Over the past few weeks, several government officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have become embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding the WE Charity.
The WE Charity, previously called Free the Children, was founded 25 years ago by Mark and Craig Kielburger. Predictably enough, the aim of the organization was to end child exploitation. With some help from local celebrity cofounders, the charity attracted large amounts of money and attention over the years, and expanded their operations beyond Canada to the US and UK. In 2020, the WE Charity was approved to work with the Canadian government on the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), a $900 million programme for students suffering due to the coronavirus-induced economic slump.
However it has come to light that Prime Minister Trudeau’s mother and brother were both paid to speak at WE events. Specifically, Margaret Trudeau was paid $250,000 to speak at 28 WE events, while Alexandre Trudeau was paid $32,000 to speak at 8 of them. The prime minister’s wife has also spoke at WE events, but was apparently unpaid. Federal finance minister Bill Morneau also has two daughters associated with WE, and had to testify against a House of Commons Finance Committee. The question on many people’s minds was: did the prime minister have a conflict of interest in allowing the CSSG deal to occur?
The controversy was so significant that WE Charity had to pull out of the program. On July 28, they told the Parliament that they did not take advantage of political connections to get the contract, and would actually lose $5 million in the deal. The controversy has driven away some of the charity’s sponsors including the Royal Bank. WE charity has decided to make structural changes to its organization, and hire outside consulting firms for a review.
On July 30, Justin Trudeau testified to a House of Commons Committee about this scandal. He apologized for participating in the negotations with WE, saying that he should have recused himself. However he also claimed that there was no conflict of interest because only spouses and dependants count as family for the purposes of the Conflict of Interest Act. Trudeau further claimed that he did not have detailed knowledge of his brother or mother’s deals with WE:
My mother and my brother are professionals in their own right who have engagements and have for many, many years, with many different organizations across the country, and I don’t have the details of their work experiences or expenses
He still stressed that his wife’s work at WE was unpaid.
Trudeau also mentioned that he did not give any preferential treatment to WE. As late as May 8, he apparently thought the CSSG would be delivered by “a supercharged version of the Canada Service Corps”, but the public service told the government that WE Charity was the only organization that could deliver the student grant program. The Canada Service Corps would apparently not be able to scale up in time. When Trudeau learned that WE Charity was the only option, he claims he tried to slow the deal down, but in hindsight avoiding any part of the negotiation would have been a better option.
It’s not clear where the CSSG can go from here, now that the only organization capable of delivering it quickly has backed out. NDP MP Charlie Angus lamented the prime minister’s poor judgement on this matter: by getting involved in a very avoidable controversy, Trudeau has derailed a lot of good charity work and hurt students. In the words of Liberal MP Wayne Long:
It is clear that changes must be made within both the Prime Minister’s Office and throughout our government in order to ensure that we prevent such a systemic failure from occurring again.