Records show charity closely tied to PM received multiple sole-source contracts
‘It’s the oldest game in Ottawa,’ NDP critic says
OTTAWA • WE Charity, which has close ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family — and which will receive millions of dollars to administer a federal student volunteer grant program — has received a series of exclusively sole-source contracts from the federal government over the last three years, government records show. Sole-source contracts are government contracts that are handed directly to a chosen supplier, without the opportunity for others to provide competing bids for the government business.
The federal Liberal government announced last week that it had outsourced a student-grant program worth over $900 million to WE Charity, which will receive at least $19.5 million in fees for the work. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose family has worked closely with the WE organization for many years, defended the contract, saying the WE Charity was the “only one ... capable of networking and organizing and delivering this program on the scale that we needed it ...” But records show this was not the first time the charity received an exclusive contract from the Trudeau government, although it is by far the largest.
According to the government’s online database of government contracts, WE Charity has received five federal contracts worth a total of $120,000 since March 2017. 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.
“What’s really concerning about these sole source contracts is that it’s the oldest game in Ottawa, the nudgenudge, wink-wink of putting out contracts just below the threshold to have them put out to public. And those are the contracts that tend to be given to someone who ran your campaign, someone who was involved with you at the party level,” the NDP’S ethics critic, Charlie Angus, told National Post.
The contracts were for vague services such as “Management consulting”, “Public relations services” and, in three cases, “Other professional services not otherwise specified," according to the data, first brought to light by writer and activist Nora Loreto on social media over the weekend.
The CSSG contract award also comes only a few weeks after one of the co-founders of WE Charity, Craig Kielburger, published an opinion piece in some Postmedia newspapers arguing that the Canadian government should consider bailing out charities as much as private industry.
“More than just keeping organizations afloat, government support conveys social value. What we chose to bailout represents what we believe should survive,” Kielburger wrote in an op-ed that appeared in multiple Postmedia Network publications in late May and early June (Postmedia Network is the owner of National Post).
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, according to another government database. That’s five times the amount of grants and contributions it received from the federal government between 2012 and 2016 ($1 million) under the name Kids Can Free The Children.
There are no contracts listed in the government’s database before 2017 to WE Charity, nor its previous name, Kids Can Free The Children.
When asked for more detail about contracts by National Post, WE Charity responded with an unsigned email: “WE Charity has, upon occasion, been contracted to perform services by the government of Canada. In all instances, appropriate contracting procedures have been followed."
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 WE podcast and attended a WE Day event in London in March with her daughter and Margaret Trudeau, the prime minister’s mother.
“What I find suspect is that the amounts are very large for charities, and the pattern of it suddenly happening after the Liberals are elected, with the spouse of the prime minister being a high-ranking volunteer,” analyzed Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.
“That can easily turn merit-based contracting and granting decision-making processes into a ‘who-youknow’ process where the charities that know the prime minister and who are associated with the Prime Minister’s family are the ones that get favoured. It’s illegal, and for good reason,” he said.
“WE (Charity) made a transition from being a grassroots organization to being very, very tied to the Trudeau brand,” Angus noted. “Then they go from having no contracts to suddenly getting a series of contracts handed to them. And then they get this $900 million program in the middle of a pandemic, with no history or no credible reason that they would be the obvious choice.”
The Trudeau government will pay WE Charity at least $19.5 million to cover the administrative costs of running the new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG). The program, estimated to cost over $900 million, will send up to $5,000 to eligible post-secondary students who complete volunteer work with non-profit organizations by
October 31, 2020.
Monday, the prime minister told reporters this kind of agreement isn’t unprecedented.
“The Government of Canada has extensive practice of working with third parties, charities, to deliver programs. When we wanted to move forward to help various food banks across the country, we worked with the charity Food Banks Canada in order to deliver the program. When we wanted to help grassroots community organizations, we worked with United Way in order to deliver that program,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau’s argument that WE charity was the only possible option didn’t convince opposition parties. On Sunday, the Conservatives wrote to the Auditor General of Canada asking her to dive into the decision to outsource the CSSG to WE Charity. Angus said the NDP was planning to do the same.
“We know the Prime Minister is not afraid of influencing decisions to benefit his friends. At this point, the Prime Minister is beyond the benefit of the doubt and must come clean about his involvement in awarding this $900 million contract to WE,” said Michael Barrett, the Conservative ethics critic, in an email to the Post on Monday. “The Liberals must immediately release the contract for this partnership and tell Canadians why their own government officials are unable to administer this program.”
Conacher said he plans on filing a complaint to the federal Ethics Commissioner, arguing that Trudeau put himself in conflict of interest simply by announcing that WE Charity would administer the CSSG.
“The evidence is clear. It’s an entire waste of money and also a violation of federal ethics law,” Conacher said.
Neither the Privy Council, nor Employment and Social Development Canada, who oversees the CSSG, responded to National Post questions by deadline.
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak on stage at the WE Day UN gathering at Madison Square Garden in September 2017 in New York City.