OTTAWA – One of the biggest political stories of 2020 in Canada continues to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s potential conflict of interest in handing the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant program to the WE Charity.
First contact between Liberals and WE
It all began with a phone call on Apr. 5. Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed how to help students whose summer job and volunteer opportunities were vanishing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two days later, Morneau’s office contacted the WE organization, among other groups, to get their input on potential programs. WE Charity provided an unsolicited proposal for a youth entrepreneurship program in the following days.
On Apr. 22, Trudeau announced a $9-billion package of student aid, including the outline of a volunteer program paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs, based on the number of hours they volunteer.
Following the announcement, the WE organization provided updated proposals to the Canadian government.
On May 22, Cabinet, including Trudeau and Morneau, approved handing the reins of the Canada Student Service Grant program to WE.
The next month, Trudeau unveiled more details about student aid. A government release noted that WE would administer the student-volunteer program.
Potential conflict of interest?
That’s when questions begun being raised about potential conflicts of interest between Trudeau, Morneau and the WE organization.
Facing questions about WE on June 26, Trudeau said the non-partisan public service made the recommendation, and the government accepted it.
“As the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organization that was capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it, and that was the WE program,” said Trudeau.
Another week into the ongoing controversy and the Liberal government announced it was parting ways with WE Charity.
Ethics commissioner Mario Dion then said he would examine Trudeau’s role in the awarding of the agreement because of the prime minister’s close ties to the group.
On July 9, it was revealed that WE had paid Trudeau’s mother Margaret about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020. His brother Alexandre had been paid $32,000 for eight events, and Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance.
The organization claimed Trudeau himself had never been paid by the charity or its for-profit arm.
Only July 13, the prime minister apologized for not recusing himself from discussions about WE over his family’s longtime involvement with the organization. Morneau also issued an apology.
On July 22, Morneau told the finance committee he repaid more than $41,000 to WE for travel expenses the organization footed for the minister and his family. The Conservatives then called for Morneau to resign.
Kielburgers and Prime Minister Trudeau testify
At the end of the month, WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger testified before the finance committee.
Prime Minister Trudeau also testified. He told the finance committee that he initially pushed back when he learned the public service had chosen WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant, knowing his family’s connections with the organization would lead to significant scrutiny.
Several WE sponsors pulled donations from the embattled organization. Royal Bank of Canada, GoodLife Fitness and KPMG said they would end their partnerships with the charity.
Provinces like Ontario and Saskatchewan cancelled their respective WE Charity contracts at the beginning of August citing the ongoing scandal.
WE Charity proceeded to scale back its operations in Canada and the United Kingdom, making dozens of layoffs in mid-August.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau resigns
On Aug. 17, Finance Minister Bill Morneau resigned following his involvement in the controversy. Morneau had been the country’s finance minister since late 2015.
On Sept. 9, the WE Charity announced it was closing its Canadian operations, blaming COVID-19 and the political fallout from the Liberal government’s plan to have it run the multimillion-dollar student-volunteer program for leaving it in financial ruin.
Co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger said they were planning to step down from the organization.
In mid-October, the federal Conservatives demanded the creation of an anti-corruption committee to investigate the WE Charity issue.
On Oct. 21, Trudeau’s Liberal minority survived a confidence vote in the House of Commons with backing by the NDP and Green Party.
In November, the House of Commons ethics committee voted against a motion to study Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s speaking contracts since he was elected to Parliament.