OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not breach the Conflict of Interest Act over failing to recuse himself from a cabinet decision to have WE Charity operate a since-cancelled federal student-volunteer program, Canada’s ethics watchdog said Thursday.
In a separate report, federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion found that former finance minister Bill Morneau broke the rules by failing to recuse himself and showing preferential treatment to the charity.
Morneau abruptly left politics last summer as the government’s dealings with WE dominated headlines and reports circulated about a disagreement between Morneau and Trudeau over COVID-19 pandemic spending.
Dion said Morneau “gave WE preferential treatment by permitting his ministerial staff to disproportionately assist it when it sought federal funding.”
“I believe this unfettered access to the Office of the Minister of Finance was based on the identity of WE’s representative, Mr. Craig Kielburger,” Dion wrote.
The commissioner said he was asked to investigate Morneau by several MPs because of what some believed to be close ties between the Morneau family and the charity, founded by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger.
Dion found Craig Kielburger fell under his office’s definition of a friend to Morneau, which meant the former minister should have known it created the potential for conflict.
The report says Morneau and Craig Kielburger became acquainted after Morneau was elected as an MP for Toronto Centre in November 2015 and that they had a friendly relationship.
In 2017 Craig Kielburger wrote to Morneau that he and his spouse were expecting a baby and he was “among the first to know.”
Other emails show Morneau’s staff referred to Kielburger as a “dear friend” of the office, that communications between ministerial staff and WE representatives happened on a first-name basis and included colloquialisms like “Hey friend.”
Dion said Morneau put himself in conflict several times, had the opportunity to “improperly further WE’s private interests” and should have recused himself from debate on the program as soon as he learned that WE would play an important role in it.
In a written statement, Morneau said the report concludes the public service decided WE Charity should administer the program.
“As I have already stated, in retrospect, I should have recused myself from the discussion,” Morneau wrote in a statement shared on Twitter.
Last fall, Dion cleared Morneau of failing to disclose a gift from the charity. He accepted the former minister “genuinely believed” he had paid for two trips his family took in 2017 to visit WE’s humanitarian projects in Ecuador and Kenya, saying Morneau reimbursed it $41,000 after learning the charity had covered his expenses.
Last summer, Trudeau also apologized for not recusing himself from talks around the program given that he and his relatives had taken part in eight WE events, with his brother and mother being paid for their involvement.
On Thursday, Trudeau said in a statement that Dion’s report confirms what he had already said about the WE Charity affair.
“At the heart of this initiative was getting support for youth during this pandemic as fast as possible,” Trudeau said in the statement.
“This pandemic has been hard on many Canadians, especially front-line health-care workers who are doing everything possible to keep us safe, the essential workers who are keeping us fed and the small business owners who have been under immense pressure, but also for families and for young people,” he said.
“My job as prime minister is to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes by providing direct support to people and businesses to get through this.”
The Liberal government announced last June it was going to pay WE up to $43.5 million to run a student grant program to encourage students to do volunteer work related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government budgeted $912 million for it and the agreement stipulated the charity couldn’t make money off the deal.
WE backed out after concerns were raised over the organization’s ties to the Trudeau family. The program was eventually cancelled.
The commissioner found there to be no relationship between the Kielburger brothers and Trudeau. Dion said evidence shows he also didn’t have any involvement in the public service’s decision to recommended that WE run the program, and found Trudeau’s decision to approve it not to “be motivated by the identity of any third-party representative.”
“I am satisfied that there was no opportunity to further Mr. Trudeau’s own interests or those of his relatives from WE’s role as administrator of the Canada Student Service Grant or from its Social Entrepreneurship proposal,” he wrote.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, who was among the parliamentarians who wrote to Dion, accepted the commissioner’s conclusions but added that he thinks “the average person is going to recognize that the prime minister really showed bad judgment on this.”
He called the report into Morneau a damming indictment on how the Liberal government does business, and believes it showed that when the Kielburgers, who cultivated ties with powerful people, got access when they wanted.
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole took issue that Trudeau was cleared.
“Our accountability laws are broken, and we can’t have more of the same corruption and cronyism from Justin Trudeau,” he said in a statement released by the party.
This was the third time Trudeau has been investigated by the federal ethics commissioner.
In 2019, Dion concluded Trudeau did violate the rules the year before by improperly pressuring then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, now an Independent MP, to halt the criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
His predecessor, Mary Dawson, earlier found Trudeau broke the rules when his family accepted a 2016 vacation at the private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan.