Politics

Trudeau defends decision to have charity with ties to family administer student volunteer program

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the government's decision to enlist a Toronto-based charity with close ties to his family to administer its student volunteer program, saying the WE Charity is the only organization capable of executing a nationwide program at this scale.

Trudeau family members have appeared at multiple WE Charity events in the past

WE Charity co-founders Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the government's decision to enlist a Toronto-based charity with close ties to his family to administer its student volunteer program, saying the WE Charity is the only organization capable of executing a nationwide program at this scale.

Speaking to reporters from a Kanata, Ont., brewery on Friday, Trudeau said federal civil servants concluded that WE has the resources and network in place through its existing activities that will allow it to connect thousands of students seeking volunteer opportunities with organizations across the country.

"We've launched an extremely ambitious program to get young people serving in their communities," said Trudeau.

"The WE organization is the only organization in Canada that has the scale and the ability to deliver volunteer opportunities for young people right across the country at all levels of organizations."

The Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program, announced yesterday, will provide post-secondary and recent graduates with cash grants in exchange for hours spent volunteering with non-profit organizations. The program targets students hoping to save for their post-secondary education who are having trouble finding summer jobs due to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

WATCH: Trudeau questioned about contracting WE Charity to run COVID student volunteer program

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters from the Big Rig Brewery in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. 0:48

The grant will be worth between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the number of hours completed. For every 100 hours worked, a student is eligible for $1,000, which means someone must volunteer 500 hours to receive the full grant.

Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger said Thursday it was the Department of Employment and Social Development that recommended WE Charity be contracted to dole out the grants. The international charity, formerly known as Free the Children, was started by human rights advocates Marc and Craig Kielburger in 1995.

"They assessed WE Charity as having the necessary experience, expertise and capacity to deliver the large scale program," Chagger said.

The government has pledged $912 million for the CSSG, but it's not clear how much WE Charity will receive. Trudeau said WE Charity won't make a profit but will be paid to administer the program.

The government is paying WE $19.5 million to cover its costs; $5 million of that sum will be passed on to partner organizations such as Pathways to Education.

According to a spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal government provides funding and establishes the broad parameters of the project.

"Under a contribution agreement, the government sets the high-level funding parameters, including the objectives, desired outcomes, eligible expenditures, and performance measurement," Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau said in an email to CBC News. 

"However, the recipient is not acting on the government's behalf and the government does not direct or dictate how the recipient will carry out their project."

The agreement is also subject to an audit to make sure the desired results are achieved. Expenses are also reviewed. The federal government has the power to recover the cost of claims that are later deemed ineligible.

WATCH: CBC's Catherine Cullen reports on the Liberal government's decision to contract WE Charity

CBC News' Catherine Cullen reports. 1:55

Asked about conflict of interest

The prime minister and several members of his family have participated in WE events in the past.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Trudeau's wife, is an "ambassador and ally" for the organization and hosts a podcast in association with WE focused on mental health issues.

Grégoire Trudeau and Trudeau's mother, Margaret, attended a star-studded event at Wembley Arena in London, U.K., in March of this year, shortly before Grégoire Trudeau announced she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Trudeau himself has been a frequent guest speaker at WE Day, an annual event that draws thousands of young people.

"I have worked with WE in the past because I believe strongly in promoting opportunities for young people," said Trudeau in response to a question from CBC News about whether he is in a conflict of interest because of his family's close ties to the charity.

"I will continue to do so, as will my family."

WE Charity said in a statement to CBC News that members of the Trudeau family don't receive any appearance fees or honoraria when they appear at WE events. Grégoire Trudeau has been reimbursed for travel expenses related to her volunteer work with the organization.

The Conflict of Interest Act bars public office holders and their family members from accepting gifts that may be seen to influence them as they exercise their duties.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner said in a statement to CBC News that, in many cases, free travel would be considered a gift under the act.

"A gift cannot be accepted by the public office holder or a member of their family if it would reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder (in this case the Prime Minister) in the exercise of his official power, duty or function," the statement said.

The act requires politicians to declare any gifts they or their family members have received.

A spokesperson from the Prime Minister's Office said Grégoire Trudeau's involvement with WE has been cleared by the ethics commissioner.

With files from Catherine Cullen

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