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Commons committee blasts Liberals over WE deal, calls for tougher lobbying measures


OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee issued a scathing report Thursday on the Trudeau government's now-cancelled deal with WE Charity that includes calls for stronger measures to protect against inappropriate lobbying and conflicts of interest.

The report from the House of Commons ethics committees followed months of contentious hearings and the release of thousands of pages of documents since last spring, when the government first inked the agreement with WE.

Committee members from all three main opposition parties signed off on the majority report, which focused on WE's connections to various members of the Liberal government as well as the organization's lobbying and business practices.

The report also called attention to the various challenges that committee members faced in conducting their study. It started last summer, was interrupted after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August, and then resumed in the fall.

Among the challenges were repeated filibusters by Liberal committee members and the government’s refusal to send some ministerial staff to testify on what they knew about the agreement with WE. The government argued that ministers are ultimately responsible for their staff.

"Some witnesses only appeared before this committee after the summons were issued or the threat of summons in this case," Conservative MP and ethics committee chair Chris Warkentin told the House of Commons after the report was tabled.

"In addition, the committee is of the view that some of the witnesses' response to requests for documents or written answers to questions are incomplete. Despite all the documents and written responses received, the committee believes there are still many questions to be answered."

The WE affair has bedevilled Trudeau's minority Liberal government since last summer when it decided to pay the charity up to $43.5 million to administer a volunteer student grant program.

The contract specified WE was not to make a profit from the deal.

The decision prompted immediate controversy due to the charity's ties to Trudeau and his wife, as well as to his mother and brother, both of whom had been paid to appear at some WE events over the years.

Then-finance minister Bill Morneau, whose daughter worked for WE and who had made generous donations to it, also came under fire. Trudeau and Morneau apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision. WE Charity quickly withdrew from the program, which was cancelled.

Last month, ethics commissioner Mario Dion ruled that Trudeau did not breach the Conflict of Interest Act. But in a separate report, he also ruled Morneau did break the rules and gave preferential treatment to WE Charity because of his personal friendship with co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger.

While the committee took aim in its report at Trudeau, Morneau and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, it also criticized some of the charity's business practices.

"This did not begin as a study of the WE organization, we were focused on the issue of whether or not the pandemic spending plan had gone off the rails," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said.

"We were never able to separate and find out what was charitable, what was for profit, how many side companies they had. I find it very disturbing that a parliamentary committee, with the assets and resources that we have, was unable to actually get a picture of how this group operates."

The committee called on the government not to work with WE again until an audit by the Canada Revenue Agency or an independent group was undertaken to determine how the company operates.

WE announced last year that it was shuttering its Canadian not-for-profit operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political fallout from the Canada Student Services Grant program.

In a statement, the Toronto-based organization said it was subject to regular audits, including one in the fall that "found no impropriety in the financial flows and confirmed both entities operated with financial integrity, as was made clear to the committee."

The ethics committee also flagged what it saw as gaps and weaknesses in the federal lobbying regime, and called for new measures such as granting the lobbying commissioner investigative powers.

It also asked that the lobbying and ethics commissioners be given more powers to fine violators, and for the government to put up better screens to prevent potential conflicts of interest in the future.

WE lamented that the committee did not focus on the students that it says stood to gain from the Canada Student Services Grant program, and the fact many of its recommendations were not already in place last year. 

"It is true that many of the committee's recommendations would create a robust mechanism for additional oversight of government procurement," WE said in its statement. "We only wish these had been in place last summer, as we are confident that WE Charity would have been approved under these conditions and the CSSG program would have gone forward." 

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett told the news conference the report "shines a light on Liberal corruption, and it shows a clear path for us to clean up the mess and the abuses by insiders."

Liberal committee members in their own dissenting report agreed with the need to review both the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act, but accused the opposition of a veritable witch hunt that led to WE and others being targeted online and elsewhere.

"It was the public harassment and violent threats against witnesses called to testify for this study that were especially troubling," Liberal member Brenda Shanahan said during the news conference.

"WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger reported multiple intimidation and death threats against him and his family, including his elderly parents."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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