Kielburgers Blame Feds for Student Grant Controversy, Questioned Over Contact With Trudeau’s Top Aide

WE Charity founders accuse committee investigation of being partisan
March 16, 2021 Updated: March 17, 2021

In a testy appearance at the parliamentary ethics committee on March 15, WE Charity’s founders accused MPs of holding a political trial and blamed the federal government for the scandal that erupted over the deal to run the student volunteer grant program awarded to the charity last spring.

Meanwhile, new questions emerged about the involvement of one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior advisers in the since-cancelled multimillion-dollar Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program.

Craig and Marc Kielburger appeared at the committee alongside their lawyer on March 15after initially declining to testify in what they called a “partisan” investigationAt the hearing they were questioned about WE Charity’s operations and the contract with the Liberal government to manage the CSSG.

The now-abandoned arrangement would have paid WE Charity up to $43.5 million to run the program, which was designed to cover up to $5,000 in education costs for students who volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government had budgeted $912 million for the program, but the sole-sourced contract with WE pegged the cost at $543 million and stipulated that the organization would not make money on the deal.

WE Charity pulled out of the deal, and the program was eventually cancelled amid questions about the close ties between WE, Trudeau, and former finance minister Bill Morneau and members of both of their families.

‘We Never Prorogued Parliament’

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion is currently investigating Trudeau and Morneau for a potential conflict of interest, and both have apologized for not having recused themselves from discussions about the grant. Meanwhile, the Kielburger brothers insisted at the hearing that WE is not responsible for the CSSG controversy and resulting political fallout.

“We didn’t advise the prime minister and Mr. Morneau not to recuse themselves,” Marc Kielburger said. “We never prorogued Parliament. We were not involved in the decision to filibuster this committee last fall. This is a political scandal for the government, not for WE Charity.” 

In response, Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara accused the Kielburgers of not taking responsibility for their own actions, saying: “You want to throw blame on everyone else and not take responsibility for things that have happened within your control.”

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus grilled the brothers over why they never registered with the lobbying commissioner given their discussions with the government in the lead-up to the launch of the CSSG in June 2020. WE Charity registered as a lobbyist in August 2020 and did not list the Kielburgers among its 18 in-house lobbyists.

“I asked because you are not registered to lobby, and you, out of an abundance of caution, your group registered after it became a big issue. Don’t you think you would have saved yourself a lot of grief if you’d just followed the rules like other charities?” Angus said.  

The brothers, who said they haven’t been contacted by the RCMP or the Canada Revenue Agency about the program but have spoken to Dion, indicated that they are technically volunteers with WE Charity and that volunteers cannot register with the commissioner.

“Craig, we’re no dummies here,” Angus responded. “You guys run this organization. You’re a volunteer that has a chief of staff who’s paid for by the charity. That’s ridiculous.”

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre demanded a tally of how much WE had paid members of the Trudeau family for appearing at different events, as well as a total of expenses covered for those members. Craig Kielburger said it was around $425,000.

PM’s Top Aide Contacted

Previously undisclosed contact between the Prime Minister’s Office and WE Charity was revealed when Poilievre questioned Craig Kielburger about a LinkedIn message he sent to one of Trudeau’s senior advisers, Ben Chin, who was appointed to the role in 2019. Chin had previously served as Morneau’s chief of staff.

After Craig Kielburger asserted that Chin had “no role” in setting up the CSSG program, Poilievre read out a June 27 message he obtained that appeared to thank Chin for helping to shape the program.

“Hello, Ben. Thank you for your kindness in helping shape our latest program with the government. Warmly, Craig,” Poilievre read. 

In response, Chin wrote “‘Great to hear from you, Craig. Let’s get our young working,’” which Poilievre attested was “obviously in direct reference to the program.”

Kielburger didn’t dispute the message was sent to Chin, but asserted Chin had no direct involvement and the message was one of dozens sent by his assistant as part of expanding Kileburger’s LinkedIn network. He said the reference to the program was a misguided attempt to personalize the message.

“My executive assistant wanted to personalize very kindly. She’s a great EA, wrote a few lines to 100 different LinkedIn requests that went that same day to different people to join my LinkedIn page,” he said. 

Poilievre responded: “You’re in a lot of trouble here, my friend. You’re under oath. Perjury is a crime.” He said the committee would be investigating the exchange further and would require WE Charity to provide the name of the assistant who contacted Chin. 

Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin later asked in French: “How often do you thank people for doing nothing?”

The revelation has raised questions about whether the PMO had a role in setting up the CSSG program, which could contradict the Kielburger brothers’ previous claims that it was civil servants, not politicians or political staff, who arranged for the program. 

Craig Kielburger said it was Rachel Wernick, a senior official at Employment and Social Development Canada whom he’d had a working relationship with since 2017, who first approached WE about the program.

Thousands of government documents released last summer supported the Liberals’ contention that public servants recommended WE for running the program, but they also suggested bureaucrats may have been nudged in that direction by their political masters.

Craig Kielburger told the committee that he wished the contract to run the program had been put out to tender by the government, while his brother described the past year as “devastating” to both WE and students across Canada.

The brothers were also asked about allegations that the charity had raised money by asking multiple donors to contribute to the same projects.

A former donor, U.S. television journalist Reed Cowan, alleged that the plaque on a school he had funded in Kenya in honour of his four-year-old son Wesley, who died in 2006, had been replaced with a plaque in the name of another donor.

The Kielburgers agreed the plaque should never have been removed and said they were looking into the matter.

With files from The Canadian Press