Evidence of meeting #12 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was charity.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Ian Shugart  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, Privy Council Office
Gina Wilson  Deputy Minister, Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, Department of Canadian Heritage
Benoît Robidoux  Associate Deputy Minister, Department of Employment and Social Development
Mary Dawson  As an Individual

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

We will suspend.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Welcome, everyone.

Minister Qualtrough, welcome.

August 11th, 2020 / 3:35 p.m.

Delta B.C.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough LiberalMinister of Employment

Thanks for having me.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

It's our pleasure.

Minister Qualtrough, as you know, this committee passed a motion on July 22:

That, pursuant to Standing Orders 108(3)(h), the Committee review the safeguards which are in place to avoid and prevent conflicts of interest in federal government procurement, contracting, granting, contribution and other expenditure policies.

That is the motion that you have been asked to come and speak to today. In one moment, I will give you 10 minutes to give opening remarks. It is going to be a little bit tricky for me to monitor and keep time just because there are no visual queues. Bear with me. I may have to interrupt you, but I will certainly do my best to be polite when I do so.

We would ask that you try to answer questions that are posed to you within about the same time frame in which they are asked. Those seem to be our COVID rules when we're using technology.

With that, then, I will pass it over to you, Minister, and allow you to have the floor for the next 10 minutes.

Thank you.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Thank you.

Please feel free to interrupt me at any point. I take no offence; I find it helpful.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to begin by thanking the committee for allowing me to participate by telephone. This allows me to use my accessibility software and participate in a more meaningful way in both languages, while having the chance to refer to my speaking notes.

I have with me today ESDC associate deputy Minister Benoît Robidoux. I'm hopeful today that my participation can be helpful.

It's my understanding, from your motion passed by this committee, that you are reviewing the safeguards in place, as you said, to avoid and prevent conflict of interest in federal government procurement, contracting, granting, contribution and other expenditure policies. In particular, I understand that you're using as a case study the speaking appearances for Justin Trudeau, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Margaret Trudeau and Alexandre Trudeau. I'll say at the onset that I had no prior knowledge of Margaret Trudeau's or Alexandre Trudeau's speaking appearances with WE Charity or otherwise.

I know that Margaret Trudeau is an advocate for mental health and wellness and admire her passion on this important issue. I know that the Prime Minister and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had appeared at WE events in the past, and I considered this to be a well-known fact. They've both been advocates for youth leadership and youth empowerment for years.

Personally, I have spoken at one WE Charity event in November of 2016 in Vancouver. I spoke to thousands of young people about the power of inclusion and the everyday choices they can make to ensure no one was left out, in particular people with disabilities. I was not paid for this appearance and claimed no expenses.

As a member of Parliament and cabinet minister, I am very aware of my obligations pursuant to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act. I take the management of my public declarations and ongoing reporting requirements very seriously.

I offer no excuse or justification for the Prime Minister or the finance minister with respect to their having not recused themselves from the discussions and decisions around having WE Charity deliver the CSSG program. Both have apologized and have acknowledged that they should have recused themselves, and there's an ongoing investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, and both are fully complying with it.

In this time of pandemic, the pace and breadth of decision-making has been beyond compare. As Minister of Employment, I have been at the centre of our pandemic response. For months our cabinet COVID committee met day after day to plan and implement our emergency response. The cabinet was also meeting regularly for many hours at a time. On any given day, we are making decisions that range from border closures to PPE distribution to whether we should be sending our military into our long-term care facilities because our seniors were dying.

My own responsibility included the CERB, Canada summer jobs, temporary foreign workers, disability support and various student measures. We've been operating under the guiding principle of delivering supports quickly and reliably to Canadians.

We knew from the start that things would not be perfect, and we were prepared to have the course corrected when needed. There was no time to test or pilot programs. We had to understand the limits of our existing systems and work within them. Anything new would have to be straightforward. I have tremendous respect for our public servants, with whom we've been working around the clock. They've gone above and beyond during these difficult times.

We've delivered to Canadians in three very important ways over the past few months, first through direct supports like the CERB, the student benefit and top-ups to the CCB, GST and OAS. Second, for the provinces and the territories, an example would be the essential workers top-up. Third, we have collaborated with third party intermediaries with extensive networks and proven track records that can deliver programs quickly and support individuals in a way that government simply can't. An example would be having Community Foundations of Canada, the Red Cross and United Way deliver our emergency community fund. Another would be partnering with Women's Shelters Canada to deliver funding to women's shelters across the country.

I offer the example of the community support fund and women's shelter fund to contextualize the decision to deliver the CSSG through WE Charity using a contribution agreement without an open competition. There was no competition in any of these instances, as it was determined that these organizations could effectively and efficiently get funds into the hands of the people and organizations that needed them while at the same time ensuring accountability on the part of the program deliverer. ESDC officials can provide the specifics of the accountability and oversight measures built into these contribution agreements, including audit, financial controls, monitoring and reporting requirements.

As the Minister of Employment I am the lead on student employment measures, the CESB, and the changes to the Canada student loans and grants program. The Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth leads the Canada service grant given her responsibility for the Canada Service Corps. Our respective responsibilities are very clearly laid out in our mandate letters.

We both heard very clearly from young Canadians and student groups that they were facing a summer without many job prospects and the real possibility that they may not be able to afford to go back to school in the fall. They needed income support, increased student loans and grants, and jobs. They also wanted the opportunity to help out in their communities. We looked at existing programs in terms of how we could enhance them or leverage them. On April 22, the Prime Minister announced a $9-billion suite of measures for students. As ministers, we then rolled up our sleeves and set about delivering on the measures within our respective portfolios. For my part, I was focused on the student loans, employment and benefit measures. This was a big piece of work that included new legislation and regulatory changes. I first learned that WE was being recommended to deliver the CSSG on May 5 as I was preparing for the COVID cabinet meeting, on the same day that the proposal was being discussed. I understood the purpose of the CSSG to be to provide young people with meaningful opportunities to serve in their communities and to assist the non-profit sector with some much-needed capacity.

Given the speed, scope and scale of the program, I strongly believed that we needed a third party to move it forward. As lead minister of ESDC, I knew just how stretched the public service was and what their workload could or couldn't handle. The organization that would deliver this program would be tasked with the screening, onboarding, training and mentoring of young Canadians during these important summer months. It would also track volunteer hours and distribute grants. I can confirm that the CSSG proposal was scheduled to be on the cabinet agenda on May 8, but was taken off. I was not involved in any of the discussions about why this was pulled from the agenda and the Prime Minister's request for more due diligence, as this was not my file. As you can appreciate, I cannot share the content of the May 22 cabinet discussions about the CSSG due to cabinet confidentiality, but as you know the cabinet decided to proceed with the recommendation to enter into a contribution agreement with WE to deliver the CSSG.

I'll conclude by stating that the CSSG was intended to be an innovative way to provide support for students, non-profits and communities, and more than ever Canada really needs bold ideas and innovative solutions. While WE Charity is no longer delivering the program, we remain as committed as ever to supporting young people and non-profits. I can assure every member of this committee that our government takes its ethical responsibilities seriously. We've not been perfect. I reiterate that both the Prime Minister and finance minister have apologized for having not recused themselves. I regret that this has taken the focus away from what we wanted the focus to be on.

Thank you.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you, Minister Qualtrough.

We will proceed then to our first six-minute round and we have Mr. Barrett up first.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Thank you, Minister.

First, were you ever asked by anyone in the Prime Minister's Office or any other official to be the minister responsible for the CSSG?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I was not.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

You mentioned your involvement on the COVID-19 cabinet committee and that's where this program first received approval on May 5. Did you inform your deputy, your ADM, Madam Rachel Wernick or any officials in your department about the cabinet committee decision?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I would have briefed my chief of staff, yes.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Did you inform anybody, or did your chief of staff inform anybody at the WE organization about this decision?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Definitely not.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

You said that on May 5, at that committee, it was the first time that you learned about the CSSG. At that time what was your understanding of whose idea this program was? Where did it come from?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

May I clarify that I said that was the first time that I heard that WE would deliver the CSSG. I just want to be very clear and honest. I knew about the CSSG before May 5, but I did not have any idea who would be recommended to deliver it until May 5.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Once you learned about it on May 5, Minister, what was your understanding of where it came from? Whose idea was it?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

My understanding was that the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth and her staff had been working with officials. There had been back-and-forth. To be honest, I had just understood it to be a recommendation of the public service that the minister was putting forward.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Okay.

We heard testimony from the Clerk of the Privy Council, Mr. Shugart, at the finance committee that the proposal for the WE organization to be the third party partner was recommended by ESDC.

Who presented that proposal?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

To the cabinet committee, it was the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth. Sorry, I want to make sure I get our titles correct.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Minister, we heard testimony from the Clerk of the Privy Council, and it was confirmed by Minister Chagger, that she, by order in council in March, was able to sign, as a minister for ESDC.

How is it that a nearly $1-billion dollar program was downloaded to a minister of state and not handled by you?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

If you'll permit me, we were sworn in, in November 2019, when the minister was made a full Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth. We then got our mandate letters on December 13, and she was given the responsibility to lead the development of a national youth service, including the Canada Service Corps.

We then went about, behind the scenes, working with ESDC and PCO, in getting all the legal instruments in place. There are five of us—ministers—responsible for various aspects of ESDC. For example, the OIC you're talking about for Minister Chagger was on March 6; the OIC for Minister Hussen was on March 8, I believe—and we'd have to check that. Then we went about delegating various financial authorities within. Because of the way the law is around ESDC, there is one legal minister, but then I delegate to the other ministers. It's a legal construct, but we have been working from the beginning with our mandate letters and really staying in our lanes.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Okay, thank you.

How involved were you in the development of the program since its inception?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Not at all. I was involved with my part, so the employment piece, the student loan and grant piece, and the student benefit piece.

Until two or three days before the April 22 announcement, I was not aware of all the other pieces that were going to be part of this bigger package.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Did you receive or review any reports or briefings about due diligence that was done on any element as part of the WE organization, WE Charity, WE Charity Foundation or any of their subsidiaries, before supporting this company administering a $900-million program?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

What I reviewed in preparation for May 5 was the recommendation that was going to cabinet. At that point in time it had been vetted by the public service. What I was told at that point was that due diligence had been done and there were no flags.

I believe my answer might be “no” to your question, but I want to make it clear what I did review.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Michael Barrett Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON

Thank you, Minister.

We were told that on May 5 the Prime Minister's Office redirected a call from their office to your department, from the WE organization. I am looking for details about that call. Who took the call, what was discussed, are there notes, is there a recording, and was WE told that it could begin charging expenses or “eligible expenses” for this program at that time?