Bardish Chagger, Youth Minister, has indicated that the Prime Minister’s Office did not tell her to propose that WE Charity run the now-halted summer student volunteer grant program. On Thursday, MPs stated that they had learned there was a WE Charity proposal made to the government in April. According to Chagger, the official who advanced the suggestion that WE Charity run the summer student volunteer grant program is the senior assistant deputy minister in the Employment and Social Development department Rachel Wernick.
Chagger said that the Prime Minister’s Office did not direct her, and she recommended that WE Charity would be the organization mandated to run this program within the timeline needed. She was the first to attest to the controversial sole-source contract in the first meeting of the House Finance Committee study into the Liberal government’s connections to the charitable organization. The minister told MPs in the first round of questioning, that she personally did not have conversations with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s offices or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the intentions to outsource the administration of the program to WE Charity.
Chagger also added that she was recommended by the public service, which she accepted and brought it forward to the cabinet. She also indicated how she emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in shaping the way federal programs which were being developed and executed. Chagger also told MPs that out of $912-million program, $19.5 million was the operating budget for the program. This has been returned to the government after WE Charity backed away from running the volunteer program. She also said that if the demand was there, another $13.5 million could have been provided to WE Charity for an additional 20,000 placements since the program was intended to be enhanced. Chagger confirmed that the vast majority of the money was for grants.
PROGRAM EVOLVED FROM WE PROPOSAL
MPs started hearing from the first group of witnesses on the program rollout on Thursday. Those who testified included a slate of senior public servants from Employment and Social Development departments and the Canadian Heritage. While testifying, the top public servant said that other charity groups were deliberated early on, but there lacked a formal open bid for pitches. Also, other than WE Charity, none of the options met all the criteria needed to take on the program when her team was asked in mid-April to provide opportunities for some form of a student service program.
Wernick noted that WE Charity had contacted unnamed members of the cabinet and government officials recommending they work with the government on programs “related to social entrepreneurship for youth.” Wernick also indicated that WE Charity said that their program proposal could be adapted as required. On April 19, She called WE Charity to discuss their prospective involvement. Then on April 22, the organization sent her “a detailed proposal to quickly develop tens of thousands of volunteer placements for youth within a few weeks.” She then determined with her team and colleagues that their draft proposal was the best available option in the time they had to work.
Wernick added that all the activities the organization did to employ or set up volunteer placements before the late June launch of the program were taken “completely” at the charity’s risk. Following the disagreement on its own internal issues, together with what critics say is an apparent conflict of interest within the Liberal government, the aid program was put on pause after WE Charity backed out. Even as Mario Dion, the federal Ethics Commissioner, is now conducting different inquiries into both Morneau’s and Trudeau dealings in relation to the WE Charity contract, both Morneau and Trudeau have made an apology for their part in the controversy and vowed to recuse themselves from any WE Charity discussions in the future.
In the midway through the summer, thousands of students have been left in limbo though the government has promised to modify the program as quickly as possible. One of the main aims of this committee study is to investigate as many details on who knew what and when. It’s also likely officials will be grilled on other previous contracts with WE and the extent of the Liberals’ association to the organization. Federal government proactive disclosures show that the Canada Student Service Grant is not the beginning of WE Charity’s dealings with the federal government. Conservative MP and ethics critic Michael Barrett in a letter sent to the RCMP, indicated that the government records confirm that. Since 2017, WE Charity has received seven grants or contributions totalling about $5.2 million, as well as another five contracts.
TRUDEAU TO TESTIFY?
Trudeau is expected to testify before the committee. Trudeau said on Thursday that he wouldn’t commit to testifying though his government would be “transparent” about the deal. The MPs want to extract more details around his family’s connections to the charity group. His brother, Alexandre Trudeau, spoke at eight events from 2017 to 2018 and was paid a total of approximately $32,000. Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, also spoke at about 28 WE events and was paid $250,000 in speaking honorariums between 2016 and 2020. Over $60,000 of that money was paid directly to Margaret Trudeau by the charity after what WE Charity referred to as an “error” in billing and payment.
Moreover, Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, got a “one-time speaking honorarium” of $1,400 for taking part in a youth event in 2012 before Trudeau became the leader of the Liberal Party. Trudeau stated that he knew his family members worked with WE, but he was unaware of the details of how much they were getting paid. Trudeau said on Monday that he deeply regrets that. On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said everyone in the cabinet “bears responsibility for the situation. This is after she was asked about how much she knew about the prime minister’s connections.