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

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Yes.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

At that point I didn't know the difference, so I assumed the shorthand of “WE” to be WE Charity. I didn't know which subsidiary of WE would actually sign the contract, no. I did not know that.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

To your knowledge, when you made that decision at the Cabinet table, did anyone know that the WE Charity Foundation, not WE Charity, would be obtaining this contract?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I honestly don't know what other ministers know. I'd prefer to just tell you my knowledge, and at the time, I didn't know.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Okay. If I understand correctly, no one at the Cabinet table discussed the fact that you would be dealing with a new entity that had been incorporated for one or two years at the time, that being the WE Charity Foundation. There was no discussion about that. Is that correct?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

As you can appreciate, I can't talk about what discussions happened at cabinet committee or cabinet, but I can share my own personal knowledge. I did not come out of those meetings with that distinction in mind.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

To your knowledge, Madam Minister, does the Government of Canada often allocate $43.5 million to manage grants totalling $900 million to an organization that has no staff and has been in existence for only one or two years?

Do you see that sort of thing often?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I cannot answer that, but I would say that we were aware of WE Charity's track record, and that is the track record upon which certainly I based my comfort with proceeding with WE for this contribution agreement.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

If I understand correctly, you based your decision on the knowledge that you had about WE Charity, but at that time, you did not know that the contract would actually be going to another entity, the WE Charity Foundation, a shell, in legal terms. Is that correct?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

That is correct.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

If you had to make the same decision today and you were told that the contract would be going to the WE Charity Foundation, would you be asking questions about that choice? Would you check who its staff is and whether a due diligence report had been done on it?

Are those questions that you would ask today if you had to make the same decision?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I'd prefer not to speculate because I would hope that we would also have discussions around mitigation and other factors that might go into answering our questions, but at this point I can't turn back the clock, and I'd prefer not to speculate.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Were you aware that thePrime Minister and the Minister of Finance were in a conflict of interest situation vis-à-vis WE Charity when the decision was made?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

As I said in my remarks, I did not know about the finance minister's connections to WE, and what I knew about the Prime Minister's and his wife's connections was about their public appearances. I had no knowledge of their familial ties or of any monies or expenses that were being paid for.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

At the Cabinet meeting of May 8, the Prime Minister decided to withdraw this item from the agenda because the decision made him uncomfortable. He tells us that he felt in a conflict of interest situation at that point.

Do you remember a discussion around the table about the fact that the Prime Minister was postponing the decision because he felt in a conflict of interest situation?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Again, I can't talk about what was discussed at the meeting, but I can confirm that it was pulled from the agenda before we even got to the meeting. It wasn't on the agenda at the meeting.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

You did not know why it had been withdrawn from the agenda. Is that correct?

4 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I had no specific knowledge of why it was pulled from the agenda, but it didn't seem at all unusual for me that it was, because so many things were happening so quickly and everything was so fluid at the time.

4 p.m.

Bloc

Rhéal Fortin Bloc Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Madam Minister, you told us that the public service was not able to manage the Canada Student Service Grant program. At the Standing Committee on Finance, we heard from the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada who told us that, in his opinion, it was possible. He added that, if the public service had been managing the program, it would be already up and running smoothly.

What do you have to say about that? Do you agree with the president of the Alliance, or do you believe he is wrong?

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

Respectfully, I'd like to characterize it as neither. I didn't hear his testimony, but I stand by my personal assessment that the public service was stretched and I don't think could have delivered the kind of hands-on experiences that we wanted students to have in any event. My opinion on that hasn't changed, but I respect his opinion on this.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rachael Harder

Thank you, Minister.

Mr. Angus, the floor is yours for six minutes.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thank you, Madam Minister, I wish you were here with us, but we hope you are safe wherever you are and you're having a good summer.

The transformation of when this program came out to me is very problematic because I remember the Prime Minister's announcement on April 8 and it was about the crisis facing university students. That's what we heard about, the need for jobs. This is something that you were very engaged with. On April 22 he made the announcement of this Canada service grant that is about volunteerism and it was dramatically different. What happened in that period between April 8 and April 22 where we saw such a clear shift in the direction in terms of addressing the crisis facing university students?

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I remember April 8 well. It's the day we announced our Canada summer jobs flexibilities and what we were going to do to change the program to respond to the pandemic. But we knew, and I even foreshadowed, that we had to do more. I spoke with student groups, I spoke with a lot of young people, student organizations; we all heard that it wasn't just about more jobs, it was about income support, it was about opportunities to give back to their communities, and what we were going to do in the fall around Canada student loans and student grants. Literally, we all dug in, and it wasn't just myself and the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, it was all of us. It was Minister Miller looking at how we could help indigenous students and Minister Bains looking at how we can help post-doctoral fellows. Really we all just dug in and came up with a really big package.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

I get that and exactly what we were hearing. I felt at that point every parliamentarian across the political spectrum was on the same page and this project has thrown us off that. You were hearing about the need for income support, you were hearing about student loans, and yet we have this program that is paying university students less than the minimum wage. Who made that decision? The Kielburger brothers said it came from the government. That would have come from ESDC and that's your department. Why in the midst of this pandemic did we suddenly end up with a program that was going to say go work for 1,000 hours you'll get $10 an hour, or go work for 700 hours and you get nothing?

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Carla Qualtrough Liberal Delta, BC

I can see your perspective, Mr. Angus, but what I will say is that we all within our portfolios dug in and figured out what we could do. As much as we did create tens of thousands of jobs, over 100,000 jobs, we knew that there weren't going to be enough jobs for students. The Prime Minister has always had a passion for creating a culture of service in Canada. The Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth has within her mandate to create some kind of service corps, some kind of national service opportunity. Young people were also saying that if they couldn't find a job they didn't want to sit around at home, they would like to have some kind of income support and maybe volunteer. It just became part of the package. At least that's how I lived it. How I lived it was all hands on deck.