OTTAWA — The Conservatives said Friday they want a criminal investigation into the Liberal government’s decision to have the WE organization run a $900-million program for student volunteers.
Their call for police to step in comes after it was revealed that the group has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family.
Trudeau is already under investigation by the ethics commissioner for potential conflict of interest with regard to the contract, as his long-standing family ties to the group are well known.
But that review was launched prior to revelations the prime minister’s mother, brother and wife have been paid in the past by the WE organization.
“The revelation that $350,000 in cash was paid by this organization to immediate members of Justin Trudeau’s family, that organization that he awarded a sole-sourced $1 billion contract to, that revelation raises the need for the police to take a look at it,” Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said Friday.
The WE organization said Thursday that it had paid Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020.
His brother, Alexandre Trudeau, has been paid $32,000 for eight events, according to WE. The organization that represents them as speakers was paid additional commissions, WE said.
And Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, received $1,400 in 2012 for a single appearance that year.
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Most of the payments went from the for-profit component of the organization called ME to WE Social Enterprise, which sponsors the charitable component, WE Charity said in a statement.
About $64,000 went from WE Charity to Margaret Trudeau’s speaker’s bureau because of “an error in billing / payment” that WE said was later corrected.
“Justin Trudeau has never been paid by WE Charity or ME to WE Social Enterprise for any speeches or any other matters,” WE Charity said.
Trudeau has maintained the non-partisan public service recommended WE to administer the Canada Student Services Grant program, though did acknowledge he did not recuse himself from the cabinet approval of the deal.
Trudeau’s office said Thursday said “the prime minister’s relatives engage with a variety of organizations and support many personal causes on their own accord.”
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said late Thursday that Trudeau should step aside until the matter is fully probed, turning power over to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The Conservatives did not echo that call on Friday, suggesting it is up to the Liberal caucus to look itself in the mirror and decide what should happen with their leadership. Liberal cabinet ministers must also reveal what they knew and when, Barrett said.
Barrett also said his party does not intend to try to bring down the minority Liberals over the scandal.
“We’re not looking to bring down the government on this issue,” he said.
“We’re looking to get the truth and accountability.”
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The section of the Criminal Code the Conservatives are suggesting could apply in this case is the same one that was once used to charge former Conservative senator Mike Duffy in the Senate expenses scandal.
It deals with frauds on the government, and creates offences related to government officials, or their families, benefiting from government contracts.
Duffy had been charged under this section for taking a $90,000 cheque from then-chief of staff to the prime minister, Nigel Wright, to repay his housing expenses.
Duffy was found not guilty on that, and all, charges.
The volunteer program that began under WE’s management promises to pay students $1,000 toward upcoming education costs for every 100 hours of volunteer work they put in between now and early fall, through approved charities and non-profits.
Trudeau said in announcing WE as the program’s manager in late June that it was the only organization in Canada with the reach and expertise needed to run it properly.
Placements are uncertain now that WE has withdrawn and the government itself is taking the program over.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020.