Politics

Trudeau apologizes for not recusing himself from WE Charity contract discussions

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he was sorry for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions about awarding WE Charity a multi-million dollar contract to administer the summer student grants program.

'I made a mistake in not recusing myself. I am sorry,' Trudeau told reporters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized today for failing to put some distance between himself and the decision to award the WE Charity a multi-million-dollar contract. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he was sorry for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions about awarding WE Charity a multi-million dollar contract to administer the summer student grants program.

"I made a mistake in not recusing myself. I am sorry," Trudeau told reporters.

He said he should never have been part of the cabinet talks, given his family's close personal ties to the charity.

The apology comes after CBC News and Canadaland reported that his mother, Margaret, and his brother, Alexandre, were paid in excess of $300,000 by WE and its entities for speaking engagements over the last four years.

Trudeau said he knew his mother and brother were employed as public speakers but he didn't know just how much his family members were paid by WE.

"I deeply regret that I have brought my mother into this situation. It's unfair to her, and I should have been thoughtful enough to recuse myself from this situation," Trudeau said.

Watch | 'The mistake that we made was on me': Trudeau apologizes for WE Charity furor

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Monday that he made a mistake when he took part in the government's decision to use the WE charity to run a student volunteer program. 2:54

Trudeau said the public service first recommended WE as the best pick for the contract, given its nationwide reach and its experience connecting students with volunteer opportunities.

Trudeau said he still should have known that his involvement in talks to award the contract would be problematic, given how closely associated his family is with the organization.

"When it came to this organization and this program, the involvement that I had in the past, and that my family has, should have had me remove myself from these discussions and I'm sorry that I didn't," Trudeau said.

He said he regrets that his failure to recuse himself from contract discussions has derailed a program that was set to help thousands of young people find work.

"I'm particularly sorry because not only has it created unnecessary controversy and issues, it also means that young people who are facing a difficult time right now, getting summer jobs, contributing to their communities, are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve, and that's frustrating," he said.

Watch: Trudeau is asked how he can convince people his apology is genuine

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Monday that he made a mistake when he took part in the government's decision to use the WE charity to run a student volunteer program. 2:15

Finance Minister Bill Morneau also apologized for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions on the WE contract.

Morneau's daughter, Grace, works at WE in the travel department. His other daughter, Clare, has spoken at WE Day events.

"I did not recuse myself from the discussions on this topic and, given the fact my daughter works for the organization in an unrelated branch, I now realize I should have in order to avoid any perception of conflict," Morneau said in a media statement.

He said the government's intention was to flow money to WE to help students find jobs — and cabinet was just following the recommendations of public servants.

He said he'd recuse himself from any future discussions about WE.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the party's ethics critic, said Trudeau's apology was an attempt to stop this story from "spinning out of control."

"We know that Justin Trudeau is only sorry when he gets caught and that's what the apology was all about today," he said.

"As the weight of this comes to bear down on him, he is sorry, but that doesn't mean that the investigations won't continue and they certainly should."

Barrett said Trudeau should appear before the House of Commons finance committee to field questions from MPs, and should waive cabinet confidentiality for all documents related to the contract.

The opposition Conservatives are also calling for an emergency meeting of the Commons ethics committee to study the government's decision to award the contract to the charity.

In a letter to the committee's clerk, Conservative MPs Barrett, Damien Kurek and Jacques Gourde say the committee should be recalled and an order should be issued demanding that Speakers' Spotlight — the agency that arranged for the Trudeaus to speak at WE events — produce receipts for the appearances.

The MPs say the committee also could 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."

The federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, already has said he will review the government's decision to award the contract to administer the $912-million program to WE. The Conservatives have said the RCMP should investigate the deal for possible criminality.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said he's tired of hearing apologies from the prime minister on ethical scandals. He said Trudeau hasn't learned anything from incidents like the SNC-Lavalin scandal or the trip to Aga Khan's private island. 

"There comes a time when we do not trust anymore and when being sorry is not something you believe in anymore," he said. 

"So perhaps there's something else to be done and the inquiries which have been asked by the Conservatives seem to be a good idea. (Trudeau) should come forward and tell the whole truth."

WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger offered their own mea culpa in a statement published in a full-page ad in today's Globe and Mail.

The brothers said the fallout from the botched partnership with the federal government has been "extremely difficult" and they understand why questions have been asked about their financial dealings with members of the Trudeau family.

"The charity's integrity and purpose has been called into question. It has had direct impacts on our staff, supporters, and beneficiaries. We have made mistakes that we sincerely regret," the Kielburgers said in the statement.

"It has led us to more closely examine our own internal structures, governance and organization. In the days to come we will have more to say on these matters and about the organization's future. For now, we wanted to set the record straight, take responsibility for our part, and refocus on the mission that started twenty-five years ago."

The charity also has faced a backlash from some people — notably former NHL star Theo Fleury and R&B singer Jully Black — who have agreed in the past to speak at WE events for free.

The co-founders said honorariums were provided to certain individuals "who committed to speaking at multiple WE Day cities and many additional events while in the city, requiring significant time commitments."

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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