OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he initially pushed back when he learned the public service had chosen WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant, knowing his family's connections with the organization would lead to significant scrutiny.
"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," Trudeau said Thursday.
"When I learned that WE charity was recommended, I pushed back."
Trudeau has long-standing ties to the WE organization and several of his relatives — his wife, brother and mothers — have been paid to appear at its events.
In a rare prime ministerial appearance before the House of Commons finance committee Thursday, Trudeau said both he and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, first learned that WE Charity had been selected to run the grant program on May 8, mere hours before a cabinet meeting where it was to be discussed.
That was days after a group of other ministers first heard about the need to let the charity run the program.
Trudeau said he wanted more due diligence done on the plan before it went to cabinet for approval, so he pulled the item from that day's cabinet agenda.
"I wanted to make sure all the Is were dotted and all the Ts were crossed," he said, "because of the connections with my family."
Trudeau said he had originally expected the Canada Service Corps to deliver the program, which would have given grants to students and graduates for volunteering to help with lost job opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown.
However, the public service advised the Canada Service Corps, a youth volunteer service program created by the Liberals in 2018, was unable to scale up fast enough to deliver the emergency grant program in time to help students affected by the struggling economy this year.
That's why the public service came back on May 21 to reaffirm its recommendation that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program, Trudeau said.
"In effect, they said that if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity," Trudeau said.
"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."
He also stressed he never spoke with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger at any point through the approval process, and when he learned of the public service's recommendation to contract WE, he knew the public would have questions about his family's ties to the organization.
That was the point at which he should have recused himself from the decision on the contract, Trudeau said.
After cabinet approved the WE deal on May 22, additional oversight measures were recommended by staff in the Prime Minister's Office for the dispersal of the approved funding, he said.
Trudeau agreed and a process was implemented mandating Youth Minister Bardish Chagger to provide a written update to the president of the Treasury Board on the grant program each time funds were disbursed.
WE has since backed out of the deal, citing the political controversy.
The Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer, Trudeau said.
"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."
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre had a few tense back-and-forth exchanges, pressing the prime minister to say how much WE Charity has paid in speaking fees or expenses for members of Trudeau's family.
WE has previously confirmed that Trudeau's mother, Margaret Trudeau, was paid about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020 and his brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events.
The Kielburger brothers testified Tuesday that Trudeau's wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has participated in seven WE Days and received an average of $3,618 for each event, to cover her expenses. That works out to $25,326 in total.
Trudeau acknowledged his family's involvement with WE, and stressed that his wife's unpaid work with WE on a podcast on mental wellness, as well as expenses covered by the organization, had been cleared by the ethics commissioner.
The Conservatives have called on federal ethics watchdog Mario Dion to widen his probe of Trudeau to include these expenses.
On Wednesday, Dion sent letters to Conservative and NDP MPs saying he is widening his investigations Finance Minister Bill Morneau over trips he and his family participated in that were sponsored by the WE organization.
Morneau told the Commons finance committee last week he had freshly repaid WE Charity more than $41,000 in expenses for trips his family took in 2017 to see and take part in some of the organization's humanitarian work.
Trudeau said he didn't know Morneau had travelled with WE or that one of his daughters worked there.
Appearing after Trudeau, Telford told the committee she too regrets the way this program was handled, and has reflected many times how they could have added more levels of scrutiny.
"We could have done more," Telford said.
"We're not perfect but we are committed to doing more."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press