Trudeau pushed back on WE deal knowing there would be scrutiny

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.

At a rare prime ministerial appearance before the House of Commons finance committee Thursday, Trudeau said he first learned that WE Charity had been selected by the public service on May 8, mere hours before a cabinet meeting where it was scheduled to be discussed.

That was days after a group of cabinet ministers first heard about the need to let the charity run the program.

Trudeau said he wanted more questions to be answered before cabinet made a final call and so he pulled the item from that day’s cabinet agenda.

The public service, he said, came back on May 21 to reaffirm their decision that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program.

He said it was a choice between going ahead with WE Charity running the program, or not going ahead with it at all.

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.

Trudeau had been scheduled to speak with the committee for one hour, but will now spend an additional 30 minutes answering questions from MPs.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford 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 says he expects 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 Craig and Marc Kielburger — 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.

Many of the Conservatives’ questions for Trudeau are expected to revolve around hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees paid to members of his family for appearing at WE events, along with related expenses, Poilievre said.

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2020.

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