OTTAWA: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a House of Commons committee Thursday that, despite his family’s ties with WE Charity, he did not place himself in a conflict of interest through his involvement in cabinet discussions on getting the charity to run a $900 million student grant program — but he apologized again for failing to recuse himself from those discussions.
Denying having given any direction or attempt to influence from him or his office in the WE Charity affair, Trudeau said he and his top staffer Katie Telford have testified that the Prime Minister’s Office was aware early on of the perceived conflict in granting the now-likely cancelled $912 million student volunteer grant program.
Trudeau told MPs during his rare parliamentary committee appearance that he put off a key cabinet decision on allowing WE Charity to run the program after he learned the organization was involved.
“WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation… When I learned that WE Charity was recommended, I pushed back,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister testified that he and Telford, his chief of staff first became aware that WE Charity was formally being put forward as the best pick for the $912 million student volunteer grant program on May 8, hours before cabinet was supposed to decide on allowing them to administer the program. Trudeau said that he moved the item off the agenda so further scrutiny could be made on the deal.
“We both felt that we needed more time before this item was presented to cabinet, trying to consider and understand the reasons behind the proposal that WE Charity deliver the program. On that issue we had several questions that we wanted answer, particularly given my specific expertise in youth issues,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau said that until May 8 he had not spoken with any of his staff about WE, nor had he spoken to WE Charity officials about the program. It went through the cabinet COVID-19 committee on May 5, but Trudeau was not involved.
The prime minister also testified that he was aware the WE connections to his government would be closely scrutinized and lead some to wonder whether those connections played a role in the decision, so he wanted to make sure the public service backed up their recommendation that it was WE or nothing. That assertion came on May 21, Trudeau told MPs, though he never addressed why — given his acknowledged close ties — he did not recuse himself from that meeting.
“We wanted to make sure that the process and decision were the best possible in the circumstances,” Trudeau said.
Elaborating on the perceived conflict, Telford—during her two-hour appearance before MPs—said Trudeau was concerned about a “perception” of a conflict of interest.
“You’ve heard the prime minister say that he regrets not recusing himself. I have regrets about that, too. Obviously this didn’t happen as we intended to. This is not what we had envisioned, and I share that responsibility,” she said.
The prime minister has also informed MPs that given the ongoing controversy, the student volunteerism program is “unlikely” to get off the ground this summer. After WE backed away from the deal a month ago, it was put back in the hands of the public service and it’s yet to be re-launched.
“Getting young people to serve has been a goal of mine well before I ever got into politics, so I deeply regret how this has unfolded,” Trudeau said.