Politics

Trudeau says he 'pushed back' on WE contract due to family ties — but didn't recuse himself

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a House of Commons committee today that, despite his family's ties with WE Charity, he did not place himself in a conflict of interest through his involvement in cabinet discussions on getting the charity to run a $900 million student grant program — but he apologized again for failing to recuse himself from those discussions.

Trudeau says he withdrew the grant proposal from a May 8 cabinet meeting to give civil servants more time

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building on Thursday. (The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a House of Commons committee today that, despite his family's ties with WE Charity, he did not place himself in a conflict of interest through his involvement in cabinet discussions on getting the charity to run a $900 million student grant program — but he apologized again for failing to recuse himself from those discussions.

"I was not in a position of conflict of interest. I apologized because of the perception [over] ties with my family. I should have recused myself," Trudeau said in French.

Trudeau said that, when his government was working on the grant program, events related to the pandemic were moving fast and his government was sprinting to get programs out the door. He said that haste was part of the reason why he failed to recuse himself from cabinet discussions regarding WE Charity.

"That is certainly part of the context but I don't think it is the whole reason why I didn't recuse myself," Trudeau said. "Youth issues have been something that I have been deeply involved with all my career, and I care deeply about the idea of youth service."

Trudeau also claimed he slowed down the approval process for the grant program, pulling it from the May 8 cabinet meeting to give the public service more time to review it.

"I did not influence the public service to choose this organization. Indeed, when the public service came forward with this organization, I said, 'You know what? Let's put the brakes on that. Let's make sure it's done absolutely right because there are going to be questions of the connections with my family on this,'" he said.

"Yes, in hindsight I should have recused myself and perhaps the program would be delivering for students right across the country right now."

On May 21, he said, public servants said they had done their due diligence and were confident in recommending WE Charity as the administrator.

"This proposal mattered to me and, instead of encouraging it along, as some people say, because it was somehow connected to my family, I actually slowed it down, pushed back on it, to try and make sure that everything was done exactly right," he said. "Because I knew there would be questions asked because of the links to the family.

"But in no way was this benefiting my mother or my brother, to be creating a grant program for students to volunteer in their communities right across the country."

Watch: Trudeau says he only learned of WE proposal on May 8:

In his opening statement Prime Minister JustinTrudeau said he had expected the Canada Service Corps would deliver the Canada Student Service Grant, and first learned on May 8 that WE Charity was being proposed to deliver the program. 3:25

Trudeau also said he does not know the details of his family members' private business interests or how much money they might have received in expenses from WE Charity.

"My mother and my brother are professionals in their own right who have engagements and have for many, many years, with many different organizations across the country, and I don't have the details of their work experiences or expenses," Trudeau said. 

Under questioning by Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, Trudeau said that his wife Sophie works for free as a mental health advocate and that the expenses she's collected from WE Charity for her volunteer work have been cleared by the ethics commissioner's office.

"This was unpaid work my wife was doing for a cause that she believes in deeply, talking about de-stigmatization of mental health, empowerment of young people," he said.

Watch: Poilievre presses PM on family's payments from WE:

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre pushes the prime minister on how much money has been paid by WE Charity to Margaret Trudeau, then assumes chairing the committee when Liberal MP Wayne Easter's power goes out — and presses the PM again. 3:26

"We got approval from the ethics commissioner that she could volunteer with this organization and have expenses related to the volunteerism reimbursed."

Poilievre pressed Trudeau for details of the financial relationship his family had with WE Charity. The prime minister said that, according to the Conflict of Interest Act, family members are defined solely as spouses and dependants.

It was WE Charity or nothing: Trudeau

Trudeau also said that he never spoke with his staff about WE Charity or the the possibility of getting it to run the student grant program until May 8. He said he never spoke with WE co-founders Marc or Craig Kielburger about the program.

"Until that date, I had not spoken at all to my staff about WE Charity in relation to the [Canada Student Service Grant]. In fact, as of May 8, it was my belief that a supercharged version of the Canada Service Corps would deliver the program. From my perspective, WE Charity hadn't come up," Trudeau said.

"In fact, they said if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity," Trudeau added. "The choice was not between providers. It was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or not going ahead with the program at all."

Trudeau said he asked why the public service tapped WE Charity to run the program.

"We were told that the Canada Service Corps would not be able to scale up to deliver the program in time," he said. "This was disappointing but ultimately not surprising to me, given my understanding of the state of the Canada Service Corps' development and other demands facing the public service at the time."

Next steps

Trudeau was asked if he now feels WE Charity was capable of running a program as large as the Canada Student Service Grant program.

"We will never know because they pulled out of being able to deliver the program, partially because I hadn't recused myself and created complications here," he said. "And that's something that I deeply regret."

Trudeau said cabinet is now considering alternatives to reward student volunteers who work in their communities.

"As we continue to look for ways to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant, I know the Canada Service Corps, which is internal to government, is something we're looking at very carefully," he said.

Watch: NDP MP Charlie Angus says prime minister "hurt students." :

NDP MP Charlie Angus calls the WE Charity controversy an 'unnecessary scandal' over a program that has fallen apart because of Justin Trudeau's poor judgment. The controversy has 'derailed so much good work and hurt students,' the Ontario MP said. 2:31

Trudeau took questions from the House of Commons finance committee for an hour and a half this afternoon. The committee of MPs is digging into why the government picked WE Charity to run the grant program and why the PM did not recuse himself from related cabinet talks, given that his family members had been paid by the organization.

Opposition MPs pushed to have him remain in the hot seat for three hours but he only extended his time at committee by another 30 minutes.

After Trudeau's appearance, his chief of staff, Katie Telford, took the chair to answer questions about her role in the now defunct deal with WE Charity.

Telford repeated Trudeau's assertion that the public service advised the government it had a choice between going forward with a program run by WE Charity or not going ahead with a program at all.

Watch: Conservative MP Michael Cooper grills Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford:

Conservative MP Michael Cooper grills Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, on the prime minister's insistence that he 'pushed back' on the proposal to task WE Charity with administering a $900-million student grant program. 0:30

"Over the past three weeks, I have thought a lot about this program. I thought about what we could do better and how we could apply lessons going forward," she said.

"In hindsight, I recognize that while we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better. We could have done more. We could have added yet another layer to avoid any potential perception of favouritism."

Telford said that one lesson learned in the course of this controversy is that, even in a crisis climate, the process for approving such programs need "rigour ... even if it means slowing down."

Telford says she did not negotiate WE deal

Trudeau and Telford both stressed that the ethics commissioner has cleared Sophie Gregoire Trudeau's work with WE Charity.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper said that if Trudeau was concerned about public perceptions because of his family's ties to WE, he should have sought advice from the ethics commissioner.

"It's inexplicable why you would not have advised him, or why he would not have taken it upon himself, to go to the ethics commissioner," he said to Telford.

Telford said that neither she nor anyone else in the PMO was involved in negotiating the contribution agreement with WE Charity to deliver the student grant program. She also said that she has not spoken to the Kielburgers since December of 2017.

Committee asks for more names, documents

After the day's questioning was completed, MPs on the committee voted along party lines to have the Prime Minister's Office supply a list of all staffers in the PMO who communicated with WE Charity, the Kielburger brothers or any affiliates of WE Charity going back to March 1. 

The motion, which was supported by the opposition parties, asks for a list of participants in any such conversations, the dates those conversations took place and what was discussed. It also asks for the cabinet memos from the May 8 and 22 cabinet meetings.

Watch: Andrew Scheer describes line of questioning for Trudeau's appearance

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer, in Regina, spoke with reporters about the questions he wants to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answer today before a Commons finance committee hearing on the WE Charity scandal. 0:52

Earlier today, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer laid out the key questions his team was planning to put to Trudeau.

Scheer said he hoped the prime minister would deliver clear, straightforward answers but predicted Trudeau will try to run out the clock with rehearsed replies.

"Liberals on that committee, whether it's the members or the chair of the committee, will they use their opportunities today to protect the prime minister, or will they allow Canadians to get the answers that they deserve?" he asked.

WE Charity has been under public scrutiny since the controversy erupted, with news headlines about board member resignations, allegations of staff mistreatment and mass layoffs due to the financial squeeze caused by the pandemic.

"If he knew about some of these things and he allowed it to proceed, then he will be admitting that he played a role in this corruption. And if he didn't know, that means that nobody did due diligence on a $900 million program," Scheer said.

New Brunswick Liberal MP Wayne Long, who has broken party ranks in past, issued a public letter Wednesday saying he is "deeply disappointed" by the government's decision-making process and its failure to recognize a potential conflict of interest.

He said that failure has undermined the good work the government has done to help Canadians through the pandemic and urged ministers to be "fully transparent" regarding the decision-making process.

"To me, it is clear that changes must be made within both the Prime Minister's Office and throughout our government in order to ensure that we prevent such a systemic failure from occurring again," he said.

Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford is testifying before the finance committee this afternoon. She was slated initially to appear for one hour, but the itinerary was amended this afternoon to extend her time before the committee to two hours.

Watch | The National: Trudeau insists he didn't push for WE to get student grant contract

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted he did not push for WE Charity, to which his family has ties, to be given the contract for a student grant program during his testimony at the House finance committee. 4:24

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