OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, is embroiled in another controversy of his own making that’s inflicting political damage on him and his administration.
The Canadian leader is struggling to contain the rapid spread of a firestorm sparked by his plan to award a sole-source contract to a powerful charity and fueled by revelations that members of his family have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees by the organization over the past half decade. The dustup also threatens to cost Trudeau his trusted finance minister.
Trudeau’s trouble began building momentum a few weeks ago after his government announced the deal to pay WE Charity up to C$43 million to administer a C$912-million student grant program as part of Canada’s Covid-19 response. The group works on international development projects and classroom programs, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, that teach youth about civic engagement.
The public and parliamentary reaction in Canada to the news and further revelations of speaking fees and travel expenses paid to family members of Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been swift and harsh.
Polls suggest the still-emerging controversy around WE Charity has already chewed away at Trudeau’s approval ratings, which saw a lift after the start of the pandemic. Rivals have demanded Morneau’s resignation and the fallout risks nudging opponents closer to defeating Trudeau’s minority Liberal government, triggering another election. Canada’s ethics commissioner has launched investigations into Trudeau and Morneau.
Trudeau has shown he can survive scandals, including images of him wearing brownface 20 years ago that surfaced during last year’s election campaign. The ethics commissioner found last year that Trudeau broke conflict-of-interest law after the prime minister and his staff repeatedly urged his former attorney general to reach a plea-bargain deal with the SNC-Lavalin engineering firm, which faced corruption charges.
Trudeau also weathered blowback from a 2018 trip to India when he had to rescind a dinner invitation he’d issued to a Sikh extremist who had been accused of attempting to murder an Indian politician.
In late 2018, the ethics commissioner also concluded Trudeau violated violated ethics law over two all-expenses-paid family trips at the Aga Khan’s residence in the Bahamas.
Despite the weight of controversies, Trudeau dodged defeat in the 2019 election and returned to the Prime Minister’s Office with his Liberals reduced to a minority status. It has forced them to work with opposition parties to pass legislation and to keep the government afloat.
Weeks after the April contract announcement, the public learned how WE Charity had paid Trudeau’s mother and brother more than C$300,000 in speaking fees. His wife, Sophie, had been working for WE as an ambassador and Trudeau himself has spoken at their events.
Trudeau has argued that bureaucrats recommended WE to run the program. Amid the uproar, WE pulled out of the agreement and the program will now be managed by the government.
The prime minister later made a public apology for not recusing himself from the decision to put WE in charge of a very large, especially by Canadian standards, envelope of money.
“I’m sincerely sorry about not having done that,” Trudeau told a July 13 press conference.
The apology, however, has done little to limit the political consequences or prevent a stream of new details about the WE deal.
The WE-related challenges are only getting started for a prime minister trying to lead Canada through the economic and health crises of the coronavirus pandemic.
The controversy has become enough of a concern that Trudeau has agreed to testify about it under oath before a parliamentary committee, likely next week. Such an appearance, where he will be grilled by opposition members of Parliament, is a very rare step for a prime minister.
Trudeau’s containment efforts face another challenge: He’s not the only one at the highest level of his government with strong personal and financial links to WE Charity.
In a stunning development Wednesday, Morneau, a multimillionaire, revealed to a parliamentary committee that he failed to pay for his more than C$41,000 worth of travel expenses from trips he, his wife and one of their daughters took with WE in 2017. Morneau, who insisted he only realized this week he had not paid for these costs, said he traveled with WE to Ecuador with his wife and daughter, while they went without him on another trip with the charity to Kenya.
Morneau also said for the first time Wednesday that his wife made two C$50,000 donations to the charity, including one as recently as last month.
This news followed reports this month that one of his daughters worked for WE and the other had spoken at the organization’s events about her book.
Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre told Morneau directly that he had lost the moral authority to hold his office. He asked Morneau point blank if we would resign.
Morneau, who had been apologetic throughout the hearing and lacked his usual assertiveness, replied that he intended to stay on to work on behalf of Canadians.
The finance minister’s revelations provided fresh fuel for the Liberals’ main opponents. The calls for his resignation spilled into the next day as the Conservatives promised to seek committee support for Morneau’s removal.
“We are going to use the tools of Parliament to hold Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau accountable for this avalanche of illegal activity,” Poilievre told a press conference Thursday on the matter. “Both Trudeau and Morneau are law-breaking machines and our job as official opposition will be to expose their corruption and hold them accountable.”
Poilievre was asked if the Conservatives intended to defeat the Liberal government and trigger an election once they elect a new leader in late August. He sidestepped the question.
Moving forward, Trudeau and Morneau may have to deal with more problems.
WE’s co-founders, Marc Kielburger and Craig Kielburger, are scheduled to appear before the finance committee next Tuesday.
It’s unclear what their testimony could reveal, but WE has appeared to distance itself from the Trudeau government.
WE issued a press release late Wednesday after Morneau’s testimony that said the organization invites potential supporters, from time to time, to see the impact of its global projects “on a complimentary basis.” It said it invited Morneau and his wife, Nancy McCain, because they are well-known philanthropists with a history of significant donations to international development programs.
“We understand that, at times, individuals need to report their participation on these trips,” WE said. “Given the multitude of protocols for reporting and disclosure at various corporations, foundations, media outlets or government agencies, the adherence to these protocols are largely the responsibility of trip participants.”
The WE website, which features photos of the Kielburgers posing with international celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, says the charity has worked with some of the “world’s most renowned thinkers and social activists.”