OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says when he first learned the public service had proposed WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant he pushed back, knowing it would come under scrutiny.
Trudeau has longstanding ties to the WE organization and several of his relatives have been paid to appear at its events.
In a rare prime ministerial appearance before the House of Commons finance committee Thursday, Trudeau said both he and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, first learned that WE Charity had been selected to run the grant program on May 8, mere hours before a cabinet meeting where it was to be discussed.
That was days after a group of other ministers first heard about the need to let the charity run the program.
Trudeau said he wanted more due diligence to be done on the plan before it went to cabinet for approval, so he pulled the item from that day’s cabinet agenda.
The public service, he said, came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program.
It was a choice between going ahead with WE Charity running the program or not going ahead with it at all, he said.
The prime minister told the committee the Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that at no point did he ever speak with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger through this approval process, and when he learned of the public service’s recommendation to contract WE, he knew the public would have questions about his family’s connections with the organizations.
Trudeau said that was the point at which he should have recused himself from the decision on the contract.
MPs on the finance committee then moved on to asking Trudeau about the events that led to his Liberal cabinet asking the WE Charity to oversee a $912-million program that provides grants to students and graduates for volunteering.
Telford, Trudeau’s top aide, is also scheduled to testify for two hours today, up from one hour previously scheduled.
Both are appearing at the committee’s invitation, not at its demand.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said earlier Thursday he hopes to learn from Trudeau what due diligence was done on the WE organization before he declared in late June that WE was the only organization capable of administering the Canada Student Service Grant.
Scheer said he expected Trudeau to explain why this program, described as having a $912-million budget, was expected to actually spend far less, and why no other organizations were considered for the job.
Scheer also took aim at WE, criticizing the charity’s structure and its co-founders, citing concerns he says raise additional questions about the government’s agreement with the organization.
He called on Trudeau to answer questions for three hours.
On Wednesday, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre—who is one of those questioning Trudeau today—warned that if the prime minister doesn’t fully answer questions about his own and his family’s ties to the WE organization, they will call him back again.
“We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Poilievre told reporters in Ottawa.
WE had previously confirmed that Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, was paid about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020 and his brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events.
The Kielburger brothers testified Tuesday that Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has participated in seven WE Days and received an average of $3,618 for each event, to cover her expenses. That works out to $25,326 in total.
The Conservatives are now calling on federal ethics czar Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include travel expenses WE covered in addition to speaking fees for his mother, wife and brother.
On Wednesday, Dion sent letters to Conservative and NDP MPs saying he is widening his investigations into trips Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his family participated in that were sponsored by the WE organization.
Morneau told the Commons finance committee last week he had freshly repaid WE Charity more than $41,000 in expenses for trips he and his family took in 2017 to see and take part in some of the organization’s humanitarian work.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he believes details that have emerged since the program was announced suggest the deal awarding WE the Canada Student Services Grant program was never about students, but about helping close friends of the Liberals and of Trudeau.
By Teresa Wright