Probes pile up into WE contract

National Post (NATIONAL)

CANADA | A1 / FRONT, Words: 834

Parliamentary committees to study deal

by: Christopher Nardi

OTTAWA In addition to the ethics commissioner, two parliamentary committees are now expected to dig into the Trudeau government's controversial decision to outsource a $900-million student volunteer grant program to WE Charity.

On Tuesday, a majority of members on the Commons finance committee voted to spend at least 12 hours investigating how WE Charity was chosen to administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG).

On the same day, the chair of the government operations committee agreed to host an emergency meeting Thursday to vote on a similar study, after a request by the NDP, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois. That vote is also expected to pass.

The announcements come just days after the federal ethics commissioner announced he would investigate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government's handling of the decision to outsource the CSSG to WE Charity.

The charity, which has close ties to the prime minister, pulled out of the deal after a week of controversy.

The work of the finance committee will focus on determining how much the government spent while awarding the sole-source contract to WE Charity, and how that decision came to be, according to the motion adopted by Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre.

Nearly two weeks ago, Trudeau announced that his government was going to pay WE Charity at least $19.5 million to run the student volunteer grant. He said the organization was the "only one" that could administer the program, which will pay eligible youth up to $5,000 for volunteer hours worked over the summer.

But critics have raised significant questions about the choice of WE Charity. The prime minister hosted multiple events for the organization up until 2017. His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a WE podcast, is a "WE ambassador" and attended a "WE Day" event in London in March.

Last week, National Post reported that WE Charity has only received sole-source contracts from the federal government since 2017, and that WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger claimed in a private call that it was the Prime Minister's Office who had called them directly to "help implement" the CSSG back in April.

Kielburger has since backtracked and claimed it was in fact an unnamed senior public servant who had reached out to WE Charity.

With all that in mind, the finance committee voted to summon the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart; the unnamed senior Employment and Social Development bureaucrat mentioned by Kielburger, and the minister in charge of the volunteer grant program, Bardish Chagger, to testify during the study, among many others.

Finance committee members also voted to demand a large amount of documents from the Trudeau government surrounding the outsourcing of the grant program to WE Charity. Among them: the contract between Ottawa and WE Charity, all emails and notes prepared by the public service on the issue, as well as any communications between WE Charity and the government.

"We need to know whether or not this decision went to cabinet, why there was a reduction in the number of positions for Canada Summer Jobs ... Why this organization was put forward instead of our civil service, and on sole-source, what was the process?" NDP MP Peter Julian said during the meeting.

On Thursday, members of the government operations committee (OGGO) will vote to start an inquiry into why the federal public service was said to be unable to administer the CSSG, and why WE Charity has received multiple sole-source contracts in the past three years, including the one to administer the volunteer grant program.

"I believe Canadians have the right to know why this particular grant, (of all the grants and programs created by the Liberal government during the COVID-19 pandemic) totalling almost one billion dollars, was handed over to an organization with deep ties to Justin Trudeau and why the Prime Minister repeatedly claimed that the federal public service was unable to deliver this grant," reads a letter by NDP MP Matthew Green to the chair of the committee on Tuesday.

The Conservatives sent a very similar letter as well.

Last week, both the Conservatives and the NDP also asked Canada's Auditor General to look into the Canada Student Service Grant as part of her COVID-19 aid measures audit.

During an interview Tuesday, new AG Karen Hogan said that her office's auditing schedule is already jam packed for 2020, and that she will consider looking into the CSSG only in years "two or three" of her COVID-19 audit program.

She also said the controversies surrounding the government's handling of the CSSG hasn't convinced her to prioritize a potential audit of the grant program.

"There are a lot of data points that we look at as we decide what audits to pick and, and no, I don't think it's flagged me any more than any other audit. There are so many important programs to look at, and I think it'll just be included in the mix and weighed as we decide where to go next," Hogan told National Post.

National Post [email protected] Twitter: ChrisGNardi

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