OTTAWA — The WE controversy that has been dogging the Liberals is expected to continue to follow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government after Trudeau’s appearance before a House of Commons committee Thursday.
Opposition MPs on the Commons finance committee are now pushing to hear from more junior staffers in the prime minister’s office, and demanding access to cabinet documents.
They want more detailed answers about why WE Charity began working on and incurring expenses for the now-abandoned student-volunteering program on May 5, when it had not yet been approved by cabinet.
Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford told the committee that another Trudeau aide talked to WE that same day, though she said he referred WE to the public service to talk about anything substantial.
WE’s Craig and Marc Kielburger have said those permanent officials told WE it could incur expenses before being awarded the agreement.
They said they wanted to get the program going quickly, and started work knowing they could lose money if cabinet said no.
In the rare appearance by the prime minister at the committee Thursday, Trudeau said he had initially pushed back when he learned the public service had chosen WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant in early May.
He said he knew his own and his family’s long-standing ties to the WE organization would lead to significant scrutiny and wanted to ensure all due diligence was done.
The prime minister testified that he didn’t learn WE had been chosen by the public service to run the program until May 8, which was just hours before the arrangement was to be taken to cabinet for approval.
That’s when, Trudeau said, he put the brakes on the deal.
“WE knew that the selection of WE Charity would be closely scrutinized. We wanted to make sure that the process and decision were the best possible in the circumstances, so I decided to pull the CSSG proposal from the cabinet agenda for May 8 so that further work could be done,” Trudeau told the committee.
“We pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be doing the right thing, the way.”
The public service later came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said.
Telford testified that the civil servants presented it as a “binary choice” — either they moved ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or they wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.
Trudeau acknowledged his family’s involvement with WE: his mother, brother and wife have participated in and spoken at WE events, and have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, although he testified the amounts were not previously known to him.
He stressed that he did not have any conversations with the Kielburger brothers during this time and that WE Charity did not receive any preferential treatment by him or anyone else in the government.
He also says he didn’t talk to his staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in the volunteering program until May 8, although he has since learned policy staff in his office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments, and they knew that WE Charity was under consideration to run the effort.
The prime minister and Telford also both noted that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s work with WE, including a podcast on mental wellness, has been unpaid except for expenses covered by the organization, all of which had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.
The Conservatives and NDP have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.
Dion is already investigating Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act for not recusing themselves during cabinet discussions about the WE deal.
Meanwhile, the Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer, Trudeau said, adding that he regrets how the whole affair has unfolded.