Lobbying Commissioner, Language Czar Looking Into WE Charity as PM Insists No Conflict of Interest

September 11, 2020 Updated: September 12, 2020

The federal Lobbying Commissioner has confirmed it is looking into WE Charity but will not yet say whether a full investigation has been opened, as the embattled organization announced this week it will close Canadian operations. Meanwhile, another federal watchdog is examining whether the charity would have been able to provide its services in both official languages as required by law. 

A spokesperson for the Lobbying Commissioner’s office told The Epoch Times it opened a “preliminary assessment” of the charity on Aug. 14, but could not confirm or deny whether that assessment will prompt an investigation. 

“Given the possibility that these matters may become police investigations, the Office is unable to comment on whether an investigation has been initiated or is ongoing,” said communications advisor Manon Dion in an email.

WE Charity announced on Sept. 9 that it is closing its Canadian operations due to the fallout from the Canada Student Service Grant controversy as well as the financial impact of the pandemic. Co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger are also stepping down from the organization. 

WE Charity is currently embroiled in existing investigations by the ethics commissioner and several parliamentary committees looking into how the organization got a sole-sourced contract to run a multi-million-dollar student service grant program, and the charity’s ties to family members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau. The RCMP has also said it is “examining” the matter. 

The NDP and Conservatives requested an investigation by the Lobbying Commission after testimonies in parliamentary committees looking into the WE charity deal and reports of contact between WE charity staff and government officials. 

The federal Lobbying Act requires an organization to register its communications with public office holders within two months of the point in time when its combined lobbying activities, over a one-month period, amount to at least 20 percent of the work of a single, full-time employee.

In their testimony to the federal finance committee in July, the Kielburger brothers defended their organization’s decision not to register lobbyists and insisted the efforts of the organization contacting the officials did not meet the legal definition of lobbying.

In August, however, WE Charity registered retroactively as a lobbyist of the federal government—registering more than 60 communication reports for contacts with public office holders since early 2019.

Testifying before the House of Commons finance committee on Aug.13, WE Charity’s executive director Dalal Al-Waheidi defended the organization’s choice not registering earlier, saying that in “past years,” WE Charity’s engagement with the government was about “one to three percent of our overall budget and engagement.”

“We thought it was minimal. If I thought that registration was required, we would have done it,” Al-Waheidi said.

Amid WE Charity’s woes, Trudeau was asked during a news briefing on Sept. 11 in Gogama, Ont., whether he takes any responsibility for the organization’s troubles, including its recent closure in Canada.

“As I’ve said, I regret not having recused myself in the beginning because of the perception involved. But there was no conflict of interest here,” Trudeau responded.

Trudeau says the government moved rapidly with a partner that it felt was able to deliver the student grant program.

“What we tried to do with the Canada student grant was encourage young people to volunteer in communities across this country as they were, and give them recognition for that,” Trudeau said. “And in order to do that we moved rapidly with a partner that we felt was able to actually deliver it.”

Also on Sept. 11, a spokesperson for the official languages commissioner said they would investigate whether WE Charity was able to provide its services in both official languages as the law requires.

The federal Conservatives had asked official languages commissioner Raymond Theberge to investigate the government’s choice of WE Charity, saying the move showed contempt toward francophones.

Conservative MP Richard Martel alleged in a letter to Theberge earlier this month that the youth group did not have the ability to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant program in French as well as in English.

Sonia Lamontagne, a spokeswoman for the commissioner, said that Martel was informed the office would investigate the complaint.

She did not provide details, given that the investigation is ongoing.

Trudeau announced the launch of the Canada Student Services Grant on June 25. But there was immediate controversy over his perceived conflict of interest and early the next month WE Charity pulled out of the agreement, which was to have paid the organization a potential $43.5 million. The sole-sourced contract with WE had stipulated the organization would not make money on the deal.

With files from The Canadian Press