Trudeau, Morneau apologize for not recusing themselves from WE decision
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have issued apologies for not removing themselves from conversations about granting WE Charity a sole-sourced contract to run the now-halted $900 million COVID-19 student volunteer program, given their personal connections to the organization.
"I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions, given our family's history, and I'm sincerely sorry about not having done that," Trudeau said.
Trudeau said he is sorry for how the rollout of the Canada Student Service Grant program went, and he regrets the “unnecessary controversy” it’s caused.
“The mistake that we made was on me, and I take responsibility for it. We will continue to work very, very hard to deliver the program,” Trudeau said, speaking about the ongoing controversy during his first national address on the federal government’s latest COVID-19 response plans from Rideau Cottage in two weeks.
Over the last two weeks, the controversy surrounding the government’s decision to allow the WE Charity to deliver a now-halted $900 million COVID-19 student grant program has grown considerably.
WE Charity backed away from administering the grants amid questions about Trudeau’s involvement, but also in light of a series of news stories about racialized former employees’ experiences with the organization.
The ethics commissioner also launched a probe into a potential conflict of interest with Trudeau’s decision to grant the organization the contract to administer the program, given the prime minister’s close personal ties to the charity.
“This was my mistake. This was me not stepping back from an organization that I should have known to not get involved with, even as prime minister, and allow the public service and non-connected ministers to move forward on delivering this program,” said Trudeau on Monday.
'I DIDN'T KNOW THE DETAILS'
Last week WE Charity confirmed that, over the years, Trudeau’s wife, mother, and brother have received a range of payments amounting to around $300,000 for speaking at WE events. Sophie Gregoire Trudeau is an ambassador with the organization and hosts a mental health podcast under its name. She 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.
On Monday, the prime minister faced a series of questions from reporters about whether he knew his family members got paid by WE, and said that, while he was aware of their professional speaking roles, he was unaware of just how much money his family members received.
"I have known, obviously, for many years that my mom has been an extraordinary advocate for mental health issues, a professional public speaker who works with a range of different organizations. Obviously I knew she worked with WE, I didn't know the details of how much she was getting paid by various organizations but I should have and I deeply regret that,” Trudeau said on Monday.
Trudeau said he also regrets bringing his mother, Margaret Trudeau, into the controversy, saying that it was “unfair.”
“I should have been thoughtful enough to recuse myself completely from any discussions around WE because of these connections from the very beginning, and I did not and I'm very sorry about that,” he said.
MORNEAU ALSO APOLOGIZES
Last week Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office confirmed his daughters have connections to the charity and he also did not recuse himself from the decision-making table. The finance minister’s daughter Clare has spoken at WE events, and his daughter Grace is currently employed by WE Charity.
On Friday, Morneau also apologized for not removing himself from discussions about the student grant program.
“Given the fact that my daughter works for the organization in an unrelated branch, I now realize I should have in order to avoid any perception of conflict. I apologize for not doing so, and moving forward, I will recuse myself from any future discussions related to WE,” Morneau said in a statement.
STUDENTS LEFT IN LIMBO
Initially, WE Charity was selected to set up placements and administer grants to students and new graduates for their volunteer work this summer.
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 was designed to 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.
On Monday, Trudeau repeated his regret that his error in judgment has resulted in students hoping to help their communities being left in limbo instead.
“Because of the mistake I made in not withdrawing from these conversations when the public service recommended we move forward with the WE organization, it has gotten a little slower for young people who are facing a difficult time right now, to be able to get involved in their communities and make a difference,” Trudeau said.
Now, Trudeau says the government is looking to Service Canada as a potential avenue to run the program, despite doubling down on the statement that the public service had initially suggested outsourcing the program to WE Charity.
Speaking to CTV News Channel on Monday, Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said the government is working "around the clock" to find a way to deliver the program — though she could not provide any clear figures on how many students have so far applied for the program, nor how many opportunities are available for those students.
"There was thousands of opportunities that were posted, I do not have an exact number for at the time because right now we are looking to get the program out the door once again, looking at what needs to be done us to be able to deliver this program," Chagger said.
She also warned that the government will not be able to deliver the program to the same extent as was originally planned when WE Charity was involved.
"The public service is working to provide recommendations and suggestions as to how this program can be delivered. We do recognize and acknowledge that it will not be able to deliver to the same magnitude that we had anticipated," she said.
OPPOSITION PARTIES DIG IN
The Conservatives have written to the RCMP suggesting they look into the matter, while two House of Commons studies are underway into various aspects of the controversy.
Now, the opposition is looking to convene a third committee probe, with the intent to uncover as many documents as possible and aiming to call a slate of cabinet ministers to testify.
Trudeau said a series of cabinet ministers will be testifying this week about the affair, and if he gets an invitation, he will consult with his House of Commons leadership team about attending.
“Obviously, the opposition parties have their job to do and they will keep doing it. I have my job to do as well, which is to make sure that Canadians are well supported through this pandemic and we have an economic restart that goes smoothly,” Trudeau said.
“Revelations that Justin Trudeau’s family was paid to speak at events for an organization, which later received a $900 million sole-source contract, are deeply disturbing,” said Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett in a statement about the push for a third committee study. “This new information has raised concerns about the way this Liberal government operates and whether the appropriate processes are in place to avoid conflicts of interest,” said Barrett.
Critics have pointed to the WE Charity affair as the latest in a series of ethical oversights Trudeau has had over his time as prime minister.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s ongoing investigation is now the third ethics investigation Trudeau has been subjected to, with the two previous times — his trip to the Aga Khan’s private island and in relation to the SNC-Lavalin prosecution — resulting in findings that Trudeau had breached federal ethics law. In both cases Trudeau apologized for his improper behaviour, and both times he said he had learned his lesson.
“I feel like it's Groundhog Day. We've seen so many instances where the prime minister gets caught… seems outraged that anyone could question him, and then as the scandal deepens then he apologizes,” said NDP MP and ethics critic Charlie Angus in an interview on CTV News Channel. He said what is most concerning is that no one around Trudeau seemed to try to stop him from getting involved given his close personal ties to the organization.
Angus said the controversy should have never happened and if the proper standards and protocols were in place, it wouldn’t have. He called it “one of the stupidest scandals in Canadian history.”
Asked if he was worried that the controversy puts his minority government on unstable footing after months of positive polling numbers, Trudeau said on Monday that he trusts Canadians will make judgments on his leadership based on the pandemic response as a whole.
“When we look at these things, proximity to the prime minister has an impact… The fact that it includes family members makes it very problematic for the prime minister,” said pollster Nik Nanos in an interview on CTV News Channel.
WE CHARITY WEIGHS IN
In a new statement on their website, WE Charity co-founders Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger say they want to “set the record straight” about the entire affair. The brothers wrote about how their organization was qualified to stickhandle the administration of the Canada Student Service Grant program, which had 35,000 applicants a week after launching. But, as their statement notes, “the program was immediately enmeshed in controversy,” and handed back over to the government along with the funding.
“WE has not profited from this contract in any way,” said the Keilburgers, adding that the last two weeks have been “extremely difficult.”
“The charity’s integrity and purpose has been called into question. It has had direct impacts on our staff, supporters, and beneficiaries. We have made mistakes that we sincerely regret,” says the statement.
With files from CTV News' Rachel Gilmore