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

Longtime SOWINS volunteer Diane Fru (far left) walks with members of her family as they Walk To End Abuse Sunday, June 13, 2021. South Okanagan Women In Needs Society (SOWINS) raised a record amount this year. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Walk to End Abuse in South Okanagan breaks fundraising record

More than $53,000 raised so far while the pandemic has increased need for SOWINS’ services

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

RCMP thanked the public for assistance in finding Benjamin Archie, last seen in Princeton. (RCMP)
Missing Chilliwack man found safe and sound

The 80-year-old had walked away from his home in Chilliwack

.
Princeton’s Spotlight wins two provincial awards for excellence

Publisher takes first place for investigative reporting

Princeton GSAR responds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2020 the crew was called out 34 times, and members spent 721 hours on calls, and 683 hours training. Photo Princeton GSAR Facebook
Teen missing in Manning Park found after 24 hours

Young man spends night on mountain and survives with just a few scrapes

Singer-songwriter Jann Arden is pictured with a draft horse. (Canadian Horse Defence Coalition)
Jann Arden backs petition to stop live horse export

June 14 is the International Day to End Live Export of Animals

Penticton Overdose Prevention Society co-founders Desiree Franz, Shane Surowski and Stephanie Lines have created the city’s first unsanctioned public overdose prevention site using an old wine-tour bus. The site began operations in June 2021. (Desiree Franz/Facebook)
Volunteers launch Penticton’s first public supervised injection site

2021 is on pace to be the deadliest year for overdoses in Penticton on record

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

B.C. ambulance station in Revelstoke is expected to get a new system called the Scheduled On-Call (SOC) this fall. (Liam Harrap - Revelstoke Review)
B.C. ambulance changes could put Revelstoke residents at risk, warn local paramedics

Paramedics said to expect a substantial increase in ambulance response time starting this fall

This goose family went for a leisurely stroll down Vernon’s Main Street Saturday, April 25. (Dave Deshane photo)
Controversial Vernon goose cull won’t fly this year

Necessary permit procedures held up at a federal level

Mounties cover a burgundy truck with a tent at Buckerfields in West Kelowna on Monday, June 14. The RCMP is investigating after a woman’s body was found inside the truck. (Amandalina Letterio/Capital News)
West Kelowna RCMP investigating suspicious death after body found in truck

Police responded to a truck parked out front of a Main Street business where the body was found

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Four golfers from Fairview Mountain Golf Club in Oliver will golf from sunrise to sunset to raise funds for ALS on June 29. (Submitted)
Golfing from sunrise to sunset in Oliver for ALS

Four golfers from Fairview Mountain Golf Club have taken up the challenge June 29

Most Read