Politics

Trudeau says he didn't see WE deal as a conflict, but knew there would be 'perception issues'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he knew there would be problems with perception over having WE Charity run a $900-million student-volunteer program, but he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit. 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Friday that he knew "knew there would be perception issues around" his government's deal with WE Charity to administer a $900 million student grant program. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he knew there would be problems with "perception" related to having WE Charity run a $900-million student-volunteer program, but he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit. 

The prime minister also said he did not seek guidance from the federal ethics commissioner after public servants recommended the WE organization to administer the Canada Student Service Grant — despite the fact that he knew the public and opposition politicians would scrutinize the deal because of his family's ties to WE. That, he said, is why he told the public servants recommending the organization to go back and make absolutely sure they were on solid ground.

"I knew there would be perception issues around this," Trudeau said Friday in Ottawa, speaking to reporters less than 24 hours after making a rare prime ministerial appearance at a House of Commons committee to answer questions about his role in the controversy.

"At the same time, delivering a grant program to students who volunteer across the country has absolutely nothing to do with any work my brother or mother did with WE and that's why there was no conflict of interest."

Trudeau said he should have recused himself from the discussions.

Trudeau also defended Bill Morneau, saying that while the finance minister made mistakes by accepting travel from the WE organization, he is doing good work and needs to continue. 

"As Mr. Morneau himself highlighted, he apologized and he should not have accepted the elements of that that were gifts, but at the same time ... there are still millions of Canadians who are looking for work, for whom there are no jobs," Trudeau said. "We need to continue to stay focused on doing that work to keep Canadians supported through this historic pandemic."

The prime minister testified Thursday that he didn't learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval. Trudeau said that's when he put the brakes on the deal. "We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing ..." Trudeau told the Commons finance committee. 

The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its conclusion that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said. WE ended up backing out of the deal in early July over the political controversy. 

Trudeau at committee

Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford testified that the civil servants presented it as a "binary choice" — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn't go ahead with it at all.

Trudeau acknowledged his family's involvement with WE. His mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him. 

He stressed that he did not have any conversations with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government. 

He also said he didn't talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort. 

The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau's work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which has been cleared by the ethics commissioner. 

The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses. 

Dion already is investigating Trudeau and Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act. Dion is also looking into WE-sponsored trips Morneau and his family took in 2017. Morneau repaid $41,000 in related expenses last week. 

Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister's office and demanding access to cabinet documents.

Watch: Trudeau says concerns about his family's "personal connections" to WE Charity "were all around perception":

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters during a stop at the Public Health Agency's headquarters on Friday. 2:30

They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.

Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial.

The Kielburger brothers have said those permanent officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement. 

They said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no. 

The Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer, Trudeau said, adding that he regrets how the whole affair has unfolded.

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