The federal ethics commissioner has launched an investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his government’s now-cancelled decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million federal program, which is slated to pay students and new graduates for their volunteer work this summer.
In an email sent to CTVNews.ca, Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office, said Trudeau will work with the investigation.
“We will of course collaborate with the Commissioner and answer any questions he may have,” she said.
While the charity has backed out of the management of the program following days of controversy, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said in a letter addressed to Conservative MP Michael Barrett that the Tory MP’s request for an investigation “satisfies the requirements” laid out in the Conflict of Interest Act.
Specifically, Barrett alleges that Trudeau violated a provision in the Act that “prohibits public office holders from making any decision or participating in the making of a decision that furthers their private interests or improperly furthers the private interests of another person.”
He claims that Trudeau had a duty to recuse himself from any discussion or decision relating to WE Charity, given the prime minister’s close ties to the organization and his wife’s involvement, and that Trudeau violated the Act when he announced that WE Charity would administer the Canada Student Service Grant.
Barrett also alleges Trudeau violated another section of the Act that deals with affording preferential treatment when he said WE Charity was the “only organization” qualified to run the program — given the existence of other national volunteer organizations.
The ethics watchdog found that Barrett’s allegations satisfied the requirements of the Act and has launched an investigation into both possible contraventions. Dion notes in his letter that Trudeau has been informed of the investigation.
“Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention,” Dion wrote at the end of the letter.
It didn’t take long for political reaction to start pouring in. Barrett took to Twitter shortly after the story broke to slam Trudeau over the news of the investigation.
“3 ethics investigations in 3 years!!! Justin Trudeau keeps using the power of his office to reward his friends & punish his critics,” Barrett wrote in a tweet.
“No wonder he’s now desperately trying to distance himself from his latest scandal. Canadians deserve transparency.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus also tweeted out a copy of a letter similar to the one Barrett had received from the commissioner, as he had also requested an investigation on the same grounds.
“The Ethics Commissioner has agreed to my request to launch an investigation into [Trudeau] for breach of Section 7 of the Conflict of Interest Act over the decision to hand a single source contract of $900 million to WE,” Angus tweeted.
Speaking to CTV News Channel Friday evening, Angus said the ethics commissioner responded to his request within a day with a decision to investigate the matter. Angus called the move “extraordinary” and “unprecedented.”
“The prime minister really needs to start coming clean with Canadians on this whole debacle,” Angus said.
We Charity, which was founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, has been at the centre of a firestorm of controversy since it was announced as the “best and only” organization to manage the program last week.
The sole-sourced deal came under criticism because the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, is an ambassador with the organization and hosts a mental health podcast under its name. Trudeau has also spoken at a number of WE events globally.
The prime minister defended the decision on Monday.
“They have networks in every corner of the country, and organizations that they work with. They have already worked over the past many years to deliver service opportunities to young people,” said Trudeau in a press conference at the time.
However, on Friday, WE Charity and Trudeau’s government parted ways over the administration of the program. Instead, public servants will administer the grants. According to WE, there have already been 35,000 applications for the program.
The grant provides up to $5,000 for the schooling costs of participants who volunteer the maximum 500 hours, a bid to help students who can’t find summer work due to COVID-19.
Trudeau lamented the events of the last few days as “unfortunate.”
“One of the things that ends up happening with this is that young people won’t maybe have the same kind of access to programs that they … would have,” Trudeau said.
“We will continue to work very hard and we need to reflect carefully on what exactly went wrong and how we can make sure that we’re doing a better job of supporting young people in the coming months and years.”
With files from CTV News’ Sarah Turnbull and The Canadian Press