Trudeau says he didn’t offer charity preferential treatment

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he did not intervene to make sure a charity his family did paid work for would win a government contract.

Trudeau has apologized and said again that he should have recused himself from a Cabinet decision to award a contract to administer money to students having trouble finding work due to the pandemic. The prime minister made a rare parliamentary committee appearance.

The almost billion-dollar program came under scrutiny after it was revealed that We Charity, an organization Trudeau’s family has worked for, was chosen to administer it. Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother have been paid a combined $300,000 Canadian (US$221,000) for speaking at a number of WE events.

“We Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else,” said Trudeau, who noted it was the government public service that recommended the government award the contract to We Charity. “I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation.”

Trudeau said when he learned that We Charity was recommended he “pushed back.”

“When the issue of We came forward my concern was to push back on it, to delay it from Cabinet so that more due diligence could happen. Looking back on it it would have been better for perception’s sake that I had simply stepped away and not been involved at all,” Trudeau said. “None of this program was going to benefit any members of my family.”

Canada’s ethics commissioner is investigating Trudeau over the matter. It is the third ethics investigation Trudeau has faced.

Under pressure, the government and the charity on July 3 terminated their deal. Students could volunteer up to 500 hours of work with community organizations to earn the maximum $5,000 Canadian (US$3,668) toward their postsecondary education costs.

Canada’s federal ethics commissioner said Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules in 2016 when he vacationed over Christmas at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan. He was not sanctioned or penalized.

“Trudeau will weather this scandal because the public is preoccupied with the pandemic,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

But Wiseman said Trudeau’s popularity has taken a hit and he expects support for the opposition Conservatives to rise significantly after they select their new leader in the fall. He said it’s possible there could be rumblings within Trudeau’s own party to select a new leader next year if the Conservatives overtake the Liberals in the polls.

“The Liberals are still the default option for the largest number of Canadians. However, by the time of the next election, probably in 2022, Trudeau will have been prime minister for seven years, have a fair amount of baggage, and there will be more appetite for change,” Wiseman said. “He might very well decide to step down before then but certainly not this year or because of this current scandal.”