OTTAWA — The federal ethics watchdog is examining whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the conflict of interest law over how he handled a decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million federal program to pay students and fresh graduates for volunteer work this summer.
The Liberal government announced Friday the Toronto-based youth organization would no longer be managing the program, days after the prime minister himself called WE Charity the only option for success.
Trudeau said Friday public servants will administer the pandemic-related grants instead.
Since the charity founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger was announced as the manager of the program last week, the sole-sourced deal has been criticized because of Trudeau's close relationship with the group. He, his wife and his mother have all been involved in WE events and activities.
That prompted the Conservatives and the NDP to ask Mario Dion, the federal ethics commissioner, to look into whether Trudeau has violated the Conflict of Interest Act.
On Friday, Dion replied in separate letters to Conservative MP Michael Barrett and NDP MP Charlie Angus, their parties' ethics critics, that he would begin an examination and that he had notified Trudeau about it.
In his letter to Barrett, Dion said his examination would involve the sections of the Conflict of Interest Act that forbid public office holders from taking part in decisions that they should know would put them in a conflict of interest, giving preferential treatment and requiring them to recuse themselves from matters that would put them in a conflict of interest.
The allegation from the Conservatives regarding preferential treatment relates to Trudeau's having said that WE Charity was chosen by the non-partisan public service to manage the program because it was the only organization capable of doing so.
Dion said he would not examine allegations that Trudeau contravened three other sections Barrett raised in his request because there are no reasonable grounds to do so and that he had also informed the prime minister about that.
Dion's letter to Angus mentions only the section of the act regarding preferential treatment, because that is the one the NDP raised in its request.
Charity experts have questioned whether WE is equipped for the fine-grained management of such a big government-funded program.
Trudeau repeated Friday morning that his consciousness of his close relationship with WE meant it was left to the public service to decide how to manage the program, and to carry out what he called a "transparent and open" process to ultimately go with WE.
Speaking to reporters, Trudeau lamented what he called the "unfortunate" unfolding of events over the last few days. He said the government supported the organization's decision.
He said there may be things that federal officials won't be as well placed to do, such as actively recruiting students — there have already been 35,000 applicants for the program by WE's count, exceeding early expectations of 20,000 — and supporting small groups with onboarding and training volunteers.
"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."
The volunteer program is to pay up to $5,000 for schooling costs for participants who volunteer the maximum 500 hours, and is aimed at students who can't find work this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said in a statement that volunteers who have already signed up shouldn't be adversely affected, and WE Charity will pay back money it's already received from the federal government.
The Liberals had set aside about $19 million for the organization to administer the program, but the final amount was dependent on how many young people joined it.
The charity did not say how much it had received or repaid when asked, pointing to a statement that "reflects all that we have to say on this matter."
In the statement, WE pointed to the ongoing controversy around its involvement in the program as the source of its decision, even though "the government has provided explanations" to all questions.
The statement went on to say that the organization was concerned that an ongoing affiliation would mean "the program itself will begin to suffer — and as a consequence, opportunities for students might be negatively affected."
The controversy over the charity's involvement only grew as the days wore on, including with revelations of a recording, obtained by The Canadian Press and others, in which Marc Kielburger told youth leaders last month that Trudeau's office reached out one day after the grant was announced on April 22 to get the charity on board. Kielburger later retracted, saying he misspoke. A public servant had called, he said.
Trudeau didn't say whether his office had reached out to WE or the Kielburgers when asked Friday about the recording.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2020.