The Conservatives say they want a criminal investigation into the Liberal government’s decision to have the WE organization run a $900-million program for student volunteers.
Their call for police to step in comes after it was revealed that the group has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family.
Trudeau is already under investigation by the ethics commissioner for potential conflict of interest with regard to the contract, as his long-standing family ties to the group are well known.
But that review was launched prior to revelations the prime minister’s mother, brother and wife have been paid in the past by the WE organization.
“The revelation that $350,000 in cash was paid by this organization to immediate members of Justin Trudeau’s family, that organization that he awarded a sole-sourced $1-billion contract to, that revelation raises the need for the police to take a look at it,” Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said Friday.
The WE organization said Thursday that it had paid Trudeau’s mother Margaret about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020.
The prime minister’s brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events, according to WE. The organization that represents them as speakers was paid additional commissions, WE said.
And Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance that year.
Besides being Trudeaus, Margaret Trudeau has profile as a mental-health advocate and has been in the public eye for decades; Alexandre Trudeau is a filmmaker; and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has had a career in television.
Most of the payments were from the organization’s for-profit component, ME to WE Social Enterprise, which sponsors the charitable component, WE Charity said in a statement.
About $64,000 went from WE Charity to Margaret Trudeau’s speaker’s bureau because of “an error in billing / payment” that WE said was later corrected.
“Justin Trudeau has never been paid by WE Charity or ME to WE Social Enterprise for any speeches or any other matters,” WE Charity said.
Trudeau’s office said Thursday said “the prime minister’s relatives engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord.”
Trudeau has maintained the non-partisan public service recommended WE to administer the Canada Student Services Grant program.
The organization was to be paid $19.5 million to run the $900 million program. It would pay students $1,000 toward their education costs for every 100 hours of volunteering done through approved charities and non-profits.
Placements are uncertain now that WE has withdrawn and the government itself is taking the program over.
When WE was announced as the program manager in late June, Trudeau said it was the only organization in Canada with the reach and expertise needed to execute the plan.
He did not recuse himself from cabinet approval of the deal.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said late Thursday that Trudeau turn power over to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland until the matter is fully probed.
The Conservatives did not echo that call, suggesting it is up to the Liberal caucus to look itself in the mirror and decide what should happen with their leadership.
Liberal cabinet ministers must also reveal what they knew and when, Barrett said.
Liberal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand were asked Friday whether they knew about the payments from WE to the Trudeau family and whether the prime minister should have recused himself from the decision to award WE the contract.
They ducked direct answers.
“We work very closely with the public servants who are non-partisan and they provided us with a clear set of recommendations and we followed those recommendations,” Bains said.
In a statement, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau, his office and cabinet must comply fully with the ethics commissioner and in particular, waive cabinet confidentiality in the case.
Trudeau has twice before been investigated by the ethics commissioner, but the watchdog has said he’s been hampered by a refusal by the government to lift the customary veil of secrecy on cabinet discussions.
“Canadians deserve to know the truth and need to know this won’t happen again,” Singh said.
The section of the Criminal Code the Conservatives are suggesting could apply is the same one once used to charge former Conservative senator Mike Duffy in the Senate expenses scandal.
It deals with frauds on the government, and creates offences related to government officials, or their families, benefiting from government contracts.
Duffy had been charged under section 121 for taking a $90,000 cheque from then-chief of staff to the prime minister, Nigel Wright, to repay his housing expenses.
Duffy was found not guilty on that, and all, charges.
None of the three opposition parties have said they would consider trying to bring down the Liberal minority government over the WE scandal.
“We’re looking to get the truth and accountability,” the Conservatives’ Barrett said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020.
—With files from Mia Rabson
© The Canadian Press