Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for not recusing himself from the government’s decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million student-aid program, saying his family’s longtime involvement with the organization should have kept him out of the discussions.
The surprise apology marked a sharp about-face for the prime minister after weeks of trying to defend the controversial, sole-sourced contract with WE, and follows revelations his wife, brother and mother had been paid a combined $300,000 for appearing at WE events over the years.
“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions given our family’s history and I’m sincerely sorry for not having done that,” Trudeau said during a news conference outside his Ottawa home on Monday.
“When it came to this organization and this program, the involvement that I had in the past and that my family has should have had me remove myself from these discussions. And I’m sorry that I didn’t.”
Trudeau said he was particularly sorry that the delay in the program caused by WE’s eventual decision to withdraw from administering the Canada Student Services Grant would harm students looking for ways to help in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Young people who are facing a difficult time right now getting summer jobs, contributing to their communities, are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve, and that’s frustrating.”
Trudeau announced general plans for the program in April and then details of the Canadian Student Services Grant followed June 25. The government said tens of thousands of students having a hard time finding summer work due to COVID-19 could volunteer up to 500 hours to earn the maximum $5,000 toward their post-secondary costs.
But the program came under immediate scrutiny after it was discovered that WE had been chosen to administer it. Trudeau said federal public servants had recommended the organization and that it was considered the only one capable of delivering the program.
Trudeau nonetheless faced accusations of cronyism and allegations of a conflict of interest over his past connections with WE. Those allegations only grew after revelations last week about the payments to his wife, brother and mother.
The prime minister and Finance Minister Bill Morneau both confirmed they did not recuse themselves from the cabinet vote that approved giving the contract to WE. One of Morneau’s daughters has spoken at WE events while another does contract work for the organization.
Morneau’s office on Sunday denied any link between his daughters’ involvement with WE and the contract to administer the student grant program, which Trudeau acknowledged would have paid the organization around $20 million.
WE has said, including in a full-page newspaper advertisement Monday, that money would only have covered its costs.
The government and WE terminated the deal on July 3. The federal Employment and Social Development Department has since taken over the program, though officials have acknowledged the change will result in delays in its rollout.
Trudeau sidestepped questions about whether he knew his family had received money from WE when cabinet was deciding whether to approve the contract, saying that he knew of their involvement with the organization but not the details.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is currently investigating Trudeau over a potential conflict of interest in relation to the deal with WE. The Conservatives and NDP have asked the watchdog to also look into a potential conflict of interest by Morneau.
The Conservatives have also said they want Trudeau to appear before the House of Commons’ finance committee to answer questions about how the arrangement with WE came to be.
Trudeau was noncommittal about doing so, saying he would look at any invitations and discuss them with his leadership team.
The opposition parties are also seeking an investigation by the Commons ethics committee, and Conservative Sen. Don Plett has written to the speaker of the Senate, calling for that body to be recalled this summer to begin a probe of its own.
The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, previously helped WE raise money before the Liberals formed government in 2015.
In addition to his apology, issued on the morning of July 13, Trudeau also unveiled that the government would be extending the wage subsidy program amid the COVID-19.
The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which covers 75 per cent of wages for eligible companies and non-profits, will now run until December.
As of July 6, the wage subsidy had paid out $18.01 billion to 252,370 companies in payroll help as the country looks to recover from the pandemic.