'I did absolutely nothing to influence': PM Trudeau says he 'pushed back' on decision to fund WE Charity

Elisabetta Bianchini

In a 90 minute testimony before the House of Commons finance committee Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed that the public service determined that the Canada Student Service Grant could only be run with WE Charity as the third-party company administering program, or it could not move forward at all.

“In effect, [public service] said that if they wanted this program to happen it could only be with WE Charity,” Trudeau said. “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.”

In his opening remarks, Trudeau said he expected the Canada Service Corps would deliver the program and first learned that WE Charity had been proposed to work on the program on May 8, and maintained he hadn’t spoken to his staff about WE Charity in relation to the grant program before that date.

"WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation," Trudeau said.

Trudeau added that the public service indicated the Canada Service Corps would not be able to “scale up” to effectively deliver the program.

The prime minister said he then “pushed back” the student grant program from the cabinet agenda, with particular concern about the “perception” of using a charity known to be connected with the Liberal government, including Trudeau himself, and wanted additional information about the recommendation.

“I wanted to make sure that all the Is were dotted, all the Ts were crossed,” he said.

Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May asked Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, why Trudeau did not know the Canada Service Corps could not administer the program until May 8, when the Canada Student Service Grant was initially announced on Apr. 22 and civil servants revealed they were considering WE Charity before that announcement. Additionally, Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, took it to the COVID-19 committee on May 5, with the WE Charity connection.

Telford said the prime minister also had questions about why the WE Charity was being presented in the recommendation from public service on May 8. The chief of staff added that it “partly speaks to the speed and volume of work during that period, as well as other events during that period.”

Trudeau explained he was briefed again on May 21 and public service, which maintained that WE Charity should deliver the program, and the decision was made in cabinet on May 22.

Neither the prime minister nor Telford’s were able to provide specifics about the “due diligence” that was conducted between May 8 and May 21. The prime minister said he was not aware that the chair of the WE Charity board left her position shortly before the this process and he did not know that the company had recently let go of much of its staff.

Trudeau said the decision to have the agreement with the WE Charity Foundation, which has been described as a “shell company” for real estate holdings, would have been worked out through the public service. While Telford said she was not aware of the We Charity versus WE Charity Foundation distinction, but also said that would be a question for the public service.

Trudeau confirmed his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has an “unpaid” role with WE Charity, but has been reimbursed for travel expense. He said this role and the associated reimbursements were approved by the ethics commissioner beforehand.

The prime minister maintained he did not know how much his mother, Margaret Trudeau, and brother, Alexandre, were paid for their work with the WE Charity. When asked how much money was paid to his family members, Trudeau did not share the values.

“Nobody believes you when you say you don’t know how much money your family received,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said.

It was previously disclosed that Margaret Trudeau was paid about $250,000 between 2016 and 2020 and the prime minister’s brother has been paid $32,000.

With regards to Minister of Finance Bill Morneau’s relationship with WE Charity, Trudeau indicated he did not know he travelled with the group and did not know one of his daughters was working with the charity. The prime minister was aware another Morneau daughter, Clare, had a relationship with the WE Charity, through the work on her book.

Telford said she had similar knowledge of Morneau’s involvement with the WE Charity and only knew of Clare’s involvement from recently seeing a copy of her book, which has a quote from Marc Kielburger on the cover.

NDP MP Charlie Angus called the WE Charity controversy an “unnecessary scandal” and said it comes down to a question of the prime minister’s judgement.

“You give an impression...that you don’t believe that the laws that define what politicians can and cannot do applies to you,” Angus said. “Do you recognize what you’ve done here and the damage that’s been done to all of us trying to reassure Canadians?”

“You don’t seem to understand...that conflict of interest applies to you.”

The prime minister went on to stress that WE Charity was not selected by cabinet but put forward by the public service in their recommendation and admitted that he should have recused himself from the decision on the contract for the Canada Student Service Grant.