OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will testify on Thursday in a rare parliamentary committee appearance, where he’s set to face a barrage of questions from MPs about his role in the scandal sparked when the Liberals awarded WE Charity a deal to administer a $912 million student volunteer grant program.
Trudeau and his chief of staff Katie Telford are both appearing as witnesses before the House of Commons Finance Committee this afternoon. They will be speaking about their involvement, what they knew when, and what conflict of interest concerns, if any, the Prime Minister’s Office had in outsourcing this massive and since-halted summer aid program.
Late Wednesday, opposition MPs voted to invite Trudeau to testify for three hours, starting at 3 p.m. ET and for Telford to follow her boss with a two-hour appearance. It remains to be seen whether they’ll agree to appear for longer than the one hour each have already committed to.
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The suggestion to stay longer comes after the four-hour appearance of WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger on Tuesday, when the brothers denied they were chosen to run the program because of any political connections and offered several new details about the entire affair, including denying a string of reported accusations of improper conduct within their self-described “labyrinth” organization.
The entire affair centres around the Canada Student Service Grant, which was first announced in late April, offering students $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteer work on COVID-19-focused community projects over the summer.
It was late June when Trudeau announced WE would be running the program, but by early July they had pulled out amid questions about more than $300,000 in payments to Trudeau’s mother, brother, and his wife, for speaking engagements with the charity over the years.
In the month that has passed since the program was put on ice, revelation after revelation has kept the scandal alive. From the $43.5 million that WE was set to receive to run the program and the advanced work they were doing before the ink was dry on the deal, to the involvement of Finance Minister Bill Morneau in the student grant program’s infancy, his daughters’ ties to the charity, and his family’s past “complimentary” WE trips, for which he just recently reimbursed the charity more than $41,000.
Both Trudeau and Morneau were at the cabinet table and did not recuse themselves when the student grant program was being discussed. For that, they have both offered apologies and pledged to be more proactive in recusing themselves going forward to avoid the same mistake.
In setting up their expectations for the much-anticipated summer sit down with the prime minister — through the new normal, a virtual committee meeting over Zoom — opposition MPs said all they want is the truth, which Trudeau has said is that public servants with the Department of Employment and Social Development suggested WE was the best and only group capable of executing the massive program.
“The evidence has suggested it’s beyond just the prime minister… So, we need to know the truth, we need to know who’s exactly involved, and really Canadians want to know,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Wednesday. “It looks like Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government behind closed doors have been working to give millions of dollars to their close friends.”
And if they don’t feel like they’ve gotten the full disclosure from Trudeau today, the Conservatives have already threatened to call him back in the months ahead.
In addition to the finance committee probe, two other House committees have agreed to take up studies into various aspects of the controversy, including looking into the Conflict of Interest Act aspect of the scandal and whether changes are needed to put up stronger conflict of interest shields in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has already launched investigations into possible conflict of interest code breaches by Morneau and Trudeau for not recusing themselves from the cabinet discussions about outsourcing the grant program to WE, given their close family ties.
On Wednesday evening, Dion’s office confirmed it has expanded its probe of Morneau to include the committee revelations from the finance minister about his family’s gifted travel.
The conflict of interest rules prohibit federal public office holders or members of their family from accepting “any gift or other advantage, including from a trust, that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”
This is the third time the prime minister has been investigated for possible ethics breaches. In the first two instances — his Aga Khan private island vacation and the SNC-Lavalin scandal — he was found to have broken the rules.