Conservatives claim 'coverup' after Trudeau shuts down Parliament

Conservative MPs are accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of a "coverup" for shutting down Parliament to dodge scrutiny of his government's role in the WE Charity student-grant controversy.

PMO says new documents show public servants made plan to give WE Charity deal to run student volunteer program

Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre, left, and Michael Barrett are accusing the Liberal government of a 'coverup' in the WE Charity affair. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MPs are accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of a "coverup" by shutting down Parliament to dodge scrutiny of his government's role in the WE Charity student-grant controversy.

During a news conference in Ottawa, finance critic Pierre Poilievre and ethics critic Michael Barrett brandished documents released by the government to a committee probing the affair, which were heavily redacted.

They said that amounts to a "coverup."

"It's clear Justin Trudeau has something to hide," Poilievre said. "He does not want Canadians to know what's in these documents, and that's why he shut down this parliamentary investigation."

The PMO says the reams of documents back up Trudeau's assertion that the plan to grant WE the student volunteer service deal came from the bureaucracy and that there was no political interference to steer management of the program to the organization.

Trudeau announced Tuesday that Gov. Gen. Julie Payette had granted his request to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23.

He said the move will allow his government to present a long-term economic recovery plan for Canada post-pandemic and an opportunity for the House of Commons to vote on whether it has confidence in the government to move forward on that plan.

The prorogation of Parliament suspends the committee work of MPs probing the WE Charity student volunteer grant controversy.

Thousands of pages of internal government records related to the We Charity contract were released yesterday that were requested by MPs on the finance committee.

WE Charity was awarded a $43.5 million contract to manage the $900 million student volunteer grant program. Trudeau and then-finance minister Bill Morneau did not recuse themselves from cabinet talks on the deal, despite both having family ties to the organization.

WATCH / Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre accuses Trudeau of 'coverup':

Poilievre's reasons to call WE controversy a "coverup"

3 years ago
Duration 2:15
Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre lists why he believes the documents released by the government related to the WE controversy constitute a coverup.

Morneau announced his resignation Monday evening, saying he did not intend to seek a third term in office and that it was time for a new finance minister to lead the country into a long-term, post-pandemic recovery plan.

Poilievre said despite the heavy redactions, the documents show that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the finance minister's office was involved in crafting the contribution agreement with WE Charity, despite assertions by Trudeau and others that the program was designed and negotiated by public servants.

Email chain on student aid

As one example, Poilievre pointed to a June 27 message from WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger to senior PMO staffer Ben Chin thanking him for his help on the the program.

"Hello Ben. Thank you for your kindness in helping shape our latest program with the go'vt. Warmly, Craig," reads the message sent through LinkedIn.

Chin responded two days later: "Great to hear from you Craig. Let's get our young working!" 

A PMO official said Chin wasn't involved in the WE decision, and that the Linkedin message was his only interaction on the file and he simply responded two days later out of courtesy.

The exchange came several weeks after senior bureaucrats negotiated the deal with WE, and two days after the agreement was formally announced by Trudeau.

Poilievre also flagged an April 20 email from assistant deputy minister for finance Michelle Kovacevic about the broader student aid package that was in the works.

"There has been a lot of back and forth on a student package, as you well know, and PMO has been weighing in on a version we shared with our minister on Saturday," she wrote.

WATCH / Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre on WE Charity 'ambassadors':

Poilievre and the Trudeau pictures

3 years ago
Duration 0:55
Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre asks why a document released by the government highlights pictures of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Margaret Trudeau.

Trudeau announced a $9 billion assistance package for students two days later on April 22, which included the broad strokes of a volunteer grant program.

"The Canada Student Service Grant — bit of a shit show and the way it is positioned right now is not exactly how we will go forward, there is positive communication with WE to be a partner here and discussions are encouraging on that front. (but just discussions, no agreement)," Kovacevic wrote in the email.

The day before, Kovacevic wrote in an email that the mission of WE was "congruent" with national service, and noted that the organization had a "massive following" on social media.

"An existing payment mechanism could save a lot of work," she wrote.

That same day, Rachel Wernick, senior assistant deputy minister for skills and development, reached out to Craig Kielburger about the program.

"I am sorry for the 'out-of-the-blue' email on a Sunday morning. As you know there is a lot of quick work going onto support emergency and special measures in the current context. I wondered if you would have a bit of time today to indulge me a quick conversation on something we are working on that might be of interest to WE.

"There is a window of opportunity today to influence thinking and I would greatly benefit from your insights," she wrote.

The PMO said the documents support the government's assertions that the plan to enlist WE came from the bureaucracy.

"Yesterday, the Government ensured that all relevant documents were provided directly to Members of the Finance Committee. Though the Committee's motion asked that matters of Cabinet confidence not be included, Cabinet documents were also included. These documents demonstrate that the recommendation came from officials within the public service," said PMO spokesperson Chantal Gagnon.

Confidence vote looms on throne speech

When the House of Commons returns on Sept. 23, it will be with a throne speech, debate and a confidence vote. A vote of non-confidence would trigger a federal election.

Poilievre said the top priority for Conservatives is not to topple the government but to hold it to account and to uncover the truth about what occurred in the WE Charity deal.

"Trudeau would love to have an election before the truth comes out," he said. "But the Conservatives want Canada to have the truth before they go and vote."

Conservatives will choose a new leader to replace Andrew Scheer on Sunday. Barrett said the successor will speak with caucus on next steps forward, but noted the country is in the throes of a global pandemic and economic tough times.

"We'll wait and see what September brings," he said.

'Canadians deserve better': Singh

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the Liberal government's "story" is not supported by the evidence.

"From the start, instead of working for young Canadians, they set this deal up to help out their friends. And now they've shut down parliament to hide and avoid answering tough questions and facing the truth. Canadians deserve better," reads a statement.

On Tuesday, Trudeau said members of the committee can spend the coming weeks going through "mountains" of documents so "they can continue to ask any questions they like on this issue" when Parliament resumes.

"I have addressed these issues, my staff has addressed these, other ministers have addressed these issues in committees," he said. "When Parliament resumes in the fall there will be ample opportunities to continue to ask whatever questions committees or members want to continue to do. Right now as a government I think Canadians want us to be focused on the next steps of the recovery, on how we're going to build back our country better than before."