WE Charity co-founder said PMO 'called' to award $900M student-grant program day after it was announced
OTTAWA – A co-founder of WE Charity claimed in a June 12 conference call that the Prime Minister’s Office contacted the organization directly in April to help implement a federal student volunteer grant program worth over $900 million. WE Charity is set to collect at least $19.5 million in fees to administer the program, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced questions over his and his family’s close links to WE Charity and how the contract was awarded.
In a recording of the video conference with various Canadian youth organizations obtained by the National Post, WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger told attendees that his organization was asked directly by the Prime Minister’s Office to help implement the new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) the day after it was first announced on April 22. When asked about the comment Tuesday, WE Charity told National Post that Kielburger “misspoke” and was never in contact with the PMO regarding the grant program. On Tuesday, the PMO also denied asking WE Charity to administer the CSSG.
“So myself, my team… had all watched this (April 22nd announcement), and the next day, the Prime Minister’s Office kindly called us and said, ‘you know that announcement we just made? Would you be interested in helping us actually implement it?’,” Kielburger told participants on the June 12 video conference, in which he reached out to community organizations to get involved in the student grant program.
“So after much consideration, we put up our hand and said, of course, we’re happy to be of assistance. This is really important at an important time,” he continued in the conference call recorded by a participant on the call, whom the Post is granting anonymity due to the participant’s fear of retribution.
On Tuesday, when contacted by National Post, Kielburger retracted the account he provided on the call. “Speaking loosely and enthusiastically, I incorrectly referred to the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, the outreach came from unelected officials at Employment and Social Development Canada. To be specific, contact came to We Charity the week of April 26th from a Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Skills and Employment Branch at Employment and Social Development Canada and various additional members of ESDC staff. In fact, all discussions came at the instigation of departmental officials and they led discussions with respect to contract and program parameters,” Kielburger said in an emailed statement to the Post.
The WE Charity co-founder’s initial statement has further raised concerns among those who have questioned the PMO’s involvement in the decision to outsource the $912-million student grant program to WE Charity — with whom Trudeau, his wife and his mother have had close ties for years.
“When I’m listening to (WE Charity) speak on this, it sounds to me that they’re really playing up their personal connections to the prime minister. The prime minister needs to explain how those connections work, because it certainly sounds from what WE Charity was telling their inner circle is that they were called directly, they had the inside track. It was all golden for them,” said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
Duff Conacher, of the accountability watchdog group Democracy Watch, said he thinks WE Charity’s explanation that Kielburger accidentally misspoke is “not plausible.”
“It’s totally different to have a Prime Minister’s Office call you as opposed to someone in the bureaucracy,” Conacher said. “I just don’t believe he would be confusing that, because they’ve received grants and contracts from government departments. So they know the difference between the government department and the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Since last week, Justin Trudeau has repeated that the public service, not his office, had determined that WE Charity was the only organization capable of administering the program. He has not clarified if that determination was made before or after the April 22 press conference. But transcripts of his announcement, as well as the ministerial briefing an hour later, show no record of WE Charity’s involvement in the CSSG grant program.
In fact, the first time the government mentions that the CSSG will be administered by WE Charity is in a briefing document provided to media on June 25, two months after the initial announcement, and two weeks after Kielburger told other charitable leaders on the video conference that his WE Charity organization had been selected to run the program.
Trudeau has defended the exclusive CSSG contract award by claiming that government bureaucrats had determined WE Charity was the only feasible option. “We needed to have a partner to help establish the networks and to deliver that with all partners across the country. And as the public service dug into it, they came back with only one organization that was capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it and that was the WE program,” Trudeau told reporters during a press conference last Friday.
“The WE Charities are evaluated by our public service as being the best and only organization able to deliver on this scale that we need to make sure that young people have service opportunities this summer,” he repeated on Monday.
Trudeau and his family have close ties to that organization, and have volunteered for it regularly in the last decade. Trudeau has regularly attended or hosted the organization’s annual WE Day, a stadium-sized rally for Canadian youth, between 2012 and 2017.
His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is a WE ambassador, hosts a podcast for the WE organization and attended a WE Day event in London, England in March with her daughter and Margaret Trudeau, the prime minister’s mother, who has also served as a WE ambassador.
In the call with community groups, Kielburger later explains that the CSSG remains a government initiative that WE Charity is only “helping to implement,” calling it a “white-label solution.”
In marketing terms, a white label generally refers to an unlabelled product or service produced by one organization that is then relabelled by another organization to make it appear as a product of the second organization. Kielburger’s explanation did not clarify whether he meant the white label was for the federal government or for the WE Charity.
The National Post reported earlier this week that WE Charity had received a series of exclusively sole-source contracts worth a total of $120,000 from the federal government over the last three years, according to a database of government contracts. Four of the five contracts have been in the last 15 months, with the most recent — and largest, until now, at $40,000 — dated January 2020.
Aside from contracts, WE Charity also received nearly $5.2 million in grants and contributions from various federal departments under the Trudeau government, starting in 2017, five times the amount of grants and contributions it received from the federal government between 2012 and 2016 ($1 million) under another name, Kids Can Free The Children.