Resignation calls revived over WE affair, as PM skips special House sitting
OTTAWA -- Questions around the ongoing WE Charity student grant controversy and concerns about the Liberals' handling of other pandemic response efforts dominated Wednesday’s special summer House of Commons sitting, as the Bloc Quebecois continued to push for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two of his top officials to resign, threatening attempts to force a snap election if they don’t.
While Trudeau wasn’t in the House to take any of the opposition questions, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and others in cabinet fielded a volley of inquiries about their ethical concerns with the Liberal’s approach to various COVID-19 aid programs.
Trudeau’s absence at the third of four of the pre-arranged special summer sitting days was noted repeatedly during question period, with some MPs noting they managed to make it into the Commons or onto the virtual video conference to participate in the sitting.
“Mr. Speaker, I'm happy to speak on behalf the prime minister and say that he continues to view his role, and our role as a government is to support Canadians. We continue to be in emergency time,” Morneau said, as the opposition sought new information about the WE Charity controversy and the ongoing conflict of interest investigations that the ethics commissioner is pursuing, as well as new concerns about the Liberals' handling of the federal rent relief program.
Both Morneau and Trudeau have appeared before the House of Commons Finance Committee to testify on the WE matter, which is one of several committees now either studying or looking to study the controversial student grant deal. The House Ethics Committee has asked to hear more from Trudeau on the affair and there’s also a pending trove of documents set to be presented to MPs in the days ahead, detailing more cabinet correspondence about the grant program.
Select other cabinet ministers have also testified, sometimes more than once, about this summer’s main federal political controversy. Telford has also appeared, where she doubled down on Trudeau’s testimony that he did nothing to influence the decision, rather he sought extra scrutiny because the PMO was aware early on of the perceived conflict Trudeau had in granting the now-likely cancelled $912-million student volunteer grant program.
Further, as The Canadian Press has reported, the government handed responsibility for the program to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, but the Crown corporation decided to contract it out to MCAP, a mortgage lender that employs Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford's husband.
The Prime Minister's Office has said that CMHC independently chose to outsource the $84-million program and that Telford set up an ethics screen as to not be involved with agreements that MCAP stood to benefit from.
In what will be his last day in the House of Commons as the Official Opposition Leader, Andrew Scheer called out Trudeau’s absence and referenced a series of past Liberal scandals over his three years as Conservative leader.
“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has had enough. He's tired of accountability and facing tough questions. He doesn't want to explain why he paid off his friends at WE with taxpayers money. He won't tell us about the contract that he gave to the company that employs his top staffer’s husband,” Scheer said. “So can the person auditioning for the role of prime minister today please tell us why the prime minister picked today, if he wasn't going to show up?”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also questioned the government’s handling of these aid programs.
“What we’re seeing is Liberals, helping themselves instead of helping people,” he said.
Wednesday morning, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet revived his calls for Trudeau and Morneau to resign, and added Telford to his list. He is threatening to try for a snap fall election unless three of the most senior figures in the federal government leave their roles.
“We are getting to the point where the question becomes: which is worse? Keeping them and this government in place, or creating a temporary distortion in the management of the crisis in going into an election, which might replace them with people better suited for the job. Our point is that as one important voice for Quebec, we observe that this government might not be worthy of our trust anymore,” Blanchet said.
MINISTER INSISTS 'HOMEWORK' WAS DONE ON WE CHARITY
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Small Business Minister Mary Ng were both put in the hot seat over the WE debacle when they appeared before the finance committee today.
Qualtrough, who had appeared before the ethics committee on the same subject the day before, insisted that the public service had made it clear WE Charity was the only organization capable of delivering the grant. When pressed on the issue, she said she has "every confidence that people did their homework."
Qualthrough said said that using a third party was "really the best way to do this, in [her] opinion."
Meanwhile, Ng was grilled over her conversations with the charity back in April, when she said Craig Kielburger called her to pitch a social entrepreneurship program — a pitch that she said her office ultimately turned down.
"The recommendation was that it was not really within my mandate, and therefore I took the recommendation and decided not to proceed with the social entrepreneurship program," Ng said.
ONE SPECIAL SITTING LEFT ON AGENDA
Wednesday’s House sitting is one of four special gatherings of MPs in the hybrid in-person and virtual setups to allow parliamentarians to continue discussing the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic response plans. After today’s special sitting there’s just one left on the agenda, two weeks from now.
In addition to questioning cabinet on the status of the slate of pandemic aid programs and a “take note” debate on the ongoing public health crisis, there will be a question period in which any topic can be discussed, and it’s there that the WE controversy is set to be the main subject.
After the Aug. 26 sitting day, the House of Commons is not scheduled to reconvene until Sept. 21. It’s at that time that the opposition could first try to move a motion of non-confidence in the Liberal minority government, should the ongoing controversy remain their central area of concern.
Voting on a non-confidence motion would require either a full resumption of regular sittings, or a plan for remote voting if the pandemic risk is still high enough to keep the full roster of 338 MPs out of the Chamber. At this point it remains to be seen which approach MPs will adopt for the fall sitting.
Blanchet told reporters on Wednesday that he had yet to have formal talks with the other opposition parties about a non-confidence vote, and shot down questions about the appetite for a federal election amid an ongoing pandemic.
“Which is more dangerous, the mismanagement of a crisis or taking the time to change the people who are managing the crisis?” Blanchet said, adding that it’s every MP’s job to be the voice of their constituents and in his view, more and more Canadians are asking questions about the Liberals’ handling of Canadians’ money.
The Conservatives have already put a non-confidence motion on notice, several months ago and before either the pandemic or the WE matter arose. The party now has the ability to table that motion, though the caucus remains in a political leadership limbo as it awaits the results of the election to name a new leader. Scheer’s replacement is set to be named shortly after Aug. 21.
If advanced, a non-confidence motion would need the backing of more than Bloc and Conservative MPs to pass. At this point the NDP is indicating it is not interested in forcing an election over this ongoing scandal, rather their approach is that the government has to earn the confidence of Canadians through how it handles the pandemic.
“The world has better things to worry about than Blanchet pulling his latest hissy fit,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus. “I’ve got people back home who want to know what we’re going to about the CERB. I have people who are worried about schools starting. I want to get accountability from these guys, that’s our focus right now.”
In a statement to CTV News, interim Green Party Leader Jo-Ann Roberts said her party’s position is that it is “irresponsible to trigger an election during an active pandemic.”
“However, if an election was triggered we would take part,” she continued. “Our MPs are concentrating on holding the current government to account and getting Canadians the support they need during COVID 19. As a party we also hope we are able to complete our leadership contest before any possible election call. Our leadership contest ends on October 3rd.”
With files from CTV News' Rachel Gilmore