By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — The federal government’s top public servant says there is no evidence to suggest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with WE Charity before the organization was awarded a deal to run a student-volunteer program.
Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart made the comment during testimony Tuesday morning before the House of Commons finance committee.
He faced numerous questions about the decision to have WE Charity administer a $900-million student-volunteering program, including whether anyone in the public service raised red flags about the organization’s finances.
Shugart told the committee Trudeau was briefed about the development of the program, and suggested the prime minister had no contact with the organization to which Trudeau and his family have close ties.
“There is absolutely no evidence, no suggestion in anything that I have reviewed that would suggest the prime minister had any interaction with the WE Charity in relation to this program,” Shugart said.
The now-aborted deal with WE could have paid the organization some $43.5 million. Shugart said the first tranche of funding for grants in exchange for volunteer hours was to be $500 million, with a budget ceiling of $912 million.
MPs want Trudeau to appear before the Commons committee, but he didn’t answer a question from the opposition Tuesday about whether he’ll accept the invite.
In the House of Commons itself, Trudeau — and his cabinet — were pummelled with questions about WE, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer at one point accusing Trudeau of using the pandemic as an excuse for corruption, something Scheer called “gross and disgusting.”
At the outset of the crisis, the Liberals had sought to give themselves extended and broad spending power, with limited oversight. They reversed course on that position but Scheer said Tuesday that Canadians now know why they wanted it.
“They will stop and take the time to reward their friends, that is the essence of this Liberal party, under this Liberal prime minister. I don’t even have a question. It’s just disgusting,” Scheer said.
In response to direct questions on WE, Trudeau reiterated that he regretted not recusing himself from deliberations, but cabinet was following the advice of the non-partisan public service.
“The public service took a look at the ways they could deliver that program and determined that the WE organization was the only one that could deliver that program as ambitious as it was this summer,” Trudeau said.
“I should have recused myself because of the connection with … my family, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the public service recommended that organization.”
Shugart’s testimony provided more details about the timeline for that decision.
WE sent an unsolicited proposal to Youth Minister Bardish Chagger and Small Business Minister Mary Ng in early April for a program to help youth become entrepreneurs, which carried a price tag of between $6 million and $14 million.
Federal officials were already discussing ways to help students unable to work this summer due to the pandemic, intending to announce something by mid-May. The notion WE could be involved came up in conversations between the Finance Department and Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees student-related programs.
Rachel Wernick, a senior ESDC official, called WE co-founder Craig Kielburger on April 19, at which time she — and from what the Shugart said Tuesday, the Privy Council Office as well — learned of the original proposal.
Three days later, on April 22, Trudeau announced a $9-billion package of student aid, including the outline of a volunteer program paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs, based on the number of hours they volunteer.
Kielburger emailed Wernick an updated proposal the same day, mirroring Trudeau’s announcement. The decision was ultimately made to have WE run the program.
Shugart said the Privy Council Office asked about running a competitive process to oversee the grants, and ministers questioned whether WE Charity could deliver on what the government wanted. He said all were confident in the recommendation to go with the group.
In early July, the organization handed back control of the program to the government.
Shugart said a program will roll out, but will offer much less in the way of support services to students as a consequence of the public service having to deliver the program.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is set to appear before the committee Wednesday afternoon.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the prime minister to waive cabinet confidentiality and release all documents around the WE agreement.
He said the affair raises concerns about the Liberals’ handling of emergency aid programs to help Canadians concerned about their jobs, finances and health.
“To deal with all these concerns, not having a job, the future, a pandemic, people need to have confidence in their government,” Singh told a morning news conference.
“What this scandal has done is really rocked the confidence of people in a government that doesn’t seem to be acting for the interest of people, but to help out their close friends.”
The WE organization released a statement saying its charity was in “good financial standing” when it got the contract for the volunteering program. It also said the agreement included several levels of financial oversight, from basic audited financial statements all the way up to allowing an audit by the federal auditor general.
The idea, the statement says, was that WE would enumerate its expenses in running the program so that those, and only those, could be reimbursed.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said Tuesday the faster the prime minister reveals the entirety of what was said and done around the WE agreement, the better it would be for the country.
— with files from Stephanie Levitz