This spring, Canadians were plunged into the worst crisis of our generation. Even now, people are getting sick and being hospitalized, and unfortunately, too many are dying from COVID-19. Families are still grieving, losing their jobs or going through very challenging and worrisome times.
Our government had to take action. Our country had to deal with a contagious and deadly virus. Each person's behaviour and decisions could protect or compromise everyone's health. All Canadians had to take action to limit the spread of the virus, but that called for considerable sacrifices.
People had to be able to count on their government. We could not ask them to stay home and avoid going to work without assuring them that we would help them pay for their rent, their mortgage or their groceries.
We knew it was better to take quick and decisive action, even if that meant making mistakes along the way. Taking action slowly while trying to avoid mistakes at all cost would have been just as bad as doing nothing at all.
Given the pandemic and the economic crisis, the government had to be creative and flexible. We could not hesitate or limit ourselves to the normal ways of doing things. The pandemic is clearly not over, but the actions our government has taken have helped protect Canadians across the country.
Throughout the crisis, Canadians have been amazing. Canada is returning to normal. The economy is recovering, but there are still concerns, as we are witnessing the beginning of what could become a second wave. As Dr. Tam said earlier this week, this means that we must remain vigilant.
The pandemic presents a number of challenges for students. Minister discussed with your committee those challenges and what our government is doing to address them.
We have put forward a $9-billion plan to help students get through this difficult period. For example, we imposed a moratorium on student debt repayment, increased the number of summer jobs and introduced the emergency student benefit, which gives students $1,250 a month. The Canada student service grant was also part of that plan. The program was designed with three objectives in mind.
The first objective was to encourage students to get involved in their community during a crisis. The second objective was to help non-profit organizations fulfill their mission and support struggling Canadians. The third was to give students who volunteer financial compensation in recognition of their services.
From the outset, we knew that time was of the essence. After all, even if—
From the outset, we knew that time was of the essence. After all, even the best program imaginable wouldn't make any difference if it couldn't be delivered this summer. We had to quickly connect the thousands of students who wanted to volunteer with the many community organizations that needed an extra hand because of the pandemic.
At first we had hoped to use the Canada service corps. The Canada service corps was created in 2018 to encourage young people to serve and connect them to opportunities in communities across the country. By developing networks, creating partnerships with existing organizations and offering microgrants, the plan had always been to scale up the program over the coming years to ensure that many thousands of young people could serve their communities and their country every year.
When the Canada student service grant was initially conceived, I expected that the Canada service corps would help deliver the program. The service corps is an important and long-standing part of our national youth strategy, and I knew that making it responsible for the CSSG would accelerate its development. Ultimately, however, the public service concluded that delivering the CSSG required a third party partner external to government, and that WE Charity should act as that service provider.
I first learned that WE Charity was being proposed to deliver the program on May 8, when the CSSG was to go before full cabinet. Until that date, I had not spoken at all with my staff about WE Charity in relation to the CSSG. In fact, as of May 8 my expectation was still that a supercharged version of the Canada service corps would likely deliver the program. From my perspective, WE Charity hadn't come up.
As you know, by May 8 the public service had already concluded that WE Charity was the best option to deliver this program. They had formally recommended it. The CSSG, including the recommendation that WE Charity be used, had already gone through the COVID committee of cabinet on May 5. I was not involved in either of those steps.
On May 8 I received a briefing before the cabinet meeting and learned for the first time that WE Charity had been recommended as a partner and was on the cabinet agenda. I asked why the plan didn't involve the Canada service corps. We were told that the Canada service corps wouldn't be able to scale up to deliver the program in time. This was disappointing but ultimately not surprising to me, given my understanding of the state of the Canada service corps' development and other demands facing the public service at the time.
Of course, policy staff in my office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments. They knew that WE Charity was under consideration. However, I never spoke with my staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in administering this program until May 8. I also never spoke to Craig or Marc Kielburger, or anyone at WE Charity, about the CSSG. I did not speak to either of them at all during this period.
As it became apparent to me, my chief of staff, Katie Telford, also didn't know until the briefing on May 8 that WE Charity was being proposed. My chief of staff and I were finding out about this important part of the proposal only hours before the cabinet meeting. Even given the rapid pace of work during the crisis, this was not the way things were supposed to go.
We learned that there had been tough questions asked about the CSSG proposal and WE Charity during the COVID committee a few days earlier. We both felt that we needed more time before this item was presented to cabinet—time to consider and understand the reasons behind the proposal that WE Charity deliver the program. On that issue we had several questions that we wanted answered, particularly given my specific expertise in youth issues.
During the pandemic, the government was working very hard and very quickly. We still are. It was not uncommon for me to be briefed on something relatively close in time to the cabinet meeting. Here, however, given the scale of the program, the questions that had been raised and my own commitment to youth issues, we needed more time. As well, we both knew that WE Charity was known to be connected to people in our government, including myself, as I had spoken at their events in the past. We knew that the selection of WE Charity would be closely scrutinized. We wanted to make sure that the process and decision were the best possible in the circumstances, so I decided to pull the CSSG proposal from the cabinet agenda for May 8 so that further work could be done.
This wasn't an easy decision. We knew the urgency. By the end of April, many university students had finished their exams. We were already a week into May, but we pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be confident that we were doing the right thing the right way.
My primary concern was to make sure that the public service could fully support its recommendation that, without a doubt, WE Charity was the right and indeed the only partner to deliver the program. I was briefed again on May 21 and the public service told me that they had done the due diligence we had asked for and that they were confident in the recommendation. In effect, they said that, if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity.
The choice was not between providers. It was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or not going ahead with the program at all. Given the public service advice, I was comfortable that the CSSG could now be presented to cabinet.
On May 22, presented the program to cabinet, and cabinet approved it. After cabinet approved the CSSG, the next step was to approve its funding. Here, the briefing note from policy staff in my office recommended imposing an additional oversight measure in the disbursal of the approved funding. I agreed with that recommendation and directed that, before additional tranches of funding were released, Minister Chagger would have to write to the to provide an update on the CSSG.
When cabinet approved the CSSG, obviously I knew that I had spoken at various WE Charity events. I'd never been paid to do so. I was also aware that my wife had an unpaid role as a WE Charity ambassador and ally. I knew she appeared at WE Charity events and that when she travelled to get to an event, WE Charity covered her related expenses. I also knew that Sophie had recently launched a podcast on mental wellness in conjunction with WE Charity. The Ethics Commissioner had approved this role, including WE Charity covering her expenses.
I also knew that my brother and mother had worked with WE Charity as well as with other organizations. However, I did not know how much work either of them had done with WE Charity or how much they had been paid. These were things that I would only learn after the program launched publicly.
That said, sometimes recusing oneself can be the right thing to do even if it's not required. Here, my mother's connection to WE Charity and the other connections in my family could lead some people to wonder whether those connections had played some role in the decision to select WE Charity. That, of course, was not the case.
WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation. I didn't even know it had been made until May 8, and when I learned that WE Charity was recommended, I pushed back. I wanted to be satisfied that the proposal that WE Charity deliver the CSSG had been properly scrutinized.
As I said, I should have recused myself from that decision to avoid any appearance of favouritism. I know that appearances can hurt a good program, and that is of course exactly what happened in this case. It's really a shame, especially since this program could have been very important for students and our communities.
To conclude, there was never any direction by or attempt to influence from me or my staff that the public service recommend WE Charity. Getting young people to serve has been a goal of mine well before I ever got into politics, so I deeply regret how this has unfolded.
It's now July 30. Our government is delivering an up-to-$9 billion aid package for students. Unfortunately, the grant for volunteer service is unlikely to be part of the package this summer, and that is something that I regret.
I'm pleased now to take any of your questions.
Thank you, Prime Minister.
Before we go to questions, on Mr. Morantz's point and also for relevance, I remind the committee of the original motion. It says, “as part of its study on COVID-19, hold hearings...to examine how much the government spent in awarding the $912 million sole-source contract to WE Charity, and how the outsourcing of the Canada Student Service Grant to WE Charity proceeded as far as it did”.
To Mr. Morantz's point, and I think you are aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, given the way questions work in the House of Commons—I call it the COVID-19 questioning experience—each member is allocated so much time. We will stick to six minutes for the first round and five for the second today, for questions and answers. As for the process, if there's an eight-second question, we expect the answer to be eight seconds. I will try to track that on my iPad, but I may be a little off from time to time. There will no doubt be interruptions of the witness, the Prime Minister, by the chair and probably by members as well so that we stick to those rules.
In the first round of questions, we'll have Mr. Poilievre, followed by a splitting of time between Mr. Fragiskatos and Ms. Koutrakis, and then Mr. Fortin and Mr. Angus.
Mr. Poilievre, the floor is yours for six minutes.
First of all, thank you for the question.
Obviously yes, during a time of pandemic things are accelerated, and as I said from the beginning and as I have said throughout this pandemic in all my press conferences, we have moved quickly to try to get help out to people as fast as we could, as flexibly as we could and would fix those mistakes as we went on. There was an understanding that if we waited until everything was perfect before doing anything, far too many Canadians would suffer and, because of the health emergency, even die. We needed to act quickly.
That is certainly part of the context, but I don't think it's the whole reason as to why I didn't recuse myself. Youth issues are something I've been deeply involved with through all my career. I care deeply about the idea of youth service and seeing young people be able to help in their communities with organizations across the country.
This proposal mattered to me, and instead of encouraging it along, as some people say, because it was somehow connected to my family, I actually slowed it down and pushed back on it to try to make sure that everything was done exactly right, because I knew there would be questions asked because of the links to the family.
In no way was this benefiting my mother or my brother, to be creating a grant program for students to volunteer in their communities right across the country.
Good afternoon, members of the finance committee. I would first like to thank all of you for your important work and for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions here today on the implementation of the Canada student service grant.
Let me start by saying that this is a remarkable time. From the day we learned that a Canadian had contacted COVID-19 to what is happening during the time period you're interested in, this pandemic, which we are still fighting, represents a once-in-a-generation challenge for our country.
I started working for the after my maternity leave, and what a journey it has been. I ran his leadership campaign in 2012-13 and went on to lead the 2015 campaign, and I have been his chief of staff ever since. Unbelievably, my son just turned nine.
Some of you may know that I am a person interested in data. Data has always helped me to assess what we are doing well and what we need to do better. These past few months, every day I woke up to some very alarming statistics, as we all were. They were more than statistics: hundreds of people dead because of COVID-19; hundreds of people were applying for the CERB because they had lost their job; millions of families were going through a really tough time; millions of women in lower-wage jobs were being especially hurt, and women's participation in our economy being set back.
Every day, daily projections were telling us and still tell us that if we weren't and aren't successful in slowing the spread of the virus, things would get much worse.
The Prime Minister's job is to help Canadians in need. I am his chief of staff, so my job is to support him in everything he does. I've been in politics for quite a while now, and this pandemic is a challenge unlike any in history.
Having the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives is very rewarding. Since the beginning of the crisis, we've announced a host of support measures to protect Canadians' health, to help those who lost their jobs and to prepare for the economic recovery.
We acted as fast as we could, knowing we might make mistakes along the way because people were really struggling, so we needed to move quickly. Take the emergency response benefit or the Canada emergency wage subsidy, for example. We'd already announced these programs when we realized that we needed to make them more accessible, more generous and simpler, but job one was to get these programs out the door to help people.
When we realized that improvements were needed, we made changes. The CERB and the wage subsidy have since helped millions of Canadians right across the country. Moreover, back in April, our government announced a $9-billion plan to help young people get through the pandemic. It included measures such as the Canada emergency student benefit, deferring student loans and, yes, the Canada student summer grant.
I want to go back to the first time we discussed a potential aid package for students. On April 5 there was a meeting by phone, as they all were at that time, between the Prime Minister and the . It was a stock-take on the entirety of our government's ongoing economic response to the pandemic.
There were 15 decision points on the Canada emergency wage subsidy that Sunday evening, and it was being announced the next day. That was the focus of the call. We also talked about an orphan well program for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland to help workers in the energy sector who had been hit especially hard by the crisis.
At the end of that conversation, the spoke about gaps he had identified in existing programs like the CERB. We knew that some people were still falling through the cracks, people like seniors, seasonal workers and, yes, students.
At the time, the Ministry of Finance was thinking about some form of financial assistance, more Canada summer jobs and a moratorium on student loan payments. We also talked about using the Canada service corps to encourage and support young people who wanted to volunteer and help their community during this pandemic. That was a very brief part of a larger conversation, and everyone agreed that there was more work to do.
Just a few weeks later, after a lot of hard work by many people across the government, the Prime Minister announced a $9-billion aid package for students that included the items I just listed. The Canada summer student grant program was one-tenth of that package.
When I think back to that time, it was at the end of April that the public service informed us, in a briefing note, that an outside organization could be used to administer the Canada student service grant program. Questions had been raised about the government's capacity to implement such a program and about whether we could provide financial compensation directly to students.
However, it was only on May 8 that I saw for the first time, along with the Prime Minister, the 's proposal to have WE Charity administer the program. The recommendation prepared by the public service had been examined and approved by the special cabinet committee on May 5, and we had a quick glance at it for the first time before the cabinet meeting on May 8, at which, the recommendation was supposed to be ratified.
As the Prime Minister mentioned in his opening statement, both of us had concerns. That's why, on May 8, we took the Canada student service grant off the agenda for the committee meeting. The Prime Minister, whose commitment to helping youth precedes his involvement in politics, and I both had questions. We wanted more information on the effectiveness of such a program and the use of an outside organization to administer it. To be perfectly frank, we were worried about how it would be perceived. We work in politics, so it matters how our decisions are perceived. We sought assurance from the public service that WE was indeed the only organization with the capacity to administer the program and that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, WE was the right partner for this initiative.
When the funding note was approved, the Prime Minister added a stipulation to the effect that, should the program be expanded, the minister had to submit a written request to the President of the Treasury Board for additional funding.
This proposal to help students was recommended by the public service. This was not a choice between different organizations to deliver the program; this was a choice between going forward with the program or not.
I will add that we had previously received the Ethics Commissioner's approval for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's work engagement with the WE Charity, so I wasn't aware of any conflict.
You have heard the say that he regrets not recusing himself. I have regrets about that too. Obviously, this didn't happen as we intended it to, and this is not what we had envisioned, and I share in that responsibility.
Over the past few weeks I have thought a lot about this program. I have thought about what we could do better, and how we could apply lessons we've learned going forward. In hindsight, I recognize that while we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better. We could have done more. We could have added yet another layer of scrutiny to avoid any potential perception of favouritism.
Mr. Chair, I work with a team of committed, hard-working individuals. We're not perfect, but we are committed to being better and to doing more and, perhaps most importantly right now, we remain committed to serving and supporting as many Canadians as we can, as quickly as we can.
As the daughter of retired public servants, I have the utmost respect, not only for public service but also for those who choose it as a career. I want to take this moment to thank them and my colleagues for the work they continue to do under especially challenging circumstances. I believe that we all get into public service to help others—and what a time it is for all of us to be doing that. We thought that renegotiating NAFTA was a challenge. Well, this pandemic, I am sure, is the challenge of our generation and of my life. To have the chance to take up this work during this time, with this team, under the leadership of this has been and remains a privilege.
With that, I'm pleased to take your questions.
Ms. Telford, thank you for being here and for the work you've done in these past few months.
First of all, Mr. Chair, it would have been good if Mr. Poilievre had read the blues from the meeting we had the other day. I have those blues in front of me. He was trying to connect dots that, frankly, do not exist. Let me quote from those blues.
Ms. Dzerowicz asked the question to Marc Kielburger, and I'll quote her as follows: “There is another thing that I'm a bit unclear about. I see the contribution in front of me”—that's the contribution agreement, Mr. Chair—“and it was signed on May 5. Was it signed on May 5; or did the agreement begin on May 5? If you could, just explain the logistics around all of that.”
Marc Kielburger replied with the following: “Thank you for asking. The agreement technically began on May 5. We were working in advance with ESDC on putting resources to help develop the program. The turnaround time was so tight and we were, of course, so passionate about helping young people at this time that we got to work right away with the full risk and understanding that if this agreement did not go forward we would be at the financial risk of doing so. We accepted that risk because we really wanted to help.”
That's directly from the blues, Mr. Chair. Obviously the organization made the decision of its own volition to proceed on May 5. I wanted to clear that up because, as I said, Mr. Poilievre is trying to weave things out of thin air, as he often does.
Leaving that aside, I actually do want to go back to the meeting, if I could, Ms. Telford. I'm talking about the meeting to which the Kielburgers both came. I'll quote from that meeting as well.
They said in their introductory remarks.... I believe it was Craig Kielburger and I'll quote him here now:
As per the contribution agreement, WE Charity would only be reimbursed for its costs to build and administer the program. To be clear, there was no financial benefit for the charity. WE Charity would not have received any financial gain from the CSSG program—
That's the Canada student service grant program, of course.
—and it's...incorrect to say otherwise.
Ms. Telford, does that correspond with your understanding?
I just want to say, for Canadians who may find it hard to believe, that civil servants and cabinet ministers and everybody, including a bunch of us on this screen, worked 20-hour days, seven days a week, at the beginning of the pandemic. We all witnessed it.
I don't want to let the remark that you made, Ms. Telford, go forward without corroboration. You guys all worked.... You were killing yourselves in this period, but that doesn't mean we can't investigate.
I find it hard to believe that the Prime Minister was.... I'm not doubting that he did, actually; I just want to know. He seems very convinced that he thought Canada service corps was going to deliver this program up until May 8. He'd announced it on April 22. From the testimony of civil servants, including Rachel Wernick, we knew that they were considering WE before the announcement, at least a week before the announcement, and that on May 5, as we know, took it to the COVID committee, clearly putting the WE Charity as the agency to deliver this.
Can you explain how it's possible...? Did no one want to tell the Prime Minister, to burst his bubble and tell him, that his favourite operation, Canada service corps, was just not going to be able to do it? Why did no one tell him before May 8 that Canada service corps was out of it and WE Charity was delivering the program?