As It Happens·Q&A

Chrystia Freeland personally apologizes for WE Charity scandal, but stands by Trudeau

Canada's deputy prime minister says she is personally sorry for the WE Charity scandal and hopes Canadians can retain "real confidence in their leadership" as the federal government works toward a safe re-opening of the economy. 

The deputy PM says Canada's new funding deal with provinces shows Canada is united in fighting coronavirus

Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland, right, says she fully supports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Canada's deputy prime minister says she is personally sorry for the WE Charity scandal and hopes Canadians can retain "real confidence in their leadership" as the federal government works toward a safe re-opening of the economy. 

The Liberal government announced Thursday that it would provide $19 billion to the provinces and territories to help fund the economy's "safe restart."

But the announcement was overshadowed by questions about why the government awarded a contract to administer a $912-million summer student grants program to WE, a charity that has paid Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mother and brother a combined $300,000 in speaker fees. 

Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs, spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal on Friday about both WE and the safe restart funding. Here is part of that interview. 

I ... want to start with what you said yesterday about the WE Charity issue, that you feel all of the Liberal cabinet bears responsibility. You expressed regret as well. So I wonder what specifically you regret?

Let me speak for myself. I do regret that this went forward. And I'll say to Canadians, I'm really sorry.

I was actually talking with my dad about this last night and he said something that really made sense to me, which is, you know, now is a time when Canadians are making real sacrifices, when our country is facing a real crisis. And so, it's so important for Canadians to have real confidence in their leadership, in the political leadership of the country.

And in so far as this whole situation has troubled Canadians, I just want to say, personally speaking for myself as a member of cabinet, I am really sorry. And I want to assure Canadians that I am 100 per cent focused on trying to keep our country safe and trying to help steer our country through this coronavirus crisis to the best of my ability.

Trudeau waves to the audience as he appears on stage during WE Day UN in New York City in 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

You also said that you have "complete confidence" in the prime minister. What do you say to Canadians, you know, even Liberal supporters in some cases, who may not feel the same way anymore?

I think that his leadership throughout this crisis has been exemplary. He has really, I think, shown Canadians a path through a very difficult situation. I think the personal messages he's been offering to Canadians have been really, really important.

We, as a government, have taken some really difficult decisions led by the prime minister that have been so important to our country. You know, among them the fact that a 14-day quarantine has been imposed for people coming into the country. That's something that I know a lot of people initially wondered about, but I think we all now appreciate how valuable it's been.

And probably most important of all has been the tremendous economic support that our government has provided to Canadians to get through that crisis. That took real courage to put that support in place, and it was the prime minister who was the leader of all of that.

That's why he has my full support. That's why it's a privilege for me to work in his cabinet under his leadership.

But when we talk about the billions and billions of dollars of support that you talk about, doesn't all of what's happened with the WE Charity undermine all of the other things you just listed? You know, you are a very effective communicator. So is the prime minister. There's contrition there. There's apologies. But there's been multiple apologies and multiple ethical blind spots, if maybe we can put it that way, in some cases. So how do you continue that support, knowing that those are piling up?

Well, there's a lot of questions in there. And I would just say my personal commitment to Canadians is to just serve Canadians to the best of my ability in this incredibly challenging time. And I think we are all seeing — certainly, I am seeing — what a great job the prime minister is doing in leading our country through this coronavirus crisis.

The federal government has reached a $19-billion agreement with the provinces and territories for a “safe restart” of cities. The money will go toward funding child care, transit and purchasing personal protective equipment for front-line workers. 1:54

We should, in the interest of transparency, let our listeners know that in this case, it was your office that offered us this interview with the interest of discussing the safe restart of the economy, which we are going to get to. But was the goal to try to get past this WE Charity incident and all the questions around it?

No, not at all. I mean, the reason that I wanted to talk to you, Nil, and through you to talk to Canadians, was, above all, to talk about the safe restart deal, which we concluded yesterday, and which to me is incredibly important for our country.

When you put the federal and provincial contributions together, it's $22 billion dollars that we are spending together to be sure that our country can safely restart. And to me, it's just so important to take every possible step, every precaution to ensure that our reopening goes well.

You don't have to look very far from where I'm sitting in Toronto to see examples of how a restart of the economy outside Canada can go really badly. So it's important to do everything we can to get it right.

And one of the things that's really important for me about this safe restart deal is the level of collaboration between the federal government and provincial governments. When you look around the world, one of the hallmarks of countries that have succeeded in fighting the coronavirus has been real national unity in that fight. And likewise, one of the hallmarks of failure has been countries that don't manage to be united.

So for me, it was important that we were all able to work together.

Trudeau and Freeland before speaking to members of caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

I do know that Canadians are going to want to know the specifics. So I just wanted to dig into a couple of things on offer here. The government is promising a little over $600 million, as I understand it. If you look at Quebec, though, universal child care alone there costs $1.5 billion. I wonder how far $600 million is going to go when you have so many parents across the country, women in particular, during this pandemic being forced to choose between their jobs and making sure they're children are taken care of?

It's $625 million for child care for returning workers. And let me be clear, Nil, this is not a national child care strategy. This is not a long-term fix. This, and the entire safe restart, is about the next six to eight months, and it is about doing what we can to get our country through this period.

So, if the point is "Wow, $625 million is not enough for childcare across the country," I 100 per cent agree, and I think we need to do a lot more on child care. And I think collectively, as a country, we really need to focus on what we're going to do with schools in the fall.

But I would also say that doing something and taking some action is a start. And that's what we're aiming to do here.

Ten paid sick days on offer in this restart plan for those who don't have paid sick days. Do you have a sense at this point how that's going to work?

I would like to offer a shout-out to Premier John Horgan of B.C., who was the person who first raised the idea and really, really pushed for it.

I believe we should have sick leave in place, full stop. But I think the coronavirus has shown us that when we don't support our friends and neighbours in giving them the right to take sick leave, not only is there something pretty inhuman about that, but that also jeopardizes the health of all of us. So I'm really glad that that's in there.

Just really quickly … while we have you, I wanted to ask about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig [Canadian detained in China on spy charges]. [Kovrig]'s family spoke to CBC News last month. You know, they they want your government to do more. Can you give us any update on what's happening with their case and how they're doing?

I think it's very important for them and for their families to know that they are not forgotten, that they are a priority for our government. I believe they're a priority for all Canadians.

Just over the past couple of weeks, I've had conversations with Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, and with Sen. Jim Risch, the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, and the Michaels were very much a part of our conversation.

Our government is absolutely committed to doing everything we can to getting them home safely.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Edited for length and clarity. 

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