OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the federal NDP leader of being cynical after he faced a barrage of questions in the House of Commons Tuesday over the government’s handling of a now-cancelled WE Charity deal.
The prime minister apologized again for failing to recuse himself from cabinet discussions about the creation of a $912-million student grant program. The WE Charity, a Toronto-based international organization, was tapped to administer it.
“Apologizing means nothing if the prime minister keeps on breaking the rules to help his wealthy friends,” Jagmeet Singh said.
Trudeau has long-standing ties with the organization after making several appearances at WE-related events throughout his career in public office. He now faces questions, and another ethics investigation, over his role the awarding of the deal outside a traditional competitive contract process.
Watch: Trudeau accuses Singh of being cynical about WE Charity deal. Story continues below video.
There were “so many existing” alternatives to deliver the money to students “faster,” Singh said. He did not provide specific examples. The NDP leader asked Trudeau to admit the program “was never about helping students, and always about helping his wealthy friends.”
Trudeau responded with an attack of his own.
“It’s a shame to see such cynicism from the NDP in regards to supporting students,” he said, citing the $9-billion aid package the government has set aside for young Canadians during the pandemic.
He defended the nearly $1-billion program as an opportunity to help ”tens of thousands of young people who want to step up during this pandemic” by encouraging volunteer service.
Members of the House finance committee were told last week that if the WE Charity had successfully administered the student volunteer program, it stood to receive up to $43.5 million from the federal government.
That figure was offered by Diversity, Inclusion, and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger.
Controversy emerged after reports from Canadaland and CBC News compelled the WE Charity to confirm they had paid honorariums to the prime minister’s mother and brother for speaking at events between 2016 and 2020.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has opened an investigation into Trudeau’s role in the deal. It is the third ethics investigation the prime minister has faced the second exploring if he breached the same section of the Conflict of Interest Act he violated previously when he accepted family vacations to the Aga Khan’s private island.
Some members of Parliament returned to Ottawa this week to debate and pass government legislation to make amendments to the federal wage subsidy, and to send a $600 one-time payment to people living with disabilities.
The Conservatives focused much of their attention during question period on dynamics within the Trudeau cabinet, claiming some ministers have been less public about their confidence and support behind the prime minister.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland reiterated her support and “complete confidence” in Trudeau in the wake of the WE Charity controversy.
PCO asked for potential of competitive process
Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart told the House of Commons finance committee earlier Tuesday that Employment and Social Development Canada was asked about the potential for a competitive process for the proposed student grant program.
Through a competitive process, a government contract is open to multiple bidders. The controversy over the nixed WE Charity deal is squared around the negative perception about the lack of competition in a sole-sourced deal.
Shugart said because Trudeau’s involvement with the charity has been disclosed in the “public domain” for some time, nothing about the prime minister’s involvement in the decision to award the deal to WE Charity raised flags in his mind.
“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 told the finance committee. “None whatsoever.”
Other concerns about the student program came up during the committee meeting, including criticism about paying students rates below minimum wage to volunteer.
Trudeau has yet to accept the finance committee’s invitation to appear as a witness. Finance Minister Bill Morneau, however, is expected to testify before the committee on Wednesday.
His two daughters have been involved with WE Charity. One previously spoke at affiliated events, and the other has done contract work with the organization.
The finance minister is currently under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner in a separate probe for his role in the now-cancelled deal.