Opinion: PM’s apology won’t make furor over WE go away

Justin Trudeau made a bold bid to break up with the ethics controversy consuming his government this week with a new twist on an old classic: “It’s not WE. It’s me.”

There was nothing vague about the prime minister’s apology for how he and WE Charity have become tangled in an ethics storm over pandemic relief. In fact, Trudeau approached near-mathematical precision on Monday with his very personal regrets for what he had failed to do in the whole mess.

“The mistake we made was on me and I take responsibility for it,” he said.

Trudeau said he was sorry he didn’t excuse himself from cabinet discussions about WE Charity, and also sorry he didn’t know more about the extent to which his family was involved with it.

What his apology didn’t cover was how this ended up in front of his cabinet in the first place, and the absence of red flags for him or his government — the crucial “what were you thinking” question that hangs over the entire story.

So while Trudeau’s words on Monday may have slightly cooled the ethics uproar that’s erupted in the midst of this pandemic, they won’t make it go away.

Significantly, his apology also offered no assurances for the future, and that’s important — this being his third brush with ethics investigations in his career as prime minister.

What has he learned about why this failed to set off ethical alarms from the outset? Monday’s me-not-WE apology didn’t quite cover that.

Trudeau’s regrets, for now, are intensely personal — maybe intentionally so. A larger, more expansive apology may not come until after the ethics commissioner’s inquiry.

It’s worth looking closely at how precise the prime minister was when he laid out where he’d gone wrong with WE and the proposal to have the charity handle nearly $1 billion in pandemic relief for students.

Trudeau did not say he was sorry about the idea, which he again said came from the public service, only that he didn’t officially bow out of the discussions about it.

“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions, given our family’s history. I am sincerely sorry about not having done that,” Trudeau said, going on to cite all the ways the government had been working with other charities on pandemic relief.

“But when it came to this organization and this program, the involvement I’d had in the past, and my family has, should have had me remove myself from those discussions.”

The most sincere, genuine part of Trudeau’s apology came when he was talking about how all of this has affected his mother, who has been very public — including at WE events — about her lifelong battles with mental illness.

“Obviously, I knew she worked with WE,” Trudeau said. “I didn’t know the details of how much she was getting paid by various organizations, but I should have, and I deeply regret that. What I also deeply regret is the fact that I have brought my mother into this situation in a way that is really unfair to her.”

Margaret Trudeau’s involvement with WE was definitely obvious. She and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau were together in London at a WE event in March, which is where the prime minister’s wife was believed to have contracted the COVID-19 virus that put the PM into isolation early in the pandemic.

“It’s not WE, it’s me,” may work as a break in the heat of this controversy, but those won’t be the last words in this fraught relationship.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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