Scrutiny of WE deal to resume at committee, in House of Commons Tuesday

Scrutiny of WE deal to resume at committee, in House of Commons Tuesday
Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press
The Liberal government's cancelled contract with WE, a charity connected closely to the prime minister, will be back in the spotlight today.

The Liberal government’s cancelled contract with an organization connected closely to the prime minister will be back in the spotlight today.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected in the House of Commons, with the opposition eager to press him further on how his cabinet reached the decision to approve handing control over a $900 million student-volunteering program to the WE Charity organization.

The Liberals have said they regret the way it all rolled out, but the non-partisan public service made the call.

The federal government’s top public servant, Ian Shugart, will appear later this morning at the House of Commons finance committee, which has been probing exactly how the contract was awarded.

MPs also want Trudeau to appear before that committee, but it is unclear whether he will accept the invitation.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau should appear before a committee, but also called on the prime minister to waive cabinet confidentiality and release all documents around the WE agreement.

He said the affair raises concerns about the Liberals’ handling of emergency aid programs to help Canadians concerned about their jobs, finances and health.

“To deal with all these concerns, not having a job, the future, a pandemic, people need to have confidence in their government,” Singh told a morning news conference.

“What this scandal has done is really rocked the confidence of people in a government that doesn’t seem to be acting for the interest of people, but to help out their close friends.”

What MPs have already heard is that WE sent an unsolicited proposal to Youth Minister Bardish Chagger and Small Business Minister Mary Ng in early April for a program to help youth become entrepreneurs, which carried a price tag of between $6 million and $14 million.

Federal officials were talking about ways to help students unable to work this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intending to roll out something by mid-May. That WE could be involved came up in conversations between the Finance Department and Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees student-related programs.

Rachel Wernick, a senior ESDC official, told the finance committee she called WE co-founder Craig Kielburger on April 19, at which time she learned of the original proposal.

Three days later, on April 22, Trudeau announced a $9-billion package of student aid, including the outline of a volunteer program paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs, based on the number of hours they volunteer.

Wernick said it was on that date that she learned the full details of the program she would help devise. She told the finance committee Kielburger emailed her an updated proposal on the same day, and the decision was ultimately made to have WE run the program.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer suggested Monday the fact the proposal was delivered the same day as Trudeau’s announcement pokes holes in the Liberals’ claim the idea came from the public service.

“Who in the Prime Minister’s Office prepped WE for this announcement?”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said the faster the prime minister reveals the entirety of what was said and done around the WE agreement, the better it would be for the country.

He also said the prime minister needs to cede power to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland while the ethics commissioner probes Trudeau’s actions.

“Somebody has to take the lead of the affairs of the state and control all of those people who might be somehow involved with this WE Charity organization, which seems to be terribly close to the Liberal party.”

In early July, the organization handed back control of the contract to the government and the future of the program is uncertain.

The Commons is sitting to pass legislation that would extend and expand the COVID-19 wage subsidy program, as well as payments to Canadians with disabilities to help them cover pandemic-related costs.

The bill is expected to pass mid-afternoon with the support of all parties.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2020.


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