Co-founders Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on November 10, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Co-founders Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on November 10, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ethics watchdog: PM didn’t violate conflict rules over WE Charity, but Morneau did

Former finance minister Bill Morneau broke the rules by showing preferential treatment to the charity, co-founded by his friends Craig and Marc Kielburger

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the WE Charity affair by the federal ethics watchdog but opposition parties aren’t willing to let the politically fraught controversy drop just yet.

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion ruled Thursday that Trudeau did not breach the Conflict of Interest Act when he failed to recuse himself from a cabinet decision last spring to have WE Charity administer a since-cancelled student services grant program.

However, in a separate report, Dion said former finance minister Bill Morneau did break the rules by failing to recuse himself and by showing preferential treatment to the charity, co-founded by his friends Craig and Marc Kielburger.

Trudeau expressed satisfaction with the ruling on him, saying it “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning.”

“At the heart of this initiative was getting support for youth during this pandemic as fast as possible,” he said in a statement.

But Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole suggested Trudeau got off on a technicality and promised, if he forms government, to introduce tougher rules that close loopholes and impose penalties for breaking the Conflict of Interest Act.

“Canadians are tired, Canadians are frustrated by the culture of entitlement and corruption that surrounds the Trudeau government,” he said.

“Canadians deserve better. The system is broken.”

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus zeroed in on the Morneau report, calling it a “doozy” and indicative of a government that gives “blatant insider access for their cronies and their pals.”

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet issued a statement saying he respects Dion’s decision but adding that “the final judgment will rest with the voters.”

The WE affair has bedeviled the Liberal government since last summer, when it decided to pay the charity up to $43.5 million to administer a volunteer student grant program, which was initially budgeted to cost an estimated $912 million.

Although the contract specified that WE was not to make any profit from the arrangement, the decision prompted immediate controversy due to the charity’s close ties to Trudeau and his wife as well as to his mother and brother, both of whom had been paid to appear at some WE events over the years.

Morneau, whose daughter worked for the charity and who had made generous donations to it, also came under fire.

Both Trudeau and Morneau apologized at the time for not recusing themselves from the decision. WE Charity quickly withdrew from the program, which was eventually cancelled.

Nevertheless, various House of Commons committees launched investigations into the affair, some of which are ongoing.

In his report on Trudeau, Dion confirmed Trudeau’s version of events: that the choice of WE to manage the program was recommended by bureaucrats, that the prime minister initially balked at the idea and asked that they look for alternatives, and that he eventually signed off on the matter after bureaucrats determined WE was the only organization capable of managing the cross-country program.

“I believe that in the frenzy to distribute funds as expeditiously as possible to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, there were some departures from the ordinary process of policy development,” Dion said.

“In my view, the creation and eventual ratification of the (Canada Student Services Grant) was not done improperly.

Dion concluded that there was no friendship between Trudeau and the Kielburgers, that Trudeau did not give them preferential treatment and that neither he nor his relatives stood to benefit, even indirectly, from the decision to have WE administer the program.

Although the connection between Trudeau’s relatives and WE created the appearance of a conflict of interest, Dion said: “The appearance of a conflict of interest does not constitute a contravention of the act; the conflict must be real.”

Dion arrived at a very different conclusion for Morneau, who abruptly quit politics in August as the WE affair dominated headlines and reports circulated about a disagreement between him and Trudeau over COVID-19 pandemic spending.

Dion said Morneau “gave WE preferential treatment by permitting his ministerial staff to disproportionately assist it when it sought federal funding.”

“I believe this unfettered access to the Office of the Minister of Finance was based on the identity of WE’s representative, Mr. Craig Kielburger,” Dion wrote.

Dion found Craig Kielburger fell under his office’s interpretation of a friend to Morneau, which meant the former minister should have known it created the potential for conflict.

He noted that in 2017 Craig Kielburger wrote to Morneau that he and his spouse were expecting a baby and he was “among the first to know.”

Other emails show Morneau’s staff referred to Kielburger as a “dear friend” of the office, that communications between ministerial staff and WE representatives happened on a first-name basis and included colloquialisms like “Hey friend.”

Dion said Morneau put himself in conflict several times, had the opportunity to “improperly further WE’s private interests” and should have recused himself from debate on the program as soon as he learned that WE would play an important role in it.

In a written statement, Morneau said the report concludes the public service decided WE Charity should administer the program.

“As I have already stated, in retrospect, I should have recused myself from the discussion,” Morneau wrote in a statement shared on Twitter.

A statement Thursday from WE Charity said Dion has confirmed the choice to give the contract to the organization “was subject to extensive scrutiny and that WE Charity was the only organization equipped” to manage the program.

“Through this procurement process, WE Charity did not determine the value of the contract, or the decision to sole-source. WE Charity did not have any input into the government’s procurement process, including the decision whether to recuse,” it said.

The charity’s lawyer, Guy Giorno, one-time chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, commended Dion for giving Trudeau and Morneau due process, which he said has been denied the charity during committee hearings.

The charity is now shutting down its Canadian operations largely as a result of the controversy.

Last fall, Dion cleared Morneau of failing to disclose a gift from the charity. He accepted that the former minister “genuinely believed” he had paid for two trips his family took in 2017 to visit WE’s humanitarian projects in Ecuador and Kenya, saying Morneau reimbursed it $41,000 after learning the charity had covered his expenses.

This marks the third time Trudeau has been investigated by the federal ethics commissioner.

In 2019, Dion concluded Trudeau did violate the rules the year before by improperly pressuring then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, now an Independent MP, to halt the criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

Dion’s predecessor, Mary Dawson, earlier found Trudeau broke the rules when his family accepted a 2016 vacation at the private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

The Binche Fishing Derby at Stuart Lake is fast approaching. (Binche Fishing Derby Facebook photo)
Binche shares excitement for upcoming fishing derby

“It’s more than just fishing,” says Dave Birdi

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Local youth vaccination clinics underway

Pfizer vaccine will be used

Priya Sharma. (Submitted)
Column: Why ultimatums don’t work

By Priya Sharma It is a common misconception that people can choose… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Most Read