'We want the truth,' MPs say as PM prepares to give WE testimony
OTTAWA -- As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top aide, chief of staff Katie Telford, are likely preparing to testify before the House of Commons Finance Committee as part of its ongoing study into the WE Charity student grant scandal, opposition MPs are demanding a full accounting of Trudeau’s role in the affair during Thursday’s hearing.
“We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” said Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who was successful late Wednesday in passing a motion requesting Trudeau testify for three hours, followed by Telford for two hours. Both were originally slated to appear for an hour each, beginning at 3 p.m. ET.
“The House of Commons will vote in September to recall him for another round of testimony, if he doesn't give exhaustive answers tomorrow,” Poilievre said.
Both the Conservatives and NDP held mid-afternoon press conferences to speak about the scandal and set up for Thursday’s hearing.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stopped short of calling for Trudeau to resign, saying his caucus is focused on getting to the bottom of the affair before determining what further measures need to be taken.
“The evidence has suggested it's beyond just the prime minister… So, we need to know the truth, we need to know who's exactly involved, and really Canadians want to know,” Singh said. “It looks like prime minister Trudeau and the Liberal government behind closed doors have been working to give millions of dollars to their close friends.”
These further calls for accountability come on the heels of MPs on another committee voting against taking up yet another avenue of inquiry.
MPS STOP FURTHER CABINET DISCLOSURE
The House of Commons Ethics Committee met Wednesday to deliberate expanding its study further, before even hearing from any witnesses.
The Conservatives sought to request that all cabinet ministers disclose whether they had knowledge of relationships between Trudeau, other top Liberal officials and WE prior to the cabinet’s decision to award the grant program to WE, and disclose whether they, their families, or relatives have any WE connections.
The motion was voted down by the Liberal and NDP committee members.
The committee is looking into the Conflict of Interest Act aspect of the scandal and whether changes are needed to put up stronger conflict of interest shields in the Prime Minister’s Office, but also has requested access to Trudeau family financial records regarding speaking arrangements. Trudeau has also been called to testify at this committee.
While debating the motion, Liberal MPs said it was overbroad and “poorly drafted,” suggesting that every cabinet minister would have to account for their cousins and other distant relatives’ possible involvement with WE. The Bloc Quebecois attempted to amend it to become less wide-reaching, without success and amid assertions from the Conservative MPs that refusing to provide this further information would equate to a “cover up.”
“I think that Canadians deserve answers. This is a simple process, a simple procedure that simply asks those that were tasked with making a decision regarding close to a billion dollars, it simply asks for the information to be given to Canadians,” said Conservative MP and committee member Damien Kurek.
Liberal MP and committee member Greg Fergus suggested that asking cabinet members to disclose their family experience with WE would be better left to the ethics commissioner to take on.
“Where does it end?” Fergus said.
Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has already launched investigations into possible conflict of interest code breaches by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Trudeau for not recusing themselves from the cabinet discussions about outsourcing the grant program to WE, given Trudeau’s family members have received speaking fees from the group and Morneau’s daughters have worked with WE. Morneau later revealed that he’s recently reimbursed WE more than $41,000 for two trips he and his family took in 2017 and that his wife has donated $100,000 to the group in recent years.
On Wednesday evening Dion’s office confirmed it has expanded its probe into Morneau to include the committee revelations from the finance minister about his family’s gifted travel.
The conflict of interest rules prohibit federal public office holders or members of their family from accepting “any gift or other advantage, including from a trust, that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.” As well, any large gifts need to be reported within days of them being received and in this case, Morneau did not disclose the trips until last week.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM PM
The decision to ask for extended appearances by Trudeau and Telford was made after another acrimonious finance committee meeting on Wednesday evening, where the Liberal MPs were accused of trying to talk out the clock to avoid voting on the motion to extend Thursday’s hearing. With the NDP and Bloc Quebecois siding with the Conservatives, the request is now before Trudeau and his top staffer to appear for longer, but they are able to turn down that request.
The suggestion to stay longer comes after the four-hour appearance of WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger on Tuesday.
Testimony at a parliamentary committee from a sitting prime minister is rare. The last time it happened was more than 10 years ago, in 2006, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper appeared before a Senate committee to discuss Senate reform.
As has been the case with each panel of witnesses to appear so far — from Finance Minister Bill Morneau, to senior public servant Rachel Wernick — Tuesday’s testimony from the Kielburgers offered several new details about the entire affair, creating a web of various tangents to the story and adding to the denials that political connections were behind a section of the self-described “labyrinth” organization being tapped to take on the Canada Student Service Grant.
If Trudeau’s past comments on the matter offer any indication of his testimony, expect the prime minister to emphasize that the recommendation to go with WE came from the public service, which no testimony has yet to outright discredit.
He’ll also likely express regret that his admitted error in not recusing himself has led to thousands of students being unable to take up the federal offer of grants for volunteer work this summer.
STUDENTS STILL WAITING
Some student groups have said, even if the government can get the program up and running, it’s coming too late for many to even hit the prescribed threshold of 100 hours of volunteer work in order to receive a $1,000 grant, which equates to a rate less than minimum wage. Young people have called for the government to change course, scrap the program and find another way to help students cover their education costs amid the ongoing pandemic.
It took from late April to late June before the promised program offering payments to students for summertime volunteer work on COVID-19-focused community projects was more fulsomely articulated and launched, and within days it was halted due to the controversy. During this time WE was already getting to work on the program rollout, MPs have heard.
To run the initially budgeted $912 million program, WE was set to receive $43.5 million, though testimony has revealed that the actual take-up of the program was likely to be much less, with between $500 million and $300 million estimated to be issued in grants to participants.
During their testimony, the Kielburgers also emphasized the student impact, telling MPs their decision to “serve” by taking on this massive program was done solely to benefit young people, and has ended up costing them, and putting their organization at risk.
MORE QUESTIONS ON PAYMENTS
Trudeau is also likely to face questions about his family’s speaking engagements, how much he knew, and whether he sees a link between him being prime minister and the bookings his family members have received since.
The Tories used their availability to present “new evidence” they have submitted to the ethics commissioner in relation to what is Trudeau’s third conflict of interest probe since he became prime minister, suggesting the new information be included in his ongoing conflict of interest investigation.
His mother Margaret Trudeau has spoken at approximately 28 WE events and was paid $250,000 in speaking honorariums between 2016 and 2020. His brother, Alexandre (Sasha) Trudeau, also spoke at eight events from 2017 to 2018 and was paid a total of approximately $32,000.
In addition, Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, 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. She continues to host a podcast under the WE banner.
Not all of the events that the Trudeau family took part in were paid, according to the Kielburgers, though the Trudeaus were also reimbursed for direct costs, beyond the speaking fees, averaging $2,447 for Sasha and $5,998 for Margaret, the brothers told the committee on Tuesday.
They also said that, over the years, Sophie had participated in a total of seven WE Days and received an average of $3,618 per event to cover her expenses.
“There's a lot more money that's been put on the table than we previously learned,” said Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett. “We're now looking at over half a million dollars in benefits to members of Justin Trudeau’s family from this organization.”
Both Trudeau and Morneau have offered apologies and pledges to be more proactive in recusing themselves going forward, though that’s far from enough to quiet the opposition, with the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois calling for both Trudeau and Morneau to resign or risk facing a confidence vote and possible snap election this fall.