depending on the number of hours worked. For every 100 hours spent, a student will receive $1,000.
While the charity backed out of the management of the program following days of controversy, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said, when confirming the probe, that the Conservatives’ request for an investigation "satisfies the requirements" laid out in the Conflict of Interest Act.
The Conservatives have alleged that Trudeau violated a provision in the Act that "prohibits public office holders from making any decision or participating in the making of a decision that furthers their private interests or improperly furthers the private interests of another person."
Opposition parties have said that Trudeau had a duty to recuse himself from any discussion or decision relating to the WE Charity, given the prime minister's close ties to the organization and his wife’s involvement, and that Trudeau violated the Act when he announced that WE Charity would administer the Canada Student Service Grant.
Trudeau confirmed on Wednesday that he did not recuse himself from the cabinet discussion on outsourcing the large government program. Asked why, Trudeau said he has “long worked on youth issues” before getting into politics.
He has previously said that the public service told his government that the WE Charity organization was the only group capable of administering the student program.
'A PATTERN OF BEHAVIOUR'
In a statement NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Friday that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the trio of Trudeau’s family members is “more than disturbing,” and illustrates a “pattern of behaviour.”
Singh pointed to the fact that this is now the third ethics investigation Trudeau has been subjected to since he became prime minister, with the two previous times resulting in findings that Trudeau had breached federal ethics law.
In December 2017 then-commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau broke the federal ethics act when he vacationed at the Aga Khan’s private island over the 2016 Christmas holidays with friends and family. And then in August 2019, Trudeau was found to have broken the federal Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the SNC-Lavalin scandal, by seeking to influence former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in "many ways."
In that report, Dion concluded after months of reviewing "troubling" evidence and relevant legal and constitutional principles, that Trudeau contravened section nine of the Act, which states that public office holders are prohibited from using their position to seek to influence a decision that furthers the interest of a private third party.
“The PM, his office and cabinet need to co-operate fully with the ethics commissioner and must waive cabinet confidentiality so the commissioner can truly get to the bottom of this,” Singh said.
“Canadians deserve to know the truth and need to know this won't happen again."
In an interview on CTV News Channel, Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith said that while the contract was eyebrow-raising, he doesn’t think that Trudeau should step aside while the investigation is underway.
“The government rightly listened and walked the program back, now I think the question is squarely focused on this conflict question and that's for the ethics commissioner to pursue… I will follow it closely,” he said.
With files from CTV News' Rachel Gilmore and Mackenzie Gray