Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon, members of the finance committee. I would first like to thank all of you for your important work and for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions here today on the implementation of the Canada student service grant.
Let me start by saying that this is a remarkable time. From the day we learned that a Canadian had contacted COVID-19 to what is happening during the time period you're interested in, this pandemic, which we are still fighting, represents a once-in-a-generation challenge for our country.
I started working for the Prime Minister after my maternity leave, and what a journey it has been. I ran his leadership campaign in 2012-13 and went on to lead the 2015 campaign, and I have been his chief of staff ever since. Unbelievably, my son just turned nine.
Some of you may know that I am a person interested in data. Data has always helped me to assess what we are doing well and what we need to do better. These past few months, every day I woke up to some very alarming statistics, as we all were. They were more than statistics: hundreds of people dead because of COVID-19; hundreds of people were applying for the CERB because they had lost their job; millions of families were going through a really tough time; millions of women in lower-wage jobs were being especially hurt, and women's participation in our economy being set back.
Every day, daily projections were telling us and still tell us that if we weren't and aren't successful in slowing the spread of the virus, things would get much worse.
The Prime Minister's job is to help Canadians in need. I am his chief of staff, so my job is to support him in everything he does. I've been in politics for quite a while now, and this pandemic is a challenge unlike any in history.
Having the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives is very rewarding. Since the beginning of the crisis, we've announced a host of support measures to protect Canadians' health, to help those who lost their jobs and to prepare for the economic recovery.
We acted as fast as we could, knowing we might make mistakes along the way because people were really struggling, so we needed to move quickly. Take the emergency response benefit or the Canada emergency wage subsidy, for example. We'd already announced these programs when we realized that we needed to make them more accessible, more generous and simpler, but job one was to get these programs out the door to help people.
When we realized that improvements were needed, we made changes. The CERB and the wage subsidy have since helped millions of Canadians right across the country. Moreover, back in April, our government announced a $9-billion plan to help young people get through the pandemic. It included measures such as the Canada emergency student benefit, deferring student loans and, yes, the Canada student summer grant.
I want to go back to the first time we discussed a potential aid package for students. On April 5 there was a meeting by phone, as they all were at that time, between the Prime Minister and the finance minister. It was a stock-take on the entirety of our government's ongoing economic response to the pandemic.
There were 15 decision points on the Canada emergency wage subsidy that Sunday evening, and it was being announced the next day. That was the focus of the call. We also talked about an orphan well program for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland to help workers in the energy sector who had been hit especially hard by the crisis.
At the end of that conversation, the finance minister spoke about gaps he had identified in existing programs like the CERB. We knew that some people were still falling through the cracks, people like seniors, seasonal workers and, yes, students.
At the time, the Ministry of Finance was thinking about some form of financial assistance, more Canada summer jobs and a moratorium on student loan payments. We also talked about using the Canada service corps to encourage and support young people who wanted to volunteer and help their community during this pandemic. That was a very brief part of a larger conversation, and everyone agreed that there was more work to do.
Just a few weeks later, after a lot of hard work by many people across the government, the Prime Minister announced a $9-billion aid package for students that included the items I just listed. The Canada summer student grant program was one-tenth of that package.
When I think back to that time, it was at the end of April that the public service informed us, in a briefing note, that an outside organization could be used to administer the Canada student service grant program. Questions had been raised about the government's capacity to implement such a program and about whether we could provide financial compensation directly to students.
However, it was only on May 8 that I saw for the first time, along with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth's proposal to have WE Charity administer the program. The recommendation prepared by the public service had been examined and approved by the special cabinet committee on May 5, and we had a quick glance at it for the first time before the cabinet meeting on May 8, at which, the recommendation was supposed to be ratified.
As the Prime Minister mentioned in his opening statement, both of us had concerns. That's why, on May 8, we took the Canada student service grant off the agenda for the committee meeting. The Prime Minister, whose commitment to helping youth precedes his involvement in politics, and I both had questions. We wanted more information on the effectiveness of such a program and the use of an outside organization to administer it. To be perfectly frank, we were worried about how it would be perceived. We work in politics, so it matters how our decisions are perceived. We sought assurance from the public service that WE was indeed the only organization with the capacity to administer the program and that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, WE was the right partner for this initiative.
When the funding note was approved, the Prime Minister added a stipulation to the effect that, should the program be expanded, the minister had to submit a written request to the President of the Treasury Board for additional funding.
This proposal to help students was recommended by the public service. This was not a choice between different organizations to deliver the program; this was a choice between going forward with the program or not.
I will add that we had previously received the Ethics Commissioner's approval for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's work engagement with the WE Charity, so I wasn't aware of any conflict.
You have heard the Prime Minister say that he regrets not recusing himself. I have regrets about that too. Obviously, this didn't happen as we intended it to, and this is not what we had envisioned, and I share in that responsibility.
Over the past few weeks I have thought a lot about this program. I have thought about what we could do better, and how we could apply lessons we've learned going forward. In hindsight, I recognize that while we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better. We could have done more. We could have added yet another layer of scrutiny to avoid any potential perception of favouritism.
Mr. Chair, I work with a team of committed, hard-working individuals. We're not perfect, but we are committed to being better and to doing more and, perhaps most importantly right now, we remain committed to serving and supporting as many Canadians as we can, as quickly as we can.
As the daughter of retired public servants, I have the utmost respect, not only for public service but also for those who choose it as a career. I want to take this moment to thank them and my colleagues for the work they continue to do under especially challenging circumstances. I believe that we all get into public service to help others—and what a time it is for all of us to be doing that. We thought that renegotiating NAFTA was a challenge. Well, this pandemic, I am sure, is the challenge of our generation and of my life. To have the chance to take up this work during this time, with this team, under the leadership of this Prime Minister has been and remains a privilege.
With that, I'm pleased to take your questions.