Corbella: Document dump proves PMO involved in WE Charity plan

Former finance minister Bill Morneau looks at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a press conference in Ottawa on March 11, 2020.

No wonder Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke another election promise and prorogued Parliament. He wanted to avoid “the sh*t show” he knew was headed for the proverbial fan with the release of almost 5,000 pages of

documents

related to the WE Charity controversy.

Just hours before the documents were released by government lawyers, Trudeau swore in two new cabinet ministers Tuesday following the resignation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Monday and then immediately prorogued Parliament until Sept. 23. Among other things, prorogation shut down the House of Commons’ committees investigating the unseemly financial ties between Trudeau’s family and the WE Charity. Trudeau

testified July 30

before the finance committee that his government entered into a $543-million contract with WE to administer the Canada Student Service Grant that would have paid students to “volunteer,” adding that the civil service said it was either WE run the program or the program would not proceed. Trudeau testified that he first heard about WE being considered for the lucrative contract on May 8.

So concerned was Trudeau about how things would be perceived because of his family’s close ties to the charity that he cancelled cabinet’s vote on the proposal until May 22. Initially, Trudeau and WE officials said that nobody in the Trudeau family was paid to speak at the charity’s WE days. That is

untrue. In fact, Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother were all paid a total of $312,000 in speaking fees and another $200,000 in expenses by WE. According to Marc and Craig Kielburger, who also testified before the committee, the Trudeaus were, in fact, pretty much the only guest speakers paid by WE.

Had the CSSG program gone ahead, WE Charity or one of its many affiliated companies would have been entitled to $43.5 million for administering the program.

On April 20, Michelle Kovacevic, an assistant deputy minister in finance, wrote in an email: “There has been a lot of back and forth on a student package, as you well know and PMO has been weighing in on a version we shared with our Minister on Saturday.” Later in that same email, she referred to the Canada Student Service Grant as a “bit of a shit show.”

So, despite all the “back and forth” and “weighing in” on the CSSG “sh*t” show” by the PMO, Trudeau testified that the first time he heard about WE being tapped to run the then nearly $1-billion program was 19 days later on May 8?

 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee hearing on July 30.

That is simply not credible on numerous levels. If doling out $912 million of taxpayer money through a youth charity is not something that government ministers and senior staff talk to their boss about, then what

do

they talk to him about? His kids? His hair? His socks?

On May 5, the COVID-19 committee of cabinet approved WE to run the program and the Kielburgers testified that they were approved to start submitting expenses for the program on May 5.

So far, the documents show that WE’s connection with the CSSG program

was shared with five cabinet ministers, three senior political staffers and other top bureaucrats. 

On May 7, Kovacevic sent an email to Rachel Wernick, a senior assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, writing that “WE is connecting with my mino (they are all besties).”

Morneau’s daughter, Grace, is a contract worker at WE and the family took an all-expenses-paid $41,000 vacation to Ecuador with WE, a trip Morneau didn’t pay for until the day he appeared before the committee investigating the controversy in July.

“We now know why Justin Trudeau shut down those parliamentary investigations yesterday,” said Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative Party’s finance critic Wednesday. “We have the documents right here.”

With dramatic flourish, Poilievre read from some of the documents and then held up redacted pages that were completely blacked out but for a date and who sent the email and who received it.

 Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre tosses a redacted document during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

“This page blacked out. This page blacked out. This page blacked out. Why don’t we ask what’s in those pages at a parliamentary committee? Well, I’ll tell you why. Justin Trudeau shut down those parliamentary committees,” said Poilievre.

These documents indicated that either Trudeau did not tell the truth when he testified under oath before the committee or his closest cabinet ministers and highest-ranking staff members purposely and routinely keep their boss in the dark over what at that time was announced to be a $912-million program. Either way, the documents show that political staffers were pushing WE to run the ridiculous and costly program, that could have simply been handled better and faster through the Canada Summer Jobs program, that’s been around for decades and would have paid students at least the $15 minimum wage, rather than $10 per hour to “volunteer” through the CSSG.

Clearly, it was not the civil service that dreamed up this plan, it was Youth Minister Bardish Chagger and her staff early in April.

On June 27 Craig Kielburger sent Ben Chin, a senior adviser in the PMO, a thank you note over LinkedIn saying: “Hello Ben, Thank you for your kindness in helping shape our latest program with the gov’t. Warmly, Craig.”

The PMO helped “shape” the program.

Repeatedly, both Trudeau and Morneau say they should have recused themselves from the cabinet vote to choose WE to administer the CSSG, as if that would have been sufficient. By then, the entire cabinet and all senior staffers knew how badly their big bosses wanted WE to have that contract. Recusal that late in the game would not have been enough.

Prior to winning the 2015 election, Trudeau’s campaign vowed “we will not” use prorogation to “avoid difficult political circumstances” like former prime minister Stephen Harper did to prevent the Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc from forming a coalition to topple his minority government.

Trudeau has done the same thing. Now he says the new throne speech his government will bring in on Sept. 23 will be a confidence vote.

Regardless of the profligate spending we know is coming from Trudeau, the opposition parties should not bring down the government until its investigations into the WE conflict are complete and the fan stops spinning.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary. [email protected]

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