OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government has turned over thousands of pages of documents related to the WE controversy to a House of Commons’ committee, which lawyers are now vetting for personal information and cabinet secrets.
The finance committee demanded the documents last month as it probes whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s relationship with WE Charity influenced the government’s ill-fated decision to have the organization run a $912-million student-volunteer program.
The Liberals handed more than 5,000 pages about the decision to the committee over the weekend, but it isn’t clear when they will be released to members as parliamentary lawyers are going through them to prevent the release of protected information.
Committee members are hoping the documents will shed light on the discussions that led to the decision to have WE run the Canada Student Services Grant, before the deal was cancelled in early July.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Small Business Minister Mary Ng are expected to appear before the committee on Wednesday to discuss the grant program, which promised to pay students up to $5,000 for volunteering.
Trudeau has apologized for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions about the WE deal given his family’s relationship with the charity, but has denied any wrongdoing.
A timeline of events regarding the Canada Student Service Grant program, based on public documents, events and statements from cabinet ministers, government officials, and WE Charity:
March 6, 2020: WE Charity staff prepare a concept paper on service learning for public servants at Employment and Social Development Canada.
April 5: Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk over the phone about how to help students whose summer job and volunteer opportunities were vanishing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finance Department officials are tasked with considering options the next morning.
April 7: Small Business Minister Mary Ng and WE co-founder Craig Kielburger have an introductory phone call in which Ng asks WE to send what it calls a “pre-established proposal” to help young people launch businesses.
April 7 or 8: Morneau’s office contacts the WE organization, among other groups, to get their input on potential programs. Morneau says the call was on April 7, while WE says it was April 8.
April 9: WE Charity sends the unsolicited proposal for a youth business program to Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, Ng, Morneau and Trudeau’s office. The price tag is between $6 million and $14 million to provide digital programming and $500 grants, plus “incentive funds,” for 8,000 students.
April 16: ESDC officials mention WE in the context of the student program in an email discussion with Finance officials.
April 18: Morneau’s officials raise the idea of partnering with a non-profit, or for-profit group to administer the program. (ESDC officials suggest the same day that WE might be an option.) Morneau said it was the first time he was involved in any talk about WE and the grant program.
April 19: Wernick contacts Craig Kielburger. WE says the call was to discuss launching a youth service program in the summer and that Wernick asks Kielburger to develop a proposal to fulfil that objective. During the call, Wernick learns of the April 9 proposal for a youth business program and Kielburger agrees to send both proposals.
April 20: Morneau’s office contacts WE to ask about its ability to deliver a volunteer program. An official’s record of the call notes “WE Charity will re-work their 10-week summer program proposal to fully meet the policy objective of national service and increase their current placements of 8,000 to double.”
April 21: Morneau approves going with an outside organization to run the volunteer program, but no specific group is chosen.
WE’s youth entrepreneurship program proposal is included in annex nine of a briefing package about a student aid program that goes to the Prime Minister’s Office, chief of staff Katie Telford later tells the finance committee. The proposal is declined.
April 22: Trudeau announces a $9-billion package of student aid, including the outline of a volunteer program paying students up to $5,000 toward education costs, based on the number of hours they volunteer. WE sends Wernick an updated proposal to reflect the announcement. The message is forwarded to Chagger, Ng and Morneau.
April 26: Morneau speaks with WE co-founder Craig Kielburger, but told the finance committee neither of them talked about the Canada Student Service Grant program. Craig Kielburger later tells the committee he only brought up the youth business proposal, not the grant program.
April 27: Volunteer Canada, a charity that promotes volunteering and helps organizations use volunteers well, meets Chagger and raises concerns about paying students hourly rates below minimum wage and calling it volunteering.
May 4: WE sends a third proposal to ESDC, this time with more details and specific to the grant program. Finance official Michelle Kovacevic, who was working on the program, told the finance committee she received it May 7.
May 5: Chagger goes to a special COVID-19 cabinet committee with the recommendation to go with WE for the program. Neither Morneau nor Trudeau is at the meeting.
The same day, a member of the Prime Minister’s Office policy team speaks with WE as part of stakeholder consultation, but then directs the organization to ESDC.
WE begins incurring eligible expenses.
May 8: Trudeau finds out that WE is being recommended to run the student-volunteer program hours before a cabinet meeting. He later tells the finance committee that he pulled the item from the agenda and sent it back to the public service for more due diligence because of how the deal could be perceived.
May 21: The public service comes back to Trudeau, he tells the finance committee. The recommendation to go with WE doesn’t change.
May 22: Cabinet, including Trudeau and Morneau, approved handing the reins of the program to WE.
May 23: The public service officially begins negotiating a contribution agreement with WE, which would have paid up to $43.5 million in fees to the group.
May 25 to June 3: In a series of meetings with Volunteer Canada, WE suggests the target for placements through the program had gone from 20,000 to 100,000.
June 12: WE co-founder Marc Kielburger says in a video chat with youth leaders that he heard from Trudeau’s office about getting involved in the volunteer program the day after it was announced by the prime minister. He later backtracks, saying the contact came the week of April 26 from Wernick, and not the Prime Minister’s Office.
June 23: WE Charity Foundation signs a contribution agreement with the federal government. WE signatories include Scott Baker, named as president of the one-year-old foundation and executive director of WE Charity, and chief financial officer Victor Li. Chagger signs for the government.
June 25: Trudeau unveils more details about student aid. A government release notes that WE will administer the student-volunteer program.
June 26: Facing questions about WE, Trudeau says the non-partisan public service made the recommendation, and the government accepted it: “As the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organization that was capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it, and that was the WE program.”
July 3: Citing the ongoing controversy, WE and the Liberals announce a parting of ways and the federal government takes control of the program. Ethics commissioner Mario Dion tells Conservative and NDP ethics critics in separate letters he will examine Trudeau’s role in the awarding of the agreement because of the prime minister’s close ties to the group.
July 9: WE says it has paid Trudeau’s mother Margaret about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020. His brother Alexandre was been paid $32,000 for eight events, and Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance. The organization says Trudeau himself has never been paid by the charity or its for-profit arm.
July 13: Trudeau apologizes for not recusing himself from discussions about WE over his family’s longtime involvement with the organization. Morneau also issues an apology.
July 16: Dion says he will investigate Morneau’s actions in the affair. Chagger testifies at the finance committee, saying Trudeau’s office didn’t direct her to go with WE.
July 21: Ian Shugart, clerk of the Privy Council, tells the Commons finance committee there is no evidence to suggest Trudeau spoke with WE before the organization was awarded the deal to run the student-volunteer program.
July 22: Morneau tells the finance committee he just repaid over $41,000 to WE for travel expenses the organization footed for the minister and his family. The Opposition Conservatives call for Morneau to resign.
Trudeau’s office says he and Telford have agreed to testify before the committee with a date and time to be set.
The House of Commons ethics committee also calls on Trudeau to testify, and votes to seek copies of records for Trudeau and his family’s speaking appearances dating back years. Six opposition members outvote five Liberals to have that committee start its own investigation.
July 23: Conservatives and New Democrats ask Dion to launch a new probe of Morneau over his travel expenses.
July 27: A copy of the contribution agreement with WE Charity Foundation is filed with the finance committee. It lays out the details of the program, including a provision for a maximum contribution of $543.53 million — $500 million for grants, and $43.53 million to WE.
July 28: Craig and Marc Kielburger testify over four hours of sometimes testy interactions with MPs on the finance committee. The co-founders of WE Charity say their history and experience, not ties to Liberal cabinet ministers, landed the group the deal to run the volunteer program. They add they would have never agreed to take part in the program had they known it could jeopardize the work the WE organization has done over 25 years.
They also say WE estimated the cost of the program to be between $200 million and $300 million.
July 29: The Conservatives call on the federal ethics czar to widen his probe of Trudeau to include travel expenses WE covered in addition to speaking fees for his mother, wife and brother. Dion sends letters to the Tories and NDP saying he is expanding his probe of Morneau to look into the $41,000 in WE-sponsored travel.
July 30: In a rare event, Trudeau testifies before the House of Commons finance committee and lays out when he first learned about WE’s involvement in the Canada Student Service Grant program. He says WE Charity didn’t receive any preferential treatment in the process. He also says it is now unlikely the grants will be rolled out.
July 31: Speaking to reporters, Trudeau says he believed there was no conflict of interest because his family would not benefit from WE running the student volunteer program.
Published by the Canadian Press