Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she shares responsibility for the WE Charity controversy that has rocked the federal government and sparked two ethics investigations, including one focused on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decisions behind closed doors.
“I think all of us, everyone in our government, everyone in cabinet, bears responsibility for this situation,” Freeland told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa Thursday.
“And I’d like to say, speaking for myself, that I accept that responsibility and I very much regret what has happened. And I’d like to say to Canadians, I’m really sorry. We have so many huge issues facing our country. Clearly, our government made a mistake. And I want to say to people we’re going to learn from it.”
Watch: Trudeau is distracted by WE affair, Freeland should step in, Bloc leader says
Freeland appeared alongside Trudeau to announce that the federal government struck a deal with the provinces and territories to transfer $19 billion to help them safely re-open their economies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A reporter asked Trudeau if he told his deputy PM of his family’s personal ties to WE Charity, which was originally tapped to manage a $912-million student-grant program.
Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an ambassador for the organization, and, last week, it was revealed that his mother, Margaret, and brother, Alexandre, were each paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak at WE Charity events in recent years. WE Charity also revealed Grégoire Trudeau received $1,400 for speaking at an event in 2012.
Freeland responded that she thought all Canadians were aware that the prime minister and his family had long been involved with the WE organization.
“When it comes to the specific financial connections, the prime minister has been very clear with Canadians that he apologizes and regrets how the situation developed,” she said.
Freeland then said she supports Trudeau remaining prime minister.
“I would like to add, to be very clear, the prime minister has my complete confidence. It is a privilege for me to serve in his cabinet and to serve Canadians,” she said.
Trudeau followed up by reiterating much of what he had already told reporters Monday, saying he should have recused himself from all conversations about WE Charity running the program. The arrangement has since been scrapped because of the controversy, delaying the Canada Student Service Grant program to pay post-secondary students and recent graduates for COVID-19-related volunteer work.
“I deeply regret that I didn’t recuse myself from discussions on this because it has made it more difficult for the government to ensure that young people can contribute to their communities right across the country during this time of the pandemic,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister is facing an ethics probe over his involvement in the WE Charity decision, including his choice not to recuse himself in the matter. Earlier Thursday, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner announced it will also investigate Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who likewise did not recuse himself from discussions about the organization. One of Morneau’s daughters does contract work for the WE organization and another daughter has spoken at WE events.
Freeland’s words Thursday suggest she has no interest in a Bloc Québécois proposal that would see her take the reins of governing as Trudeau temporarily steps aside until the ethics investigation, which could take several months, reaches a conclusion.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet made the pitch last week and doubled-down during a press conference Tuesday, saying Trudeau’s “attention is much more on his personal situation as jeopardized prime minister than of helping taking care of Canadians and Quebecers.”
Blanchet said that Freeland, who he has suggested is more of an effective leader than the prime minister, has worked well with him.
“So we ask (Trudeau) to be responsible, step aside. We will not be satisfied with his apologies again,” Blanchet said. “He has done so much of it that it has become worthless.”
Later Thursday, Youth Minister Bardish Chagger appeared before the House of Commons finance committee to answer questions about the controversy. Chagger told the committee she wasn’t directed by the Prime Minister’s Office to tap WE Charity to run the program, repeatedly saying the recommendation came from a public servant in the department of Employment and Social Development Canada.
NDP MP Charlie Angus grew frustrated by Chagger’s responses after asking if she knew of the links between the Trudeau and Morneau families with the WE organization.
“My focus was really on making sure that there was additional support for young Canadians,” she said, before being interrupted by Angus.
“That’s not the question,” he said.
Angus repeatedly accused Chagger of ducking responsibility for a “serious scandal” that he said happened on her watch and accused her of trying to throw civil servants under the bus.
“The prime minister has acknowledged that he should have recused himself,” she said. “He has apologized.”
Watch their exchange:
Angus said there was an “evident” relationship between the Trudeaus and WE Charity and wanted to know if anyone in her department raised a red flag. When Chagger said the department could speak for itself, the NDP MP fired back: “No, I’m asking you. You’re responsible for this.”
“Of course we have tough conversations around the cabinet table, we have tough conversations around our team. Yes, these questions were posed,” Chagger said, adding again that her focus was on delivering programs for students.
“So, someone raised it. And yet, you failed to bring this to cabinet,” he charged. “And this thing blew up in your government’s face.”
With a file from The Canadian Press