There was no corruption, just a government working to save lives during a pandemic. That’s the message the prime minister delivered to skeptical lawmakers, and to Canadians.
TORONTO — There was no corruption, no conflict of interest, just a government and prime minister working around the clock to save lives and livelihoods during a pandemic.
That was Justin Trudeau’s message on Thursday to Canadians, who for the past month have lifted their heads from the exhausting struggle with the coronavirus to watch a growing political scandal over his government’s decision to award a hefty no-bid contract to a charity that has ties with his family.
“Nothing of this program was in any way going to benefit any members of my family,” the prime minister said during a rare virtual appearance before the standing finance committee of the Canadian Parliament. “I was not in a conflict of interest.”
The highly anticipated session, which stretched for 90 minutes, had elements of drama — heated exchanges, baiting questions and even a power outage during a storm over the chairman’s home.
The contract, made to the WE Charity, was to oversee hundreds of millions of government dollars for an emergency summer youth volunteer program. Mr. Trudeau defended the decision to give the charity the contract by presenting himself as a longtime champion of youths.
And he said he was following the advice of public servants to start a program that, like others his government has set up, would help thousands of people across the country.
“We moved quickly to try to get help out to people as fast as we could as flexibly as we could,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The question is: Was his performance enough to persuade Canadians that he did nothing wrong and put to rest thorny ethical questions that have set the media ablaze for the past month and dragged down his party’s polling numbers?
The WE Charity is tied not only to Mr. Trudeau’s family, but also to his finance minister, Bill Morneau.
Mr. Trudeau’s mother and brother earned more than $200,000 over the past five years for speaking engagements with the charity. Mr. Morneau’s daughter works there, and his family has traveled overseas with the charity twice in recent years.
Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have apologized for not recusing themselves from the cabinet decision. Both are under investigation by the country’s ethics commissioner.
But during Thursday’s testimony, Mr. Trudeau reinforced what others have said before him — that officials of Canada’s apolitical public service chose the charity and that his cabinet was given a “binary choice” of either agreeing to the plan, or having to abandon it altogether.
The perception of a conflict with his family, he added, caused him to put the decision on hold for two weeks and push the public service to “make sure that everything was done exactly right, because I knew there would be questions asked.”
Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax was among the rapt viewers who blocked off hours to see the unfolding testimonies.
“He got his message out — you want the Liberals to be there to take care of you when a crisis like this hits,” she said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s party. “To me, the prime minister left this meeting as a youth champion who made a little error.”
Still, the prime minister has already been found in breach of the country’s conflict-of-interest rules twice since coming to office five years ago. That he acknowledged a perceived conflict but did not recuse himself raises troubling questions about his political judgment, said Shachi Kurl, the executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a Canadian nonprofit polling firm based in Vancouver.
“In some ways, I think he did very well,” Ms. Kurl said. “But it doesn’t fix other problems. Now, we have to assess to what extent these ongoing examples of the prime minister not having good judgment will become a ballot question.”
The story has unfolded since late June, when the Trudeau government announced that it had awarded the job of administering the summer program, and its budget of 912 million Canadian dollars, to the WE Charity.
Two brothers, Craig and Marc Kielburger, founded the charity as teenagers. Since then, it has grown into a network of organizations that have built schools and wells in countries like Kenya and Nicaragua.
But it is best known for inspiring young Canadians to get involved in social justice issues through school programs and huge concert-like events featuring motivational speakers, including Prince Harry, Malala Yousafzai, Mr. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
The charity says the Trudeaus volunteered their time and were never paid, with one exception in 2012, when Ms. Gregoire Trudeau received about $1,000 for a speaking engagement. Mr. Trudeau was not prime minister at the time.
Since then, Ms. Gregoire Trudeau has become an “ambassador” of the charity, speaking regularly at events and hosting a podcast called WE Well-being. Mr. Trudeau said Thursday that the country’s ethics commissioner had vetted these roles.
But the WE Charity did pay Mr. Trudeau’s brother Alexandre, a filmmaker, and mother, Margaret, the country’s former first lady, for speaking over the past four years on behalf of the charity at various events. The Kielburger brothers said attracting sponsors for these events was their main way of raising money.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said he did not have a personal relationship with the Kielburger brothers and had no contact with them about this contract.
In recent days, witnesses before the committee bolstered what Mr. Trudeau said Thursday — that he was not involved in selecting the charity to administer the program, which involved overseeing up to 100,000 students volunteering for public service jobs.
WE was to have received as much as 43.5 million Canadian dollars to run the program, according to documents released this week. But after the controversy erupted, the government announced it was taking the program back, and the Kielburgers said they would return all the money.
Hours before Mr. Morneau, the finance minister, was set to testify last week before the committee, he announced he had written a check to the charity for 41,366 Canadian dollars, stating that he hadn’t realized he and his family had not paid the full fare for the two trips they took with the organization.
He also disclosed that his family had donated 100,000 Canadian dollars to the charity in recent years.
“You don’t donate $100,000, take trips with a charity and have a daughter who works there and not know there’s a conflict of interest,” said Duff Conacher, the co-founder of a nonprofit watchdog organization, Democracy Watch, which is calling for a criminal investigation.
“This is a story about how every government has friends, those friends help them get elected and promote them, and then the government wants to help those friends because they will promote and boost them more,” he said.
The committee has not heard any evidence that Mr. Trudeau stood to financially benefit from the contract, several political experts pointed out. If there has been any damage, it has been in optics.
“Technically speaking, he didn’t need to recuse himself, in my opinion,” said Ian Stedman, a professor of Canadian public law and governance at York University in Toronto, and an expert on Canadian parliamentary ethics law.
But, he added: “But pragmatically speaking, what he did was bad politics. He allowed himself to be the story, instead of his policies.”
Canadians have been generally happy with the Trudeau government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic, which has leveled off across the country, allowing hairdressers and restaurants in most places to reopen and plans for school openings to be drafted.
But in recent weeks, since news about the charity has continually made the front pages, Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating has fallen. It is unclear whether that is a blip or the start of a trend.
“People have concerns about this, but they have so many other issues right now,” said Jean-Marc Léger, the chief executive of the Léger polling firm based in Montreal. “They are worried about the pandemic, the economic crisis, relations with the United States.”
Because of the intense scrutiny over the past few weeks, many big sponsors have cut ties with WE — the organization has called the decisions mutual — and former staff members have poured out stories on social media about the charity’s “culture of fear.”
“Frankly, there are days that we wish that we never answered the phone,” when the government called asking them “to help,” he told the committee near the grueling end of the brothers’ four-hour appearance earlier this week.
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