OTTAWA — The federal government’s top public servant says there is no evidence to suggest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with WE Charity before the organization was awarded a deal to run a student-volunteer program.
Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart made the comment during testimony Tuesday morning before the House of Commons finance committee.
He faced numerous questions about the decision to have WE Charity administer a $900-million student-volunteering program, including whether anyone in the public service raised red flags about the organization’s finances.
Shugart told the committee Trudeau was briefed about development of the program, and suggested the prime minister had no contact with the organization to which Trudeau and his family have close ties.
“There is absolutely no evidence, no suggestion in anything that I have reviewed that would suggest the prime minister had any interaction with the WE Charity in relation to this program,” Shugart said.
Trudeau is expected in the House of Commons this afternoon, with the opposition eager to press him further on how his cabinet reached the decision to approve the deal.
The Liberals have said they regret the way it all rolled out, but the non-partisan public service made the call.
The now-aborted deal with WE could have paid the organization some $43.5 million. Shugart said the first tranche of funding for grants in exchange for volunteer hours was to be $500 million, with a budget ceiling of $912 million.
MPs want Trudeau to appear before the Commons 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.”
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 already talking about ways to help students unable to work this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intending to announce something by mid-May. The notion 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 last week she called WE co-founder Craig Kielburger on April 19, at which time she — and from what the Shugart said Tuesday, the Privy Council Office as well — 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.
Kielburger emailed Wernick an updated proposal the same day, and the decision was ultimately made to have WE run the program.
The Privy Council Office asked about running a competitive process to oversee the grants, Shugart said, and ministers questioned whether WE Charity could deliver on what the government wanted. He said all were confident in the recommendation to go with the group.
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 Tuesday 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.
In early July, the organization handed back control of the program to the government.
Shugart said a program will roll out, but will offer much less in the way of support services to students as a consequence of the public service having to deliver the program.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2020.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press