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View Wayne Easter Profile
Lib. (PE)
View Wayne Easter Profile
2020-07-30 15:02
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I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 47 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. We are meeting on government spending, the WE Charity and the Canada student service grant. Today's meeting is taking place by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons' website.
I'd now like to welcome the Prime Minister.
Prime Minister, we certainly welcome you and thank you for accepting our invitation to appear before the committee. I was informed, just a few minutes ago, that you've been able to reassign your schedule somewhat so that you can spend at least 90 minutes with us. We appreciate that very much.
With that, I will turn the meeting over to you for your opening remarks, Prime Minister. I believe we'll try to hold you to 10 minutes, and then we'll go to questions.
Welcome, and thank you.
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
Thank you, Chair.
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 Chagger 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—
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View Marty Morantz Profile
CPC (MB)
Mr. Chair, I have a point of order.
I just want to clarify. As per your ruling on Tuesday, July 28, when you said, “If it were politicians, then we'd get into the four-second, four-second”, I just want you to confirm that for this round there will be strict adherence to the practice of equal time for questions and answers.
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View Wayne Easter Profile
Lib. (PE)
View Wayne Easter Profile
2020-07-30 15:07
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I will allow it as a point of order.
I will explain this when we start questioning, Mr. Morantz. The answer to it is really yes, but I will explain to the witness why we're under COVID-19 rules, basically.
Mr. Prime Minister.
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
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, Minister Chagger 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 President of the Treasury Board 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.
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View Wayne Easter Profile
Lib. (PE)
View Wayne Easter Profile
2020-07-30 15:18
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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.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:19
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Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Prime Minister.
What is the total dollar value of all the expenses reimbursed, fees paid to and any other consideration provided by the WE group to you, your mother, your spouse, your brother and any other member of your family? I'd like just the total, please.
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
I don't have that exact figure. Reimbursing expenses is something done by an organization, for example, so I don't have those totals.
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View Julie Dzerowicz Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Julie Dzerowicz Profile
2020-07-30 15:20
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Mr. Chair, I have a point of order.
What's the relevance of these questions on ancillary fees paid to family members, given the official motion?
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View Wayne Easter Profile
Lib. (PE)
View Wayne Easter Profile
2020-07-30 15:20
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I don't think that's a point of order, Ms. Dzerowicz.
We'll go back to Mr. Poilievre.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:20
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You're telling me you don't know how much immediate family members have been paid in expense reimbursements by this organization.
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
My mother and my brother are professionals in their own right who have engagements, and have for many years, with many different—
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:21
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Do you know?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
—organizations across the country. I don't have the details of their work experiences or their expenses.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:21
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What about your spouse? What is the dollar figure?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
I think WE Charity has been able to share those dollar figures with you.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:21
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When was the last time she had an expense reimbursed by WE Charity?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
I believe it would have been for the trip to London, where she spoke at WE, but those expenses were cleared in advance by the Ethics Commissioner.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:21
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How much were those expenses?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
I don't have that number in front of me.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:21
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Mr. Prime Minister, it's very hard to believe you don't have that number. You've been embroiled in this scandal for over a month now and these kinds of questions have been asked repeatedly.
I asked this of you in the House of Commons weeks ago. You've had time to get it, so I'll ask again. How much was your spouse reimbursed by WE for her recent trip to London?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
To give an example, a plane ticket that was booked for her flight to London wasn't something she would have paid for to be reimbursed—
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:22
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What about a hotel?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
—by the charity. The WE Charity would have actually paid for that ticket itself, so we wouldn't have those answers on our credit cards, for example.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:22
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So you don't have any idea how much the WE Charity paid for your spouse to travel to London.
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
Over the past number of months, I've been involved in serving Canadians—
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:22
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How much?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
—and focused on that, but I know that WE Charity has shared those expenses and you've had the opportunity to talk to them.
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View Pierre Poilievre Profile
CPC (ON)
View Pierre Poilievre Profile
2020-07-30 15:23
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They have not shared those expenses, Prime Minister. They have refused to tell us the itemized expenses for that trip. They didn't even confirm she was on that trip.
What hotel did they pay for her to stay at?
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View Justin Trudeau Profile
Lib. (QC)
I don't know.
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