The Latest: Trudeau testifies on WE and student-volunteer program

OTTAWA — The latest developments on July 30, 2020, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, appear before the House of Commons finance committee about the Liberal government's aborted deal with WE Charity to run a student-volunteer program. (All times Eastern.)

6:45 p.m.

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The House of Commons finance committee is wrapping up more than three hours of testimony as part of its probe of the government's aborted deal with WE to run a student-volunteer program.

Opposition Conservatives on the committee are raising questions about new details unveiled during the meeting.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff Katie Telford told the committee that they were first made aware of WE's involvement in the Canada Student Service Grant on May 8 and sent it back to the public service for more review.

Conservatives on the committee are wondering why the prime minister didn't previously mention this piece of information.

Opposition members are also seeking specifics on which staff members in the Prime Minister's Office dealt with the WE organization and copies of cabinet documents related to the WE decision.

6 p.m.

Katie Telford says the Prime Minister's Office will work with the federal ethics commissioner to make improvements and take any advice Mario Dion has on how to limit potential conflicts.

The top aide to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells MPs on the finance committee that the government needs to be careful and cognizant of even the perception of favouritism in federal decisions.

Dion has launched probes of Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau over their roles in awarding WE the administration of the Canada Student Service Grant program.

5:45 p.m.

A WE Charity proposal for a youth entrepreneurship program landed in the Prime Minister's Office in late April, but was quickly rejected.

The prime minister's chief of staff, Katie Telford, says the proposal was annex nine of a briefing package that arrived on April 20 ahead of a meeting the next day.

The proposal was to help some 8,000 youth open their own businesses and receive grants for taking part in a series of digital seminars at a cost of up to $14 million.

Telford says the government declined to follow through on the proposal because it seemed like something better suited for an economic recovery.

Telford says she didn't know that Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his family took part in WE-sponsored travel when the government was considering having the charity run the student-volunteer program.

She also says no one in the Prime Minister's Office was involved in negotiating the now-aborted agreement that would have paid WE Charity up to $43.5 million in an administrative fee.

Pressed by opposition MPs on the House of Commons finance committee about her connection to WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, Telford says the last time she spoke with either was at a Toronto event in December 2017.

5:15 p.m.

The prime minister's chief of staff says the only way the Canada Student Service Grant program could be delivered this summer was by having an outside organization like WE run it.

Katie Telford tells the House of Commons finance committee that the public service made that point during multiple briefings with the Prime Minister's Office.

Previously, the committee heard the opposite from the head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada who argued public servants could have delivered the program.

Facing questions about a potential conflict of interest for Trudeau, Telford notes the ethics commissioner had previously cleared Sophie Gregoire Trudeau's work with WE Charity.

Telford says she only knew that one of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's daughters spoke at WE events about her book on refugee girls, but not of another daughter who works in an administrative arm of the organization.

As for her own past involvement with the charity, Telford says neither she nor her family members have been compensated by the organization.

5 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's top aide says the government could have added an additional layer of scrutiny to the decision-making on WE Charity and the Canada Student Service Grant program.

Chief of staff Katie Telford tells the House of Commons finance committee that in hindsight, the government could have done multiple things that would have saved the student-volunteer program.

The opposition parties have argued that WE was given an inside track to administer the pandemic-aid program.

Telford also says one of the policy staff in the Prime Minister's Office spoke to WE in early May as part of routine stakeholder consultation, but directed the charity to officials at Employment and Social Development Canada.

She believes the conversation took place on May 5, which would be the same date a cabinet committee first heard about WE's involvement in the student-volunteer program.

Telford says neither she nor the prime minister learned that WE was recommended to administer the granting program until May 8.

4:40 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just wrapped up a 90-minute appearance before the House of Commons finance committee.

Left unanswered as Trudeau finished his testimony is how the Liberals will use the money budgeted for the student-volunteer program that the prime minister suggests won't be spent this summer.

The program carries a budget of $912 million, but officials and WE Charity itself estimated spending would be far lower.

He says the volunteer program was another way to promote youth service and the Liberals will continue to look for opportunities to do that.

He says decisions were being made on a condensed timeline with programs that would otherwise have taken months to create being pulled together in weeks.

The committee is now to hear from Trudeau's top aide, chief of staff Katie Telford.

Trudeau told the committee neither he nor Telford knew about WE's involvement with the student volunteer program until May 8, and both decided cabinet needed more information from the public service before making a final call.

4:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the choice facing cabinet ministers in May was whether or not to have the Canada Student Service Grant program.

He is arguing before the House of Commons finance committee that it wasn't a decision about whether to have WE Charity run the program.

The prime minister says the public service believed the student-volunteer program would have been impossible to deliver without the WE organization's involvement.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre says Trudeau should stop pinning things on the public service when it was cabinet that made spending decisions.

He calls on Trudeau to take personal responsibility for providing WE a deal that paid it $43.5 million to administer up to $500 million in grants.

4:10 p.m.

The lights apparently have gone out on Liberal MP Wayne Easter.

Easter, the chairman of the House of Commons finance committee, disappears from the virtual meeting for a few minutes when the power goes out at his office on Prince Edward Island.

Liberals on the committee move to suspend the meeting, but things move on and Easter eventually returns to the screen.

The moment breaks up a tense back-and-forth between Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Poilievre presses the prime minister to say how much WE Charity has paid in speaking fees or expenses for members of Trudeau's family.

They begin speaking over one another with Trudeau asking Poilievre on more than one occasion if he can answer the Opposition critic's questions.

4:00 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the country won't know whether going with WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant program was the right decision.

He says that's because the organization backed out of running the volunteer program.

Trudeau is seemingly taking the blame for that decision, by saying the outcome partly resulted from his taking part in discussions despite his family's involvement with WE.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett asks Trudeau which cabinet minister he plans to fire over the WE controversy, prompting the prime minister to say he has confidence in his cabinet.

3:55 p.m.

New Democrat Charlie Angus says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is giving an impression the laws governing politicians do not apply to him.

The longtime ethics critic says Trudeau has twice been found in violation of conflict-of-interest rules — first for a family trip he took to the Aga Khan's private island, and then during the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Angus says there has been a damage in trust with federal politicians because Trudeau didn't recuse himself when the government considered WE for the Canada Student Service Grant program.

Trudeau says it was the public service that made the decision to go with WE and he was not involved in that.

The two end on a testy note as they speak over one another, with the prime minister reaching the halfway mark of his 90-minute testimony at the House of Commons finance committee.

3:45 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says students volunteering this summer won't be getting any payments or recognition for those hours this summer.

His comments at the House of Commons finance committee suggest the student-volunteer program is effectively dead.

The prime minister says his government will look at other ways to support and increase young people volunteering across the country.

Trudeau didn't say what happens to the $912 million budgeted for the program, which officials expected to actually cost $543 million in grants and an administration fee to the WE organization.

Trudeau says he should have recused himself from cabinet discussions about the Canada Student Service Grant.

Trudeau says he was aware of some of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's familial ties to WE, but not that he travelled with WE or that one of his daughters worked for the organization.

The federal ethics commissioner is investigation Morneau for not recusing himself during discussions about the charity's involvement with the student program, as well as $41,000 in WE-sponsored travel expenses for family trips in 2017 that the finance minister paid back last week.

3:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he understands how his family's involvement with WE Charity could be perceived as having an influence over the organization's involvement in the student-volunteer program.

He says the perception and concern helps to explain why he sent the proposal back to the public service before a final cabinet decision in late May.

Trudeau says WE Charity didn't receive any preferential treatment when it came to having the organization administer the Canada Student Service Grant.

WE has paid speaking fees and covered travel expenses to the tune of about $500,000 for Trudeau's mother and brother, much of it since he became prime minister in late 2015.

More recently, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau had her WE-sponsored travel to the U.K. in March cleared by the federal ethics commissioner, the prime minister says.

When asked if he's friends with WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, Trudeau says he has not seen the brothers outside of public events like WE Day.

3:19 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Canada Student Service Grant is now unlikely to be part of the $9-billion student aid program Ottawa is rolling out this summer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opening remarks to the House of Commons finance committee today, the prime minister says he first learned about the proposal to have WE Charity run the student-volunteer program May 8.

That was days after a group of cabinet ministers first heard about the need to let the charity run the program and hours before a cabinet meeting.

Trudeau says this was not the way things were supposed to go.

The prime minister says he wanted more questions to be answered before cabinet made a final call and so he pulled the item from that day's cabinet agenda.

The public service, he says, came back on May 21 to reaffirm their decision that WE was the only organization that could run the student-volunteer program.

Trudeau had been scheduled to speak with the committee for one hour, but will now spend an additional 30 minutes answering questions from MPs.

1:05 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford is now scheduled to testify for two hours, instead of one, at the House of Commons finance committee this afternoon.

Trudeau is still scheduled to appear for one hour.

On Wednesday evening, opposition MPs on the finance committee had voted to ask Trudeau to appear for at least three hours and Telford for at least two.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to come clean about the events surrounding his government's decision to award WE Charity a deal to run a student-volunteer program.

The Conservative leader says he expects Trudeau to explain why a program touted as having a $912-million budget was to spend far less, and why no other organization could have run the effort.

Speaking in Regina, he laid out the timeline of events that led to the Liberals' handing WE the reins of a program aimed at giving grants to students whose summer work dried up due to the pandemic.

He adds there are unanswered questions about whether anyone in the Prime Minister's Office spoke with WE to give the organization an inside track.

Trudeau is set to testify this afternoon at the House of Commons finance committee for one hour, although the opposition parties want him to speak for three.

Scheer says he hopes Trudeau provides direct answers and not talking points to run out the clock on his appearance, and that he stays for the full three hours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2020.

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