All in the Family

  • National Newswatch

The WE story isn't about us, it's about them, the Trudeau family. As in All in the Family.At its heart, it's not even about a government student job program of nearly $1 billion awarded without tender to WE Charity, including a $20 million management fee. That's the story of most sole sourced spending. It's called Friends in High Places.No, it's about the family being on the payroll. Not just any family in the precincts of power, but the prime minister's family, with his direct knowledge and approval.And not just any members of the PM's family, not some distant relatives trading on the family name, but Justin Trudeau's own mother, his brother and, at one point, even his wife were paid speaking fees by the WE Charity in support of worthy causes for youth education and development in Canada and abroad.Since this story was broken by the Canadaland news agency last week, with fast follow-up disclosures by CBC and CTV, coverage of the government's capable management of the COVID-19 crisis has been relegated to sidebar status.The PM's mother, Margaret Trudeau, received $250,000 for speaking at 28 WE events from 2016-20. The PM's brother, Sasha, received $32,000 for eight speaking appearances during the 2017-18 school year. Not to mention the 20 percent booking fees of Speakers' Spotlight, putting their combined cost well over $300,000. And before Trudeau became Liberal Leader in 2013, but when he was an opposition backbencher in 2012, his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau received a $1,400 honourarium for an appearance at a WE youth event. She remains a WE goodwill ambassador. It was in London a few months ago, at a WE event with Margaret, that Sophie was infected with the COVID-19 virus.The tabloid headline was inevitable, with apologies to Sister Sledge: “We Are Family”. To say nothing of Margaret being paid $250,000 for speeches. Make no mistake, that's what people were talking, and shaking their heads, about over the weekend.They weren't talking about cronyism, and the PM's decade-long friendship with brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger, the co-founders and executives of the WE Charity. Nor were they talking about how the $900 million youth jobs package and management fee got to Cabinet last month. That's just process stuff, an assistant deputy minister in a line department writes a note to his deputy minister, who sends it to the deputy at Finance and eventually to the Clerk of the Privy Council, the PM's department. Those are just numbers and names on a piece of paper.But paper for an uncompetitive contract to manage nearly $1 billion of public money in a national economic emergency?No problem, they'll talk about it at Cabinet, surely. Except that, by Trudeau's own admission, when the WE first contract came up at Cabinet, he did not disclose his flagrant conflict of interest, nor that of his closest family members, to say nothing of past payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to his own mother and brother.And then, as it turns out, another senior member of Cabinet was deeply conflicted. Not not just any minister, but the Finance minister. The one who signs off on every nickel of public spending before it is brought to Cabinet.That would be Bill Morneau, whose own daughters Clare and Grace, have been involved with WE, and in a highly praiseworthy way. Clare is a young writer and volunteer and Grace, who was adopted from Uganda in 2012, is currently a contract worker with WE.As far as that goes, Morneau and his wife should be proud of their girls and commended for their public spiritedness.But again, he is obviously conflicted and deeply so in the matter of public spending on a file in which his family is personally involved.Both Trudeau and Morneau should have recused themselves, and left the room, when the $900 million student job program, including the $20 million WE management fee, came before Cabinet.Apparently, it didn't occur to either one of them to do so. Asked last week if he had recused himself from the original discussion in Cabinet, Trudeau replied: “No, I did not.”Well, the Conflict of Interest Act is very clear about that, about elected officials recusing themselves from “any discussion, decision, debate or vote” placing them in a conflict of interest. Family would be at the top of any common sense list of conflicts. In Trudeau's case, he was clearly conflicted by the past payments to his mother and brother, as well as his wife's involvement with WE. As for Morneau, he is responsible for every dollar that goes out the door of government, and he is deeply conflicted on this.The government's line is that it was merely following the advice of the public service in awarding the original management contract to WE, with Trudeau saying at the time that it was the only potential supplier in Canada capable of delivering the service.So, show us the paper where any public servant below the Clerk or the Deputy at Finance would have dared to recommend that in writing.The Ethics Commissioner has now undertaken the third investigation of Trudeau. The first was over he and his family accepting a free Christmas holiday in 2016 from the Aga Khan, who had them flown to his private island in the Caribbean. The second was Commissioner Mario Dion's finding last year that Trudeau inappropriately intervened with then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould negotiating a plea bargain with SNC-Lavalin over a contracting scandal.Trudeau II, the commissioner called it in the title of his report.And now this, Trudeau III. With more to come on Morneau.What is it with these guys that they don't get? The Liberals have always been the party of entitlement. It's their Achilles heel as a natural governing party, and it catches up to them at the polls about once a generation.In Trudeau's case, it's personal entitlement, one that began with his father being prime minister for 15 years. Justin Trudeau was born in 1970 at 24 Sussex, and grew to adolescence there and at Harrington Lake. It's not his fault that he's no stranger to a lifestyle of privilege.But that doesn't put him above reproach, and it's the job of the senior staff in the Prime Minister's Office to tell him when he's being tone deaf. Or simply wrong. Or stupid in an obstinate way.On the WE file, that would have meant reminding him of the family connection and, at a strict minimum, the need to recuse himself and leave the room while Cabinet discussed it. There is no one in this PMO who can do that.That's not good for the Liberals. But in the present political context of the pandemic, it's even worse for the country.L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.