From the outset, we knew that time was of the essence. After all, even the best program imaginable wouldn't make any difference if it couldn't be delivered this summer. We had to quickly connect the thousands of students who wanted to volunteer with the many community organizations that needed an extra hand because of the pandemic.
At first we had hoped to use the Canada service corps. The Canada service corps was created in 2018 to encourage young people to serve and connect them to opportunities in communities across the country. By developing networks, creating partnerships with existing organizations and offering microgrants, the plan had always been to scale up the program over the coming years to ensure that many thousands of young people could serve their communities and their country every year.
When the Canada student service grant was initially conceived, I expected that the Canada service corps would help deliver the program. The service corps is an important and long-standing part of our national youth strategy, and I knew that making it responsible for the CSSG would accelerate its development. Ultimately, however, the public service concluded that delivering the CSSG required a third party partner external to government, and that WE Charity should act as that service provider.
I first learned that WE Charity was being proposed to deliver the program on May 8, when the CSSG was to go before full cabinet. Until that date, I had not spoken at all with my staff about WE Charity in relation to the CSSG. In fact, as of May 8 my expectation was still that a supercharged version of the Canada service corps would likely deliver the program. From my perspective, WE Charity hadn't come up.
As you know, by May 8 the public service had already concluded that WE Charity was the best option to deliver this program. They had formally recommended it. The CSSG, including the recommendation that WE Charity be used, had already gone through the COVID committee of cabinet on May 5. I was not involved in either of those steps.
On May 8 I received a briefing before the cabinet meeting and learned for the first time that WE Charity had been recommended as a partner and was on the cabinet agenda. I asked why the plan didn't involve the Canada service corps. We were told that the Canada service corps wouldn't be able to scale up to deliver the program in time. This was disappointing but ultimately not surprising to me, given my understanding of the state of the Canada service corps' development and other demands facing the public service at the time.
Of course, policy staff in my office had been working with the Privy Council Office and other departments. They knew that WE Charity was under consideration. However, I never spoke with my staff about WE Charity or its proposed involvement in administering this program until May 8. I also never spoke to Craig or Marc Kielburger, or anyone at WE Charity, about the CSSG. I did not speak to either of them at all during this period.
As it became apparent to me, my chief of staff, Katie Telford, also didn't know until the briefing on May 8 that WE Charity was being proposed. My chief of staff and I were finding out about this important part of the proposal only hours before the cabinet meeting. Even given the rapid pace of work during the crisis, this was not the way things were supposed to go.
We learned that there had been tough questions asked about the CSSG proposal and WE Charity during the COVID committee a few days earlier. We both felt that we needed more time before this item was presented to cabinet—time to consider and understand the reasons behind the proposal that WE Charity deliver the program. On that issue we had several questions that we wanted answered, particularly given my specific expertise in youth issues.
During the pandemic, the government was working very hard and very quickly. We still are. It was not uncommon for me to be briefed on something relatively close in time to the cabinet meeting. Here, however, given the scale of the program, the questions that had been raised and my own commitment to youth issues, we needed more time. As well, we both knew that WE Charity was known to be connected to people in our government, including myself, as I had spoken at their events in the past. We knew that the selection of WE Charity would be closely scrutinized. We wanted to make sure that the process and decision were the best possible in the circumstances, so I decided to pull the CSSG proposal from the cabinet agenda for May 8 so that further work could be done.
This wasn't an easy decision. We knew the urgency. By the end of April, many university students had finished their exams. We were already a week into May, but we pulled the item from the agenda so that we could be confident that we were doing the right thing the right way.
My primary concern was to make sure that the public service could fully support its recommendation that, without a doubt, WE Charity was the right and indeed the only partner to deliver the program. I was briefed again on May 21 and the public service told me that they had done the due diligence we had asked for and that they were confident in the recommendation. In effect, they said that, if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity.
The choice was not between providers. It was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program or not going ahead with the program at all. Given the public service advice, I was comfortable that the CSSG could now be presented to cabinet.
On May 22, Minister Chagger presented the program to cabinet, and cabinet approved it. After cabinet approved the CSSG, the next step was to approve its funding. Here, the briefing note from policy staff in my office recommended imposing an additional oversight measure in the disbursal of the approved funding. I agreed with that recommendation and directed that, before additional tranches of funding were released, Minister Chagger would have to write to the President of the Treasury Board to provide an update on the CSSG.
When cabinet approved the CSSG, obviously I knew that I had spoken at various WE Charity events. I'd never been paid to do so. I was also aware that my wife had an unpaid role as a WE Charity ambassador and ally. I knew she appeared at WE Charity events and that when she travelled to get to an event, WE Charity covered her related expenses. I also knew that Sophie had recently launched a podcast on mental wellness in conjunction with WE Charity. The Ethics Commissioner had approved this role, including WE Charity covering her expenses.
I also knew that my brother and mother had worked with WE Charity as well as with other organizations. However, I did not know how much work either of them had done with WE Charity or how much they had been paid. These were things that I would only learn after the program launched publicly.
That said, sometimes recusing oneself can be the right thing to do even if it's not required. Here, my mother's connection to WE Charity and the other connections in my family could lead some people to wonder whether those connections had played some role in the decision to select WE Charity. That, of course, was not the case.
WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else. The public service recommended WE Charity, and I did absolutely nothing to influence that recommendation. I didn't even know it had been made until May 8, and when I learned that WE Charity was recommended, I pushed back. I wanted to be satisfied that the proposal that WE Charity deliver the CSSG had been properly scrutinized.
As I said, I should have recused myself from that decision to avoid any appearance of favouritism. I know that appearances can hurt a good program, and that is of course exactly what happened in this case. It's really a shame, especially since this program could have been very important for students and our communities.
To conclude, there was never any direction by or attempt to influence from me or my staff that the public service recommend WE Charity. Getting young people to serve has been a goal of mine well before I ever got into politics, so I deeply regret how this has unfolded.
It's now July 30. Our government is delivering an up-to-$9 billion aid package for students. Unfortunately, the grant for volunteer service is unlikely to be part of the package this summer, and that is something that I regret.
I'm pleased now to take any of your questions.