OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for not recusing himself from the government's decision to have WE Charity manage a $900-million student-aid program, saying his family's longtime involvement with the organization should have kept him out of the discussions.
The surprise apology was an about-face for the prime minister after weeks of defending the sole-sourced contract with WE, and followed revelations the organization had paid his wife, brother and mother for appearing at different events over the years.
Opposition parties were unimpressed with the mea culpa and accused Trudeau of a pattern of trying to apologize for ethical lapses only after being caught.
Trudeau sought to face the controversy head on during a news conference outside his Ottawa home on Monday, days after WE confirmed it had paid his wife, brother and mother a combined $283,400, plus speaking-agency commissions, for a number of appearances at the organization's events.
Trudeau's mother Margaret was paid $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020 while his brother Alexandre received $32,000 for eight events. Trudeau's wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau received $1,400 for a single appearance in 2012.
"I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions given our family's history and I'm sincerely sorry for not having done that," Trudeau said in reference to his cabinet's decision to award the contract to WE.
Trudeau said he was also sorry the delay in the Canada Student Services Grant caused by WE's eventual decision to withdraw from administering the program would harm students looking for ways to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program, first announced by Trudeau in April before details were provided on June 25, was billed as a way for tens of thousands of students unable to find summer work to earn up to $5,000 toward their education costs if they volunteered the maximum 500 hours.
"Young people who are facing a difficult time right now getting summer jobs, contributing to their communities, are going to have to wait a little longer before getting those opportunities to serve, and that's frustrating," he said.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau also apologized in a statement Monday after it was revealed he also did not recuse himself from cabinet's discussions on the WE contract even though two of his daughters have been involved with the organization, including one who is employed there on a contract.
"I did not recuse myself from the discussions on this topic and, given the fact that my daughter works for the organization in an unrelated branch, I now realize I should have in order to avoid any perception of conflict," Morneau said.
"I apologize for not doing so and, moving forward, I will recuse myself from any future discussions related to WE."
The prime minister repeated his assertions that the federal public service recommended WE be enlisted to administer the program, in a contract he said was worth around $20 million to the organization.
"It was the public service that made the recommendation independently and that reassured us," Trudeau said in French. "But as we see now, I should have gone a little further and I should have withdrawn myself completely from these discussions."
The federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion is investigating the prime minister for a potential conflict of interest over the WE deal — the third such probe of Trudeau since he became prime minister in October 2015.
The first two saw Trudeau found to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act, once for accepting two family trips hosted by the Aga Khan and again last year for trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Opposition parties are also pushing for parliamentary committees to investigate the contract, with the Conservatives saying they want the prime minister to make a rare appearance before the House of Commons finance committee to answer questions.
Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett, whose party has also asked the RCMP to investigate the WE contract, said Trudeau could prove that his apology was sincere.
"If the prime minister does believe that what he did was wrong and he is sorry, we will see him appear at the finance committee," Barrett said.
"We will see him present all of the documents, the actual contract that was awarded, we will not see him invoke cabinet confidence. But short of that, it's tough to believe him when he's had the experience twice of being found guilty of breaking the Conflict of Interest Act."
Trudeau said he would look at any invitations and discuss them with his team.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus questioned why the government — and in particular Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford — didn't install stronger measures to protect against potential conflicts of interest.
"How is it possible that Katie Telford didn't think: 'You know, we need to have procedures in place to make sure the law is followed,'" Angus said. "That to me is a really disturbing question."
The Globe and Mail reported Monday that Telford and minister Seamus O'Regan helped WE raise money before the Liberals formed government in 2015. O'Regan was a television host at the time.
Advocacy group Democracy Watch on Monday wrote to the ethics commissioner asking him to expand his conflict-of-interest investigation to include members of Trudeau's staff as well as senior government officials.
Trudeau sidestepped questions about whether he had known his family had received money from WE, saying it was "not surprising" but that he did not know the details.
The prime minister said he was particularly sorry that the affair has embroiled his mother, who has emerged as a mental-health advocate following her diagnosis with bipolar disorder in 2006.
"I didn't know the details of how much she was getting paid by various organizations, but I should have and I deeply regret that," Trudeau said. "What I also deeply regret is the fact that I have brought my mother into this situation in a way that is really unfair to her."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.