Ottawa: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for not recusing himself from the government’s decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million student-aid program, saying his family’s longtime involvement with the organization should have kept him out of the discussions.
The surprise apology marked a sharp about-face for the prime minister after weeks of trying to defend the controversial, sole-sourced contract with WE, and follows revelations his wife, brother and mother had been paid a combined $300,000 for appearing at WE events over the years.
“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions given our family’s history and I’m sincerely sorry for not having done that,’’ Trudeau said during a news conference outside his Ottawa home on Monday.
“When it came to this organization and this program, the involvement that I had in the past and that my family has should have had me remove myself from these discussions. And I’m sorry that I didn’t.’’
Trudeau said he was particularly sorry that the delay in the program caused by WE’s eventual decision to withdraw from administering the Canada Student Services Grant would harm students looking for ways to help in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Young people who are facing a difficult time right now getting summer jobs, contributing to their communities, are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve, and that’s frustrating.’’
Trudeau announced general plans for the program in April and then details of the Canadian Student Services Grant followed June 25. The government said tens of thousands of students having a hard time finding summer work due to COVID-19 could volunteer up to 500 hours to earn the maximum $5,000 toward their post-secondary costs.
But the program came under immediate scrutiny after it was discovered that WE had been chosen to administer it. Trudeau said federal public servants had recommended the organization and that it was considered the only one capable of delivering the program.
Trudeau nonetheless faced accusations of cronyism and allegations of a conflict of interest over his past connections with WE. Those allegations only grew after revelations last week about the payments to his wife, brother and mother.
The prime minister and Finance Minister Bill Morneau both confirmed they did not recuse themselves from the cabinet vote that approved giving the contract to WE. One of Morneau’s daughters has spoken at WE events while another does contract work for the organization.
Morneau’s office on Sunday denied any link between his daughters’ involvement with WE and the contract to administer the student grant program, which Trudeau acknowledged would have paid the organization around $20 million.
WE has said, including in a full-page newspaper advertisement Monday, that money would only have covered its costs.
By Lee Berthiaume
The Canadian Press