TORONTO — Canadians are lifting their heads from the exhausting struggle with the coronavirus to watch a political spectacle that is increasingly familiar — their prime minister, Justin Trudeau, under fire for questionable ethical decisions, and the opposition parties calling for him to step down.
This time — in an unusual move for a Canadian prime minister — he will answer questions before a parliamentary committee. The subject will be his cabinet’s vote to award a no-bid contract overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars for an emergency youth volunteer program to WE Charity, a group intricately tied to not only Mr. Trudeau’s family, but also to his finance minister, Bill Morneau.
Mr. Trudeau’s wife and brother earned more than $200,000 over the past four years for speaking engagements with the charity. Mr. Morneau’s daughter works there, and his family has traveled overseas with the charity twice in recent years.
Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have apologized for not recusing themselves from the cabinet decision. Both are under investigation by the country’s ethics commissioner.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau is scheduled to appear before the standing finance committee to answer questions, followed by his chief of staff.
“People who never watch these committee meetings will be watching,” said Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who is among the rapt viewers who have blocked off hours to see the unfolding testimonies.
“It’s very rare to see a prime minister come before a committee,” she said.
The question many are asking is whether Mr. Trudeau’s testimony before the highly partisan committee will open more pointed questions about his actions and lengthen an investigation he has no control over — or whether he’ll again work his magic to regain the narrative, subdue the media frenzy and halt the damage done to his polling numbers.
“He’s not controlling the agenda on any of this,” said Darrell Bricker, the chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs, an international polling and market research firm in Toronto. “It’s really thin ice.”
Still, the country’s general satisfaction with the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has remained high, at 73 percent, according to one poll this week.
At the very least, though, Canadians will be left asking about Mr. Trudeau’s judgment when it comes to conflict-of-interest issues, particular since he was already found by the ethics commissioner to have breached conflict laws twice since becoming prime minister five years ago.
“There’s a pattern here that is a very sloppy pattern,” said Janice Stein, the founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “The ballot box question is will Canadians punish a prime minister who is sloppy on these issues, but not corrupt?”
The story has unfolded since late June, when the Trudeau government announced it had awarded the job of administering an emergency summer program for youth volunteers, worth up to 912 million Canadian dollars, to the WE Charity.
The brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the charity as teenagers, working out of their parents’ home. Since then, it has grown into a network of organizations that have built schools and wells in countries like Kenya and Nicaragua.
But it is best known for inspiring young Canadians to get involved in social justice issues through school programs and huge concert-like events featuring motivational speakers, including Prince Harry, Malala Yousafzai, Mr. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
The charity says the Trudeaus volunteered their time and were never paid, with one exception in 2012, when Ms. Gregoire Trudeau received about $1,000 for a speaking engagement. Mr. Trudeau was not prime minister at the time.
But it did pay Mr. Trudeau’s brother Alexandre, a filmmaker, and mother, Margaret, the country’s former first lady, for speaking over the past four years on behalf of the charity at various events. The Kielburger brothers said attracting sponsors for these events was their main way of raising money.
Witnesses told the committee in recent days that Mr. Trudeau was not involved in selecting the charity to administer the program, which involved overseeing up to 100,000 students volunteering for public service jobs. That decision, they said, was made by officials at the apolitical public service, and the cabinet simply approved.
WE was to have received as much as 43.5 million Canadian dollars to run the program, according to documents released this week. But after the controversy erupted, the government announced it was taking the program back, and the Kielburgers said they would return all the money.
The program is still on hold.
Hours before Mr. Morneau, the finance minister, was set to testify before the committee, he announced he had written a check to the charity for 41,366 Canadian dollars, stating that he hadn’t realized he and his family had not paid the full fare for the two trips they took with the organization.
He also disclosed that his family had donated 100,000 Canadian dollars to the charity in recent years.
“You don’t donate $100,000, take trips with a charity and have a daughter who works there and not know there’s a conflict of interest,” said Duff Conacher, the co-founder of a nonprofit watchdog organization, Democracy Watch, which is calling for a criminal investigation.
“This is a story about how every government has friends, those friends help them get elected and promote them, and then the government wants to help those friends because they will promote and boost them more,” he said.
The committee has not heard any evidence that Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Morneau stood to financially benefit from the contract, several political experts pointed out. If there has been any damage, it has been in optics — in members of the prime minister’s family earning money from a group that was later awarded a government contract.
“I haven’t seen anything to lead me to believe there may have been corruption, as in somebody lining their pockets,” said Ian Greene, co-editor of the book “Honest Politics Now,” and an emeritus professor at York University in Toronto.
“If Trudeau had said to the Kielburgers, ‘I really like what you are doing for my mother and brother, we’ll get you the contract, and I want you to do everything you can to support us in the upcoming election,’ that would be a criminal breach of trust,” he said. “I don’t see any evidence that something like that has happened.”
Canadians have been generally happy with the Trudeau government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. But in recent weeks, since news about the charity has continually made the front pages, his approval rating has fallen. It is unclear whether that is a blip or the start of a trend.
“People have concerns about this, but they have so many other issues right now,” said Jean-Marc Léger, the chief executive of the Léger polling firm based in Montreal. “They are worried about the pandemic, the economic crisis, relations with the United States.”
The Kielburger brothers maintain they would have made no profit from the contract.
Because of the intense scrutiny over the past few weeks, many big sponsors have cut ties with WE — the organization has called the decisions mutual — and former staff members have poured out stories on social media about the charity’s “culture of fear.”
Craig Kielburger said the unfolding controversy might “destroy” the organization.
“Frankly, there are days that we wish that we never answered the phone,” when the government called asking them “to help,” he told the committee near the grueling end of the brothers’ four-hour appearance.
Ms. Turnbull said she expected lawmakers to be restrained with Mr. Trudeau out of respect for his office, and anticipating his own well-honed political acumen.
“There is nothing but gain for him here,” she said. “He’ll go in and have the final word on everything.”
She added, that while his appearance before the committee was unusual, it played to his own strengths as a deft, even-tempered communicator.
“This is his jam,” she said.
Published at Thu, 30 Jul 2020 12:33:23 +0000