OTTAWA—The federal youth minister says she was not directed by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office to make an agreement with WE Charity to run a federal volunteering program, a deal that has since been aborted and mired in ethical questions.
Bardish Chagger tells the House of Commons finance committee that she didn’t personally have conversations with Trudeau’s office, or that of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, prior to cabinet approval of the deal.
She says a senior official at the department of Employment and Social Development Canada made the recommendation in writing that WE was the only organization in the country that could run and scale up the $912-million student grant program.
WE Charity could have received up to $43.53 million to administer the program had it landed up to 40,000 placements, double the original 20,000 envisioned in the program, she says.
But Chagger is less clear about other details, including how many positions the program was supposed to create for students or who in her office spoke with the Prime Minister’s Office about the deal, under questioning by opposition MPs.
Chagger and some senior public servants are the first witnesses before the committee as it begins the first parliamentary probe of how WE got selected to administer the Canada Student Service Grant.
WE gave up the contract amid the controversy two weeks ago.
The government has since taken control of the program, but has been struggling with the details while the summer ticks by.
Compounding problems for the government is word from the federal ethics commissioner that he will widen his probe into the matter to include a review of Morneau’s involvement in the cabinet decision to team up with WE.
Mario Dion has already said he’ll investigate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s role in the decision to have the WE organization, with which he and his family have a long history, run the program for students who can’t find summer work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dion’s office said the commissioner will probe whether Morneau violated two sections of the conflict of interest law for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions.
One of Morneau’s daughters is employed by WE Charity.
Last week, Morneau apologized for not recusing himself from the decision to award WE the student grant program contract.
Trudeau has admitted he should have recused himself from the decision to award the contract, given his family’s links to the group co-founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger.
Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett says there is still a clear need for a criminal investigation into the awarding of the contract despite the widened ethics probe.
The average time to complete an ethics investigation is seven months.