OTTAWA—Opposition MPs are bracing for another marathon meeting of the House of Commons ethics committee today as they ramp up efforts to revive their investigation into the WE Charity affair.
Indeed, Conservative MP Michael Barrett says he and his colleagues are prepared for the meeting to drag on for days, if that’s what it takes to finally force an end to a filibuster by Liberal committee members who’ve been blocking opposition demands for more documents.
At issue is a motion put forward by Barrett last week calling on Speakers’ Spotlight, the agency that arranged speaking engagements for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother at WE events, to hand over 12-years’ worth of receipts for those paid appearances.
WE Charity, which was to have been paid $43.5 million to administer a now-defunct federal student services grant program, has already disclosed that it paid Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau more than $350,000 over the years.
Last Friday, Liberal committee members launched a four-hour filibuster to prevent a vote on Barrett’s motion; it ended only when a Bloc Québécois MP got fed up and joined the Liberals in voting to adjourn the meeting.
Today’s meeting will pick up where Friday’s meeting left off.
"We’re prepared to withstand a filibuster with no end," Barrett said in an interview. "So, until bells ring [in the Commons] next week, we have no intention of moving to adjourn the meeting and we will withhold consent for adjournment at the scheduled time."
Liberal committee member Greg Fergus said he hopes "everyone will see reason." But reason, as far as he’s concerned, means dropping the obsession with the WE affair and "focusing on the issues that are really important" to Canadians in the midst of a second deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Really, it’s one of these Ottawa bubble things and I’m just not certain if that’s where people are at on Main Street," Fergus said.
Trudeau’s family ties to WE Charity plunged the student grant program into controversy the moment it was announced last June. WE pulled out within days and has since repaid all money advanced by the federal government to run the program.
Both Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau, who also had family ties to WE, have apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision to have WE administer the program. Both are under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.
Four committees, including the ethics committee, had launched or were preparing to launch investigations into the affair when Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August, bringing all committee work to a halt.
Opposition parties are now trying to reopen their investigations at the finance and ethics committees, demanding documents that each committee had already asked for before prorogation. But the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP are all also proposing, in separate motions, to create a special committee that could take over the investigation.
Fergus said he hopes House leaders for the various parties can reach an agreement that "everyone can live with."
One possible way out of the impasse would be for Liberals to agree to a special committee that would examine all government spending on pandemic-related programs, which would include the now-cancelled student grant program but wouldn’t be focused exclusively on it.
The NDP has proposed a motion somewhat along those lines, but in the context of what it calls "troubling allegations of misuse of public funds," exploring whether friends of the Liberals benefited from the billions the government has spent related to the pandemic. The Conservatives have proposed what they call an "anticorruption committee," focused tightly on the WE affair.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said his party is in discussions with the Conservatives about "how do we do this in a way that meets a credible standard for an investigation" and is not just what Angus referred to as the "Conservatives’ hashtag politics" approach.
Barrett acknowledged that House leadership teams are discussing the special committee idea but said he’s not privy to those conversations. However, he believes "in the coming days opposition parties are going to work very hard to come to a point where we can put a proposal forward that allows" them to hold the minority Liberal government accountable for the billions it has spent.
In the meantime, both Angus and Barrett said the Liberals’ filibustering to prevent the ethics committee from demanding the documents related to speaking fees for Trudeau family members suggests the government has something to hide.
"I think there has to be incredibly damaging information that Canadians haven’t seen yet," said Barrett.
By Joan Bryden