Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for not recusing himself from his government’s decision to tap WE Charity to administer a $912-million student-grant program, conceding he should have known better because of his family’s connections to the organization.
“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions, given our family’s history,” Trudeau said at a press briefing in Ottawa Monday. “And I’m sincerely sorry about not having done that.”
The mea culpa is a reversal for the prime minister, who last week defended taking part in discussions to award WE Charity a sole-sourced contract to run the program on the grounds that he has championed supporting young people throughout his political career. The government and WE Charity have scrapped the deal for the organization to manage the Canada Student Service Grant, which will pay post-secondary students and recent graduates for COVID-19-related volunteer work.
Trudeau’s apology comes days after revelations that his mother, Margaret, and brother, Alexandre, have each been paid tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years to speak at WE Charity events. Trudeau had already been facing questions about the abandoned partnership, given his past participation in WE events and the fact that his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an “ambassador” for the charity and hosts a WE-Well Being podcast.
“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 those discussions. And I’m sorry that I didn’t,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau told reporters that his mistake has not only “created unnecessary controversy and issues” that delayed a program meant to help young people, but dragged his mother, who has long been a public speaker and mental health advocate, into a political controversy.
“What I also deeply regret is the fact that I have brought my mother into this situation in a way that is, you know, really unfair to her,” he said. “I should have been thoughtful enough to recuse myself completely from any discussions around WE because of these connections, from the very beginning, and I did not. And I’m very sorry about that.”
After reports from Canadaland and CBC News, WE Charity said last week that Margaret Trudeau received “a total of approximately $250,000 in speaking honorariums” for speaking at 28 WE Charity events between 2016 and 2020, and Alexandre Trudeau received $32,000. Those figures do not include a 20 per cent commission to the Speakers’ Spotlight Bureau.
WE Charity also said Sophie Grégoire Trudeau received a “one-time speaking honorarium of $1,400” in 2012.
Trudeau told reporters Monday that while he was aware that members of his family “worked with and contributed” to the WE organization, he was “unaware of the details of their remuneration” for appearing at events.
“I knew that my brother and my mother work as professional public speakers and it is not surprising to me that they got paid by WE, but I did not know the details and, as I said, I should have known the details. And I regret that,” Trudeau said.
Mario Dion, the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, has opened an investigation to determine if Trudeau breached three sections of the Conflict of Interest Act in the matter, including section 21. That part of the act states a public office holder should recuse oneself from “any discussion, decision, debate or vote on any matter in respect of which he or she would be in a conflict of interest.”
The ethics watchdog has twice found the prime minister broke conflict rules. In 2017, then-commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau violated the act — including the section dealing with his duty to recuse — by accepting family vacations on the Aga Khan’s private island. Last year, Dion found Trudeau improperly pressured his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Asked by reporters Monday how many possible violations of conflict rules it will take before he learns a lesson, Trudeau focused his remarks on taking responsibility for the current controversy.
‘This was my mistake’
“On this one, this was my mistake. This was me not stepping back from an organization that I should have known to not get involved with, even as prime minister, and allow the… public service and the non-connected ministers to move forward on delivering this program,” he said.
“The fact that I didn’t made it more difficult for young people at a time when things are difficult enough already and that is something I deeply regret.”
He also poured cold water on the public urging of Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet that the prime minister temporarily step back and give the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland until the ethics commissioner makes his ruling.
“Obviously the opposition parties have their job to do and they will keep doing it. I have my job to do, as well, which is to make sure that Canadians are well-supported through this pandemic,” he said, adding that he will continue to work with Freeland and other “outstanding” ministers to lead the country through the coronavirus crisis.
On Friday, federal Conservatives called for a police investigation into the controversy but stopped short of saying Trudeau’s government should fall. Tories are also pushing for Trudeau to testify about the deal before the finance committee.
Trudeau “needs to explain where exactly the idea came from,” Tory finance critic Pierre Poilievre said during a news conference on Parliament Hill Sunday. “Did the WE organization call him and suggest it? Did it come through the staff in his office? Did it come out of his own head? Did members of his family who had been paid by the organization suggest it to him? We need to hear directly from him on these questions.”
Asked if he would accept the Tory invitation to testify about the matter before the committee, Trudeau said he would review the invite and discuss the matter with his House of Commons leadership team.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau has also said he did not recuse himself from the cabinet vote to extend 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 has said would have paid the organization close to $20 million.
On Monday, Morneau released a statement saying he now realizes he should have recused himself from the matter to “avoid any perception of conflict.”
“I apologize for not doing so, and moving forward, I will recuse myself from any further discussions related to WE,” the finance minister said.
With files from The Canadian Press
HuffPost’s previous owner, AOL, sponsored and participated in WE Charity events and Free The Children trips.