WE Controversy: Trudeau Facing Mounting Scrutiny

July 8, 2020 Updated: July 8, 2020

Two parliamentary committees are now expected to investigate the Liberal government’s controversial decision to outsource a $900-million student volunteer grant program to WE Charity.

The news comes just days after the federal Ethics Commissioner announced he would investigate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government’s handling of the decision, which will mark the third ethics probe into the PM’s conduct since he took office in 2015.

On July 7, the federal finance committee voted in favour of looking into how WE Charity was chosen to administer the Canada Student Service Grant. On the same day, the chair of the government operations committee agreed to host an emergency meeting on July 9 to vote on a similar study, after a request by the Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois. That vote is also expected to pass.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion announced his probe of the contract on July 3 after controversy erupted over how and to whom it was awarded, given Trudeau and his wife’s close association with WE Charity and its founders Marc and Craig Kielburger.

The $19.5 million sole-sourced contract would grant WE Charity the authority to disperse the $900 million grant to Canadian student volunteers.

WE pulled out of the deal the same day the ethics probe was announced, and after a week of mounting controversy.

In a conference call video obtained by National Post and released June 30 after the paper broke the story, Marc Kielburger said the Prime Minister’s Office contacted him directly to ask for WE’s assistance in managing the grant.

The following day, however, Kielburger claimed he misspoke about the PMO and said “the outreach” actually came from Employment and Social Development Canada.

Meanwhile, as media scrutiny intensified, Trudeau went from suggesting WE was the “only organization” capable of managing the contract to declaring that WE was no longer involved and the federal bureaucracy would distribute the student grants.

“Obviously, the way this situation has unfolded has been unfortunate,” he said at a press conference on July 3. “We will continue to work hard to make sure that young people get the opportunities to serve their country but it will no longer be with the organization WE.”

At a press conference on July 8, Trudeau admitted that he did not recuse himself from his cabinet’s approval of the outsourcing of the program to WE, despite his family’s ties to the organization.

He said cabinet made the final decision on the contract, which he said was first recommended by civil servants, but he didn’t remove himself from the talks because of his experience working with youth.

Long-Standing Ties With WE

Well before Trudeau became prime minister or even leader of the Liberal Party in 2013, he had a relationship with the Kielburgers and their charity, which complemented his youth appeal and rise to political power.

When Trudeau was the Liberal nominee for his Papineau riding in Montreal, he sent a video message to the first WE Day event in Toronto, in October 2007. A year later, he appeared in person at WE Day in Toronto, only three days after being elected MP for Papineau.

This platforming pattern occurred again on Oct. 2, 2012, when a few days after appearing at that year’s WE Day event in Montreal hosted by his wife, Trudeau announced his bid for the Liberal leadership, which he won the following year.

Since becoming prime minister in 2015, Trudeau has appeared at two WE Day events in Ottawa—the first shortly after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016 and the second on July 2, 2017, on Parliament Hill.

Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, has also spoken at several WE events, while his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau expanded her role with the charity in 2018, becoming its WE Well-being Initiative ambassador and in this capacity hosts a weekly podcast to discuss mental health issues. Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre, an author and filmmaker, also speaks at WE Day events.

Since 2017, WE Charity has received five other sole-sourced federal contracts worth $120,000 as well as nearly $5.2 million in grants and contributions for its charitable endeavours.

WE Internal Controversies

On top of Dion’s ethics probe of Trudeau, the charity and its for-profit sister venture ME to WE are facing internal controversies. One is detailed in a July 3 Canadaland report exposing potential bribery and corruption by WE’s former director of Kenya operations Peter Ruhiu.

The Canadaland story includes a 21-minute recording of a telephone conversation in July 2017 between Ruhiu (since fired and now facing criminal charges in Kenya) and Marc Kielburger leaked to the independent media outlet that sheds light on WE Charity and its business franchises.

Kielburger has said he was collaborating with Kenyan police to call Ruhiu and collect information that can be used by police as part of their investigation on Ruhiu.

Free the Children was the original name of the charity the Kielburgers established in 1995, and in 2008 the brothers started ME to WE, a for-profit operation that sells four and five-figure “voluntourism” holidays to the charity’s operations in Ecuador, Kenya, and India.

Another controversy involves former WE employee Amanda Maitland, who told CBC the charity censored her anti-racism speech planned for a 2019 tour of Alberta schools. The Kielburgers apologized.

Maitland’s story coming to light prompted WE’s former head of global brand James Powell to accuse the organization of abusing him and others.

“I too was harmed during my time at WE,” Powell claims in a three-and-a-half minute Instagram confessional suggesting further ethical shortcomings in the organization.

Other Trudeau Ethical Probes

The current probe by Dion is the third such ethics investigation into Trudeau.

In December 2017, then-Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson found that Trudeau had violated ethics rules by vacationing at the private Bahamian island of the Aga Khan at Christmas 2016, and when his wife and children vacationed on the same island months earlier.

The vacations included accommodations and private transportation aboard the Aga Khan’s helicopters and seaplanes.

Dawson’s report concluded the trips broke four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act and disregarded Trudeau’s excuse that it was a visit among personal friends, noting the pair had barely spoken over the past 30-some years.

In 2018, Dion fined Trudeau $100 for failing to disclose $600 worth of designer sunglasses gifted by the premier of Prince Edward Island the previous year.

Trudeau’s biggest run-in with conflict of interest law, however, was in the wake of the infamous SNC-Lavalin affair.

In August of 2019, Dion released his report concluding Trudeau had violated the Conflict of Interest Act by pressuring former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to divert SNC-Lavalin’s trial to remediation.

Dion’s report said Trudeau’s repeated attempts to sway Wilson-Raybould ran “contrary to the constitutional principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law,” after Wilson-Raybould refused to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Quebec-based engineering firm.

Trudeau shuffled Wilson-Raybould out of the Justice portfolio and then tossed her from the Liberal Party caucus for her whistleblowing, along with then-Treasury Board President Jane Philpott who also broke ranks with the PM over the scandal.

Last December, SNC-Lavalin pleaded guilty to corruption charges related to its business dealings in Libya between 2001 and 2011 and agreed to pay a $280 million fine.