The problems for Trudeau erupted after the contract, worth up to C$43.5 million, was signed with WE Charity to administer a C$544 million student grant program that’s part of Canada’s pandemic response. Trudeau has already been found guilty of breaking conflict-of-interest laws since becoming minister in 2015 twice before and the latest row has kicked off a probe by the ethics commissioner once again — an investigation that encompasses his finance minister — and calls by rivals for his resignation.
WE works on international development projects and educational programs, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, that teach young people about civic engagement. But the deal, announced in late June, was canceled within days amid an uproar about the charity’s connections to Trudeau’s family, including revelations that his mother and brother have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking, travel and hospitality fees by the organization over the past half decade.
Trudeau himself has spoken at major WE events and his wife has been one of the group’s ambassadors, which is an unpaid role except for expenses.
While fielding questions Thursday, Trudeau repeated that in hindsight he should have removed himself from the Cabinet’s decision-making process around the contract once he discovered WE was involved. He also stressed that the cloud of the pandemic had quickened the overall pace of policy discussions and that he didn’t weigh in on the recommendation to go with WE, which came from the public service.
Trudeau said he was informed by government officials that given the short time frame it was a binary choice: go with WE or the program would not move forward at all.
At another point in the hearing, Trudeau suggested that because of those past ethics controversies he approached the WE contract with more caution.
But Trudeau’s critics weren’t swayed by his introspection. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he didn’t buy the prime minister’s explanation, calling it “an obvious conflict of interest” because of his connection with WE’s co-founders, Marc and Craig Kielburger.
“There were numerous red flags with this proposal. It fell apart the second it was announced,” Angus told Trudeau. “You give an impression … that you don’t believe the laws that define what politicians can and cannot do apply to you.”
Angus said Trudeau’s actions leading up to the contract’s cancellation have hurt young people who were hoping to be compensated for volunteer opportunities this summer.
Trudeau took a risk with his appearance before a parliamentary committee, where opponents can grill witnesses in sometimes-chaotic settings known for constant interruptions, raised voices and testy exchanges.
The prime minister was repeatedly pressed on how much WE paid for his wife’s recent travel to an event in London, whether he had read the Conflict of Interest Act and sidestepped questions about who would be fired for the decision to award the WE contract.
WE’s yanked contract has also swamped Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Trudeau’s trusted economic quarterback of the federal Covid-19 response. Morneau revealed to the same committee last week that he failed to pay for more than C$41,000 worth of travel expenses from trips he, his wife and one of their daughters took with WE in 2017. Morneau, who has a daughter who works for WE, insisted he only just realized that he hadn’t paid for the travel costs.
Morneau, who is also under investigation by the ethics commissioner, has also apologized publicly for not recusing himself from the decision to award the contract to WE.
Both Trudeau and Morneau have faced demands from political rivals to resign over the matter and polls suggest the controversy has already eroded Liberal support and Trudeau’s approval ratings, which surged after the start of the pandemic.
Since last fall’s election, there’s been little apparent appetite among opposition parties to defeat Trudeau’s minority Liberal government and trigger another election. But Conservatives are set to elect a new leader in late August and could be tempted to topple the government.
The prime minister has shown he can withstand scandals, including the public release during last year’s election campaign of images of him wearing brownface 20 years ago.
His first violation of the ethics law was over a 2016 all-expenses vacation he and his family took to the Aga Khan’s private Caribbean island. Then, last year, the ethics watchdog found that Trudeau broke conflict-of-interest law after he and his staff repeatedly urged his former attorney general to strike a plea-bargain deal with the SNC-Lavalin engineering firm, which faced corruption charges.
Trudeau also weathered blow back from a 2018 trip to India when he had to rescind a dinner invitation he’d issued to a Sikh extremist who had been accused of attempting to murder an Indian politician.
Despite the controversies, Trudeau was reelected last year — but voters reduced him and his Liberals to just a minority status in Parliament. The weakened mandate has forced them to work with opposition parties to pass legislation and to keep the government afloat.
The WE contract has also put more scrutiny on the financial activities of the big international charity itself. Earlier this week, the Kielburgers fielded questions before the finance committee.
WE has had considerable international reach. Its website, which features photos of the Kielburgers posing with international celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, says the charity has worked with some of the “world’s most renowned thinkers and social activists.”