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North America’s most ethically challenged leader

Will the WE scandal make Justin Trudeau’s halo fall off soon?

Artillery Row

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government he leads are once again engulfed in a scandal completely of their own making, and one that appears to be deepening by the day as more details and controversies emerge. 

Trudeau’s latest scandal is centred around WE, a Canadian international development charity founded in 1995 by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger focused on youth empowerment across the developing world. WE is also substantially involved in youth activities in developed countries like Canada. 

The Trudeau family has a long history of involvement with the charity, and connections that are daily coming to light raise serious questions over a $900 million contract awarded by the Canadian federal government to WE to administer a summer student-volunteer programme as part of the government’s COVID-19 economic relief and support plan. The scandal has since expanded beyond just Trudeau and now includes the Finance Minister, Bill Morneau.

When the contract was announced earlier this summer, serious questions were immediately raised as to why the government awarded the contract to WE. The official line has changed numerous times as further information has come to light, but the initial reason offered by Trudeau and the Liberals was that only WE could administer this programme nationally, and that it had been recommended by the civil service, even though the federal government already had a longstanding student summer jobs program. On June 26th Trudeau told the press: ‘As the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organisation that was capable of networking and organising and delivering this programme on the scale that we needed it, and that was the WE program.’

By July 3rd, under immense pressure, WE announced it was backing out of the programme, and the federal government took over administering it. However, serious questions remained, given Trudeau’s close ties to WE, over how the contract was awarded in the first place, and on the same day the Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion, told opposition parties that he would be launching an investigation into the contract, and Trudeau’s connections to WE. 

It then emerged that WE had paid Justin Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking appearances. Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre, had also been paid tens of thousands of dollars in WE speaking fees. Trudeau’s wife, Sophie, was also paid for a speaking event in 2012, and recently launched the “WE Well-being” podcast and is an official ambassador for WE Well-being – ‘a WE initiative created to empower youth, educators and families to promote their own mental health and that of their community.’ It also emerged that the Trudeaus were unique in WE speakers, most of whom were not offered payment for speaking events. 

The scandal then grew to include finance minister Bill Morneau, who also has connections to WE that raise serious questions about potential conflicts of interests in awarding a large sole-sourced contract to WE. He was caught up in the scandal after it emerged that his daughter works for the organisation, and that WE had covered personal trips his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017, their combined expenses totalling $41,000. Morneau, who is an extremely wealthy man, apologised and repaid the expenses as this story publicly emerged, claiming it was an administrative oversight.

Both Trudeau and Morneau have apologised for their behaviour, and both have admitted that they should have, but failed, to recuse themselves from cabinet over the decision to award the sole-source contract to WE. But questions still remain over how the contract was awarded in the first place. 

Trudeau and now Morneau are under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner over their failure to recuse themselves from the decision, and under subsection 6(1) of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Act, which prohibits public official from using their office to make decisions that further their own private interests or the interests of another person. There was no competitive bidding process for the contract, and it remains unclear exactly how the proposal for this large federal contract came about.  

WE has been hit by a series of resignations in recent months, and Volunteer Canada, a group that promotes volunteerism, refused to work with WE because of how the programme was being administered. Details continue to emerge about WE, and the confusing ways in which the charity has behaved and is structured. Much of the original reporting on WE has come from Canadaland, and its founder Jesse Brown has alleged that WE hired a private investigator to look into Brown in response to the reporting, including digging into information about his children. 

The WE affair is still unfolding, and prime minister Trudeau appeared before the House of Commons finance committee yesterday, along with his chief of staff Katie Telford, to answer questions about the contract. No fatal blows were landed, but the stgory is hardly over yet. The scandal has lots of moving parts and it’s far from the first time that Trudeau has found himself embroiled in one of his own making. According to a former Ethics commissioner, when it comes to conflicts of interest, the younger Trudeau suffers from an ethical “blind spot”. He has survived every woke transgression thus far, but will WE be something even his own supporters can’t indulge him in? 

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