Trudeau explains how he missed another chance to avoid trouble

In many ways, Trudeau has been the opposite of Stephen Harper, who seemed to see risks and potential enemies everywhere and subsequently prioritized control and discipline. But he has also shown how a lack of caution can lead to unnecessary wounds.

The PM repeatedly finds himself in messes that undercut his support

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa, Tuesday November 10, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau says he was concerned about how it might look for him and his government to partner with the WE charity to deliver a student volunteer grant. 

But he was apparently not concerned enough.

The prime minister's extraordinary appearance before the House of Commons standing committee on finance on Thursday was a chance for him to answer some of the most serious questions about the Canada Student Service Grant and the government's ill-fated attempt to partner with WE. 

But the hardest question for Trudeau is how he found himself in this spot — and why he has repeatedly found himself having to explain how he has found himself in the midst of some seemingly avoidable mess.

In the prime minister's telling, he first became aware of a plan to partner with WE on May 8, a few days after that proposal was approved by a sub-committee of cabinet. The initiative was then to go before the full cabinet for ratification, but Trudeau removed it from the agenda and asked for further review of the proposal, in part because he understood that his own connections to WE would lead observers to closely scrutinize any partnership with the organization.

Nearly two weeks later, civil servants confirmed their recommendation that WE was the best and only option for delivering the grant in time for this summer. 

But while Trudeau recognized on May 8 that his connections to the charity might lead to questions about the government working with WE, he apparently didn't push that line of thinking any further. When the plan came before the full cabinet on May 22, he did not recuse himself from the discussion.

The explanation for not recusing himself seems to be that Trudeau didn't think, by the letter of the law, that he was in a conflict of interest. 

WATCH | PM says he didn't push for WE to get student grant contract:

Trudeau insists he didn’t push for WE to get student grant contract

3 years ago
Duration 4:25
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.

He had not been paid for any of his appearances at WE Day events, he noted. His wife's travel expenses had been covered when she participated and she co-hosts a podcast that is produced by the charity, but both of those had been cleared with the ethics commissioner beforehand.

He knew his mother and brother had worked with WE, but he acknowledged that he did not know the extent of that work or how much they had been paid by the organization.

Even still, he argued, his mother and brother did not stand to benefit from the government's decision. 

Later in his hour-and-a half before the finance committee, Trudeau found himself arguing the finer points of the Conflict of Interest Act with Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, particularly as to which family members an office holder like himself is expected to account for.

By some strict reading of the act, Trudeau might be able to make a case. But, as a general rule, a prime minister should not want to end up in a spot where he has to debate the details of the Conflict of Interest Act. Ideally, he or she would never come near the thing and would, in fact, go out of his or her way to avoid it.

Jody Wilson-Raybould leaves a Justice committee meeting in Ottawa in February 2019. The SNC-Lavalin affair cost Justin Trudeau two cabinet ministers, his most trusted aide, and the top federal public servant. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau insisted that neither he nor his staff did anything to steer the policy process toward WE. In fact, he repeatedly noted, when the proposal came to his knowledge, he had "pushed back," to ensure the proposal was thoroughly scrutinized.

But he might not have found himself having to plead his innocence before a parliamentary committee if he had simply taken the further precautionary step of recusing himself from the ultimate decision.

Even then, though, there would still be other questions about the wisdom of the government's decision to work with WE. Indeed, deprived of any new revelation pointing to corrupt intent, the official opposition eventually shifted its angle of attack, framing the partnership with WE as a reckless use of money and arguing that the government had failed to properly scrutinize the organization before agreeing to let WE disperse $500 million in public funds.

Fearless to a fault?

A bad decision is more defensible than a potentially unethical decision, but not by much.

Whatever else Conservative, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs have said about Trudeau and his government over the last several weeks, the most withering comment might have come from New Democrat MP Charlie Angus on Thursday when he described the WE affair as a "very unnecessary scandal."

Members of Trudeau’s family visited the private retreat of the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist and the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, on three occasions from 2014 to 2017. (CBC)

That some or all of this controversy could — or should — have been avoided is perhaps the most damaging element for Trudeau. Particularly because these incautious stumbles into trouble keep happening.

One characteristic of the prime minister's personality is said to be a certain fearlessness. Not in the heroic or courageous sense, but in the sense of not realizing what one should be afraid of. (He is also said to be most prone to making mistakes when he is riding highest, as he was before the WE affair sent Liberal support tumbling.)

That kind of fearlessness could be seen in his political leadership — both to his benefit and detriment. 

He has thrown himself at — and staked his credibility on — big issues and big ideals, from feminism and gender equality to Indigenous Reconciliation, democratic reform and reconciling environmental and economic concerns. His campaign in 2015 turned on his willingness to depart from the orthodoxy of balanced budgets. As prime minister, he has put himself in the middle of auditoriums to take unscripted questions from the general public.

Failure to exercise caution

In many ways, Trudeau has been the opposite of Stephen Harper, who seemed to see risks and potential enemies everywhere and subsequently prioritized control and discipline.

Trudeau has had to answer for every way he has fallen short of the big ideas and great principles that he has spoken of. But he has also shown how a lack of caution can lead to unnecessary wounds. He vacationed on the Aga Khan's private island. He charged across the aisle to break up some tomfoolery in the House of Commons. 

He failed to think harder about what he was going to wear when he went to India. And then a dysfunctional relationship with his justice minister, a haphazard (at best) approach to a difficult legal issue and a clumsy cabinet shuffle led to the explosion of the SNC-Lavalin affair and a second formal rebuke by the ethics commissioner. All of it seemed eminently avoidable.

A certain fearlessness was likely part of Trudeau's appeal to those who voted Liberal in 2015 and 2019. But failing to exercise more caution has now repeatedly resulted in messes that have undercut his support. In such moments, he has risked looking arrogant, cavalier or simply unaware.

Trudeau probably can't hide in Rideau Cottage for the rest of his mandate for fear of putting a foot wrong. But he also can't afford to continue to fail to see when he is putting himself and his government in unnecessary danger.

Did Trudeau’s testimony do enough to quash WE controversy? | At Issue

3 years ago
Duration 13:38
The At Issue panel discusses whether the testimony of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff Katie Telford did enough to quash the WE Charity controversy. Plus, the panellists talk about what the way forward for this government is.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.