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.