Conservatives are calling on the federal procurement watchdog to review several sole-sourced contracts between the Liberal government and WE Charity, the international, youth-based organization recently tapped to administer a $900-million student-grant program.
UPDATE: Youth Minister Bardish Chagger announced on July 3 that, “in a “mutually agreed upon decision,” the WE Charity will not administer the government’s $900-million student-grant program.
In a letter sent Thursday to Procurement Ombudsman Alexander Jeglic, Tory MPs Kelly Block, Dan Albas, and Raquel Dancho said “justifiable concerns” have been raised about the government’s decision to outsource the program to a third-party with links to the prime minister and his family.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week that the WE Charity was selected to manage the Canada Student Service Grant program, which will provide eligible post-secondary students and recent graduates with up to $5,000 for volunteer work in programs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.The program is meant to place up to 20,000 students in volunteer positions between now and October.
Though Trudeau said WE was selected by the public service because it is the “only” organization with the network to deliver the program “on the scale we needed,” he is facing accusations of cronyism over the decision. The government will pay WE Charity $19.5 million to administer the program, but Trudeau has said the organization will not make any profit.
The prime minister, his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and his mother, Margaret Trudeau, have appeared at WE events in recent years. Grégoire Trudeau also volunteers as a WE “ambassador” and hosts a WE podcast on mental health that has also featured the prime minister’s mother.
In their letter, the Tory MPs listed five other sole-sourced contracts between the charity and the federal government since 2017, information from an online government database that was highlighted by the National Post’s Christopher Nardi in a report Monday.
The amounts for those contracts range from $13,374 to $40,000, small enough that the government did not have to advertise for competing bids.
“The Liberal government’s pattern of providing untendered and sole-sourced contracts to an organization with close personal ties to the Prime Minister, who is head of the government, is deeply concerning to many Canadians,” the letter to the ombudsman reads.
“We believe that it would be greatly beneficial to Canadians and to the principle of ‘open and transparent government’ if your office were to review these contracts.”
Tories have also asked Auditor General Karen Hogan to review the government’s decision to have the WE Charity administer the grant program, rather than public servants.
“By outsourcing this program to a third party, the proper channels for Opposition scrutiny, the very bedrock of our parliamentary democracy, have been circumvented,” reads a letter to Hogan sent Sunday from by Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre, Albas, and Dancho. “Indeed, it is your office that will provide the most legitimate and transparent examination of this program.”
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press and National Post reported that WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger told youth leaders on a conference call last month that Trudeau’s office called them in April, a day after announcing the plans for the grant program, to ask if the organization would help implement it.
Kielburger later told the outlets, who both obtained a recording of the video conference, that he “misspoke.”
“Speaking loosely and enthusiastically, I incorrectly referred to the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, the outreach came from unelected officials at Employment and Social Development Canada,″ he said, in a statement.
Trudeau hasn’t had a press briefing since Monday. When he was asked about the contract then, he defended the decision calling the group “the largest national youth service organization in the country.” It is not unusual for the government of Canada to work with third-party charities to deliver programs, such as the United Way and Food Banks Canada, he told reporters.
“The WE Charities are evaluated by our public service as being the best and only organization able to deliver on the scale that we need to make sure that young people have service opportunities this summer,” he said.
“We saw 25,000 young people from every corner of the country apply just over the past few days to be able to serve their country and we know that this is something that is going to be extremely important in the coming months.”
With files from The Canadian Press