Trudeau government was willing to pay WE Charity up to $43.5M to run student volunteer grant program
OTTAWA –The Trudeau government was willing to pay WE Charity up to $43.53 million to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, according to a federal minister.
That sum, disclosed by Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger during a parliamentary committee meeting Thursday, is more than double the original amount disclosed by the federal government.
The government had only previously spoken of a payment of at least $19.5 million, depending on the number of volunteers placed.
Meanwhile, the federal ethics commissioner announced an investigation into Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s involvement in the government’s outsourcing of a $900-million student volunteer grant to WE Charity, where one of his daughters currently works.
Thursday’s Finance committee meeting was the first of four focusing on how the government came to the decision to outsource the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to WE Charity, which has close ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his family, as well as Morneau.
Chagger, the first witness, repeated that it was the public service that recommended the grant program be outsourced to a third-party via a contribution agreement (which is different from a contract, she insisted).
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Normally, the government would put out a request for proposals when considering a contribution agreement, Senior Associate Deputy Minister Gina Wilson said. But that process can take “two to three months”, and so it was not followed because of the short deadline to deliver the program.
She also said she “personally” had not spoken to Trudeau’s or Morneau’s office about the bureaucrat’s recommendation, but dodged questions about if her staff had.
Chagger also confirmed that questions had been raised at Cabinet about the prime minister and his family’s ties to WE Charity during discussions about the CSSG.
Testimony by Employment and Social Development Assistant Deputy Minister Rachel Wernick, whom Chagger identified as the bureaucrat who had recommended WE Charity administer the student grant, raised eyebrows among opposition MPs.
Wernick said that WE Charity submitted an unsolicited proposal to several bureaucrats and ministers before Trudeau announced the CSSG on April 22.
The proposal was “related to social entrepreneurship and indicated that it could be adapted as needed,” Wernick said. She knew of at least two ministers’ offices that were aware of it: Chagger’s and Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade Mary Ng’s.
But it was only later that the Trudeau government told her department that they wanted to implement a student volunteer program. Wernick says she contacted WE Charity on April 19 to see if they would be interested in administering such a program.
On April 22, the prime minister announced the details of the CSSG. “I learned the final contents of the package from the announcement,” Wernick said.
The same day, a full draft proposal to administer the program arrived in her email inbox, courtesy of WE co-founder Craig Kielburger.
“Now we know that this whole thing originated with WE,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre concluded.
Considering that her department was told it barely had a few weeks to set up the CSSG, Wernick said the WE proposal ticked all the necessary boxes for them to be best suited to run the $900-million program.
“I determined with my team and colleagues that their draft proposal was the best available option in the time we had to work with,” Wernick said.
Wernick also confirmed that their decision-making process did not include spotting potential conflict of interest issues between the Trudeau Cabinet and WE.
“The onus is on the public office holders to uphold the guidelines,” Wernick told the committee.
Three weeks after the beginning of the WE Charity controversy, the ethics commissioner has already announced investigations into both the prime minister and, starting Thursday, the finance minister.
Both Trudeau and Morneau admitted recently they had not recused themselves from Cabinet discussions about the outsourcing of the CSSG to WE Charity, despite close ties to the organization.
The prime minister has hosted multiple “WE Day” rallies in the last decade, his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is a “WE ambassador” and both his mother, Margaret Trudeau, and his brother, Alexandre Trudeau, have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in total speaking fees by WE since 2016.
In Morneau’s case, one of his daughters currently works for the Toronto-based organization, while another has spoken at three WE events.
The WE organization is also embroiled in controversy regarding its corporate structure as well as its treatment of staff, particularly those from minority groups.
On Wednesday, WE suddenly announced it was cancelling its flagship “WE Day” events for the foreseeable future, all the while launching a major restructuring of its corporate structure.
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