Liberal MPs filibuster ethics committee meeting, delaying decision on WE Charity probe

The House of Commons ethics committee has punted a decision on whether it should launch its own probe of the WE Charity scandal to next week after Liberal MPs filibustered through part of the four-hour meeting.

Opposition MPs want the Speakers' Spotlight to produce receipts for all Trudeau speaking engagements

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves to the audience as he appears on stage during WE Day UN in New York City, Wednesday September 20, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The House of Commons ethics committee has punted a decision on whether it should launch its own probe of the WE Charity scandal to next week after Liberal MPs filibustered through part of the four-hour meeting.

Conservative MPs said today the committee must launch its own parallel investigation into how the contract to administer the $912-million summer student grants program was awarded to WE, a charity with close personal ties to Trudeau and his family.

Committee members were debating whether to adopt a motion that would compel Speakers' Spotlight, the agency that arranged more than $300,000 in WE speaking engagements for Trudeau's mother and brother, to produce receipts for all of their paid appearances over the last 12 years.

The motion also would give the committee the power to "review the safeguards which are in place to avoid and prevent conflicts of interest in federal government procurement, contracting, granting, contribution and other expenditure policies."

NDP MP Charlie Angus said today that Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff, should be doing a better job of steering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau away from conflicts of interest. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The ethics committee discussions come after the federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, signalled he will investigate Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for failing to recuse themselves from cabinet discussions about the WE deal.

Speaking to reporters in Toronto today, Morneau said he made a mistake by participating in those talks when his daughter works for the charity in its travel department.

"I did not recuse myself and in hindsight, I should have. I made a mistake and I apologize," he said.

"It's made our ability to deliver on this program more challenging. We know there are many students looking to find jobs and we haven't been able to deliver as quickly and I sincerely regret my error in that regard."

Watch | Finance minister says he 'made a mistake' in WE Charity controversy

Finance minister 'made a mistake' in WE Charity controversy

2 years ago
Duration 1:05
Bill Morneau says he should have recused himself from Cabinet talks about the WE Charity. He's accused of a conflict of interest because his daughter works in the organization's travel department. 

Morneau said he didn't believe WE was trying to buy political favours by offering Trudeau family members speaking fees or by employing his daughter. He said public servants recommended WE for the job and cabinet simply followed their advice.

'An embarrassment to all of us' — Angus

Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the party's ethics critic, said the government's "shifting narrative" on who was responsible for putting WE forward for the deal — and how much the charity was set to be paid for administering the program — makes a probe necessary.

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said yesterday at Commons finance committee that WE stood to receive $43.5 million if it could sign up up tens of thousands of students for volunteer opportunities. That's more than double the $19.5 million the government initially said it had earmarked for WE.

"We need to pin down all of the facts as soon as possible so we can assure Canadians that Parliament is exercising its function as a check against the executive branch of government," Barrett said.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said that while he wants Prime Minister Trudeau to appear before the committee, he's not interested in dragging Trudeau's family members up to answer MPs' questions.

Watch: NDP MP Charlie Angus wants Trudeau to testify at ethics committee

NDP's Charlie Angus says he wants Trudeau to appear before the ethics committee — not his family

2 years ago
Duration 1:33
MPs on the Commons ethics committee debated who should appear to answer questions about a cancelled student grant contract with the WE Charity

Angus said the committee needs to compile its own evidence to see if WE Charity was trying to curry favour with the federal government by handing out paid engagements to members of the Trudeau family after the PM was elected in 2015.

"It's the issue of recusal. It's the issue of buying influence — that's what we have to deal with," Angus said.

"This scandal should have never happened in a pandemic. Awarding money so easily to people who are so connected to the prime minister's family — that's an embarrassment to all of us.

"The prime minister should have known that, because of those financial links, this would have put him in a conflict. This is the prime minister's responsibility. I would like to see the Liberals say to us: 'OK, here's a deal, we'll bring the prime minister to this committee and he'll speak as to why he didn't think it was a big deal his family was being paid.'"

Angus said he also wants to call Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff, to answer questions. He said Telford should have offered better advice to the PM so he "didn't keep putting his finger in the conflict of interest light socket."

The opposition parties have a majority on this Conservative-chaired committee. There are four Conservatives, one Bloc Québécois, an NDP member and five Liberal members.

The Liberal contingent stalled a vote today with lengthy speeches that pushed the committee meeting's duration well past its scheduled 2 p.m. end time. The Liberal members and Angus agreed to adjourn the meeting and reconvene next week to debate launching a study and whether Trudeau should be called personally to testify.

Liberal MP Brenda Shanahan attempted to argue that it was beyond the mandate of the ethics committee to probe an ethics breach of a public office holder like Trudeau.

The committee's official mandate says that it "can also study any legislation or regulation or propose initiatives that relate to access to information and privacy and to ethical standards relating to public office holders."

Quoting the public servants who brokered the deal, Shanahan said that the WE partnership wasn't actually a sole-sourced "contract" but was rather a "contribution agreement" that shielded it from the normal government procurement process.

'Fishing expedition'

Another Liberal MP, Élisabeth Brière, delivered a rambling 30-minute speech which touched on the definition of democracy, quoted French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville and his writings on America, recounted her time as a notary and mediator and extolled the virtues of the University of Sherbrooke and the riding she represents.

Brière said she was opposed to any move by the opposition to "humiliate or intimidate" members of the Trudeau family. She said the Conservatives are too eager to brand someone a "crook and a thief."

"I don't believe these people should be subjected to a public inquisition," she said, citing Trudeau's mother and brother.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who gave an equally long speech to the committee — at times speaking in Latin and referencing ancient Greece — said the opposition-backed motion was a "fishing expedition" and any such investigation of the alleged ethical lapses should be left to the commissioner.

"We're going to seek out information on the mother of a politician, or the brother of a politician? Where does this stop?" Fergus said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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