The push for a new kind of (virtual) Parliament

Does Parliament really need to be all in-person? 'The pandemic has shown us that there are different ways of working,' says cabinet minister Karina Gould.

The world of bricks and mortar is under threat. With a global pandemic requiring physical storefronts to shut down or radically adapt their practices, the shift to online shopping has accelerated. Even mom-and-pop neighbourhood operations are pivoting to delivery. And forget about offices. Many of Canada’s white-collar jobs are being worked from home—from kitchen tables and basements and balconies. “Office centricity is over,” Shopify’s CEO declared on Twitter in mid-May, announcing Canada’s biggest tech company will be a permanent “digital workplace.” 

Even institutions with dearly-held traditions have had to adapt to remote work. Canada’s Parliament has always drawn representatives from across the country to a single, physical location. That’s a hell of a commute, for a great many of them. Even the MPs who can’t figure out their mute buttons are surely noticing how much easier it is, now, to log in to the House of Commons from a spare bedroom than to schlep back and forth to the nation’s capital on a weekly basis, from the likes of northern B.C. or Prince Edward Island. 

Picture, 15 years from now, that a fully-restored parliamentary district is largely a tourist destination. The green chamber is booked solid for corporate retreats and student conferences while MPs, soaking up their constituencies full-time, conduct their business from local offices. Emergency evening sessions do not require the rescheduling of flights but rather the negotiation of bedtime routines. Staff have mastered Slack, or the 2035 equivalent. Voting systems are secure. Air travel is at a premium, but caucuses still get together, monthly or quarterly, in different parts of Canada. And the public service, having ditched many of the National Capital Region’s office buildings, hires from across the country a truly representative workforce.

READ MORE: Out-of-office is the new office. Can the work-from-home boom last?

Let’s be clear. No one is suggesting that scenario. The sanctity of parliamentary protocol remains intact, jealously guarded by politicians who believe in the benefits of working closely with colleagues at a physical hub, and who are inclined to see any number of “modernization” efforts as attempts to disempower Canada’s legislators. 

In the chaos of the pandemic, though, some see opportunities for reform. 

“There’s so many traditions in Parliament. And people point to those traditions as being reasons why things can’t change—and yet we’ve been able to change so quickly during this pandemic and things are still working,” says Eleanor Fast, the executive director of Equal Voice, a group that advocates for the greater participation of women in politics. “We can come out of it with a bit of a silver lining, in terms of having had a chance to really examine the way that Parliament works and the way that Members of Parliament do their jobs.”

Fast says women often cite work-life balance, long commutes to Ottawa and time away from home as deterrents to entering politics. Recent days have lent credence to the idea that some parliamentary business can be conducted remotely, at least part of the time, she says. 

Karina Gould, the first woman in Canadian history to give birth while serving as a cabinet minister, says she is hopeful that the proof will be in the pudding. “We can still be a fully-engaged member of Parliament, a fully-engaged minister, even if you’re not physically present in Ottawa for a period of time,” says Gould, who is currently the Liberal minister for international development. 

“I see tremendous value in having people present in Ottawa. The conversations they have and the work that gets done, it is worthwhile and it is meaningful. But at the same time, technology can enable us to make exceptions in exceptional circumstances,” Gould argues. “The pandemic has shown us that there are different ways of working, that we can accommodate people to make sure that they can take care of their health, they can take care of their family and they can take care of their constituents and be effective members of Parliament.” 

The research director for democracy think tank Samara Canada, Mike Morden, cautions that Parliament shouldn’t rush to permanently adopt today’s emergency measures. “A lot of the expressed opposition to something like remote voting has been couched in concerns around a slippery slope, a dangerous precedent. Like, if we do this now, no one will ever meet in Ottawa again,” he says. He doesn’t find the argument very persuasive, but he does recognize that some will read a “hidden agenda” into anything that is proposed now. In an appendix to a recent committee report on options for remote voting during the pandemic, Conservatives made it clear that they are deeply suspicious of long-term motives.

When normal times resume, instead of allowing people to spend less time in the capital, Morden would encourage them to spend more time here, along with their families, and expand parliamentary sittings. “It’s not reasonable to expect the members to be at 10 events every weekend and then back to Ottawa on Monday as an effective legislator,” he says. “It’s a message we sometimes try to transmit to Canadians is to lighten up on that expectation that the member’s going to be at your barbecue.”

Fast and Morden are on the same page in supporting the idea that MPs be allowed to vote by proxy. Fast notes that before a proxy vote became an option in the United Kingdom’s Parliament, an MP there was so pressured to attend a vote in person that she delayed a scheduled C-section. “It’s not just giving birth, of course,” Fast says. “When people have young children or they have childcare or family responsibilities, or their own health concerns, it makes sense.” 

It was just last summer that MPs were granted the right to take paid parental leave, something Gould told reporters at the time was “long overdue.” But the fact there’s so much inertia in this historic institution has its bright side. If the rest of the world takes Shopify’s lead and speeds towards a “digital workplace,” that’ll give MPs plenty to study in the unending debate over how to bring Parliament into the future. 


Canada pre-purchases COVID-19 vaccines, but won't say exactly how many

Politics Insider for Aug. 6: The feds buy 'millions' of eventual vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, the Tories want another WE probe and Jimmy K just won't give up

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Governments typically top-load their press releases with good news. But when Procurement Minister Anita Anand announced agreements with potential vaccine providers, the details were buried deep within her release. Anand certainly doesn’t want to say much about the federal deals with Pfizer and Moderna, which she says will “secure millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.”

A day after Theresa Tam poured cold water on a vaccine as a pandemic panacea, reporters asked Anand just how many millions of doses she’d locked in. Anand wouldn’t say, blaming the vagueness on ongoing negotiations with other potential providers. Some government critics say Canada’s moving too slowly on securing future antidotes as international competition heats up, though one expert told Politico that it’s “really hard to pick winners at this stage.”

The feds’ other big announcement yesterday came from Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, who diverted up to 10 per cent of a $33-billion infrastructure program to pandemic priorities. That money will now fund health infrastructure, schools, parks, trails, foot bridges, bike lanes, and disaster mitigation and adaptation projects.

Poking around WE: Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel Garner and Michael Barrett have asked Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to probe WE’s use of students’ personal information (at this point, we’re starting to lose count of the WE-related investigations on the go). The Tories flag the terms and conditions of the site—created to ingest thousands of student service grant applications—which explain applicants’ data may end up on servers outside Canada and subject to foreign laws. That runs counter, say the Tories, to a “reasonable assumption” that personal info is “kept within Canada and will be protected under Canadian privacy laws.”

How polls keep underestimating the CPC vote: Philippe J. Fournier, writing in Maclean’s, noticed that pollsters collectively underestimated the federal Conservative vote in Alberta last year. The party’s average projected vote share on the eve of the election was 59 per cent. But the party actually racked up 69 per cent of votes. Fournier took stock of more recent polls, too, which produce an average Tory vote of only 48 per cent in the province. He allows the Liberals might have picked up some votes during the pandemic, but still wonders: Is there a systemic issue eluding the pollsters?

Jimmy K is back: Never, ever, ever count out Jim Karygiannis. The former MP’s political rollercoaster just whirled around another loop. Karygiannis, a Toronto city councillor since 2014, was first booted from office last November for claiming improper election expenses. He was reinstated by a judge later that month. In June, Ontario’s court of appeal ousted him once again. But yesterday, the persistent Karygiannis—who’s hoping the Supreme Court will ultimately hear his case—convinced a judge to stay the most recent order pending the top court’s next move. So he’s back. For now.

The federal penitentiary known as the Collins Bay Institution turns out to be a hotspot for smuggled contraband. The correctional service seized an impressive haul of banned goods in July, including marijuana, fentanyl, heroin, shatter, crystal meth and MDMA. They also found 23 cigars, 22 cell phones, a roll of black tape and a screwdriver. Officers caught two individuals in the act of throwing assorted things onto the premises. (The prison’s admin building is the last of its kind, built by prisoners in the late Canadian Chateau style and featuring a brilliant red roof.)

This morning at 8:30 a.m., the carillon atop the Peace Tower will ring out 75 times—once a year for every turn of the sun since an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima (a deadly event for which anti-nuclear activists say Canada should officially express regret). The bell that’ll do the work is the heaviest of them all. It’s known as the bourdon, a hunk of bronze that weighs in at 10,090 kg. Later, at 11 a.m., the dominion carillonneur will play a lighter show with the theme “comfort food“—a fitting meal choice in the middle of an exhausting year.

Will the bells toll for WE? Back at ground level, the Commons finance committee will virtually meet at 11 a.m. to keep studying the failed student service grant. As of your newsletter correspondent’s last check of the meeting’s agenda, the witness list was still to be determined. But this morning, an amended posting includes two officials from watchdog Charity Intelligence Canada: managing director Kate Bahen and director of research Greg Thomson.

Your morning smile comes from the Ottawa Citizen, where Bruce Deachman reports the last remaining resident of Parliament Hill’s cat sanctuary, survived a recent health scare. Long live Coal.


How polls keep underestimating the Conservative vote: 338Canada

Philippe J. Fournier: Canadian political polls tend to hit the mark, except when it comes to counting Conservative support in the West. What's going wrong?

Once all the October 2019 federal election votes were counted, the Conservative Party of Canada had won the national popular vote by one point over the Liberal Party, 34 per cent to 33 per cent—a margin of roughly 210,000 votes from coast to coast. The Liberals still managed to prevail in the seat count by winning the vote in Canada’s two largest provinces, while the Conservatives ran up the score in western provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Comparing the election results to the final polls from Canadians firms, we noticed several firms had correctly called the results—meaning the final numbers were mostly within a reasonable margin of error (or uncertainty) of said polls.

Here are the final polls of the 2019 election campaign compared to the actual election results (for more details on the 338 Score and grading system, visit the 338 Canadian Pollster ratings page):

So did Canadian pollsters underestimate the Conservative vote in 2019? The answer to this question deserves some analysis. At first glance, as you can see from the table above, no individual pollster was more than four points off the CPC national result. And, among the five pollsters with an A or A+ mark for this election (namely: Léger, Ipsos, Mainstreet, Nanos, and Abacus Data), none was more than two points off the mark. Therefore, the quick answer is “no”.

However, we also notice that no pollster overestimated the CPC vote either. Consequently, it would also be correct to state that while no individual pollster underestimated the Conservative vote outside a reasonable confidence interval, they collectively underestimated it.

Here is a comparative chart of Canadian pollsters’ final polls and the election results:

[On the graph above, both axes are graded in percentage points off the actual national election results. The Liberal vote is on the x-axis and the Conservative vote on the y-axis.]

Again, it must be stated: the final federal polls in the last election were generally really close to the actual results, which is why seat projection modelling was also fairly accurate. Nevertheless, we also notice that every single data point on the graph is located below the graph’s bullseye—meaning an underestimation of the Conservative vote. Where did this discrepancy occur?

Let us redo the graph above, but using the final poll numbers and election results from the four most populous provinces:



In Quebec and Ontario, poll numbers for the Liberals and Conservatives were, on average, really close to the actual results. The same could be said about the British Columbia numbers. However, we notice that the Alberta results are fairly titled towards the lower part of the graph.

Here are the 2019 final CPC poll numbers in Alberta from the aforementioned polling firms: 63, 59, 61, 64, 57, 57, 60, 58, 54 per cent. A simple average of these numbers gives us 59 per cent. Yet, the actual CPC share of the vote in Alberta in 2019 was 69 per cent.

It would be natural to point to the fact that the regional sub-samples of polls are smaller, hence they have higher uncertainty, and therefore should theoretically show greater variance from the election results. This is a fair argument. However, if smaller sample sizes were the only explanation for the discrepancy, we would see dots all around the bullseye on the graph:

Clearly, that is not the case. On average, polls underestimated the Conservative vote in Alberta by 10 points.

Of course, in any other province, such a miss would have been catastrophic for the seat projections. In Alberta, however, the 338Canada model correctly called the winner in all 34 federal electoral districts: Edmonton-Strathcona went the to the NDP, and the Conservatives won the remaining 33 districts in the province—including 32 districts with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.

Which brings us to the current numbers and a very simple question: Are Canadian pollsters still underestimating the Conservative vote, specifically in Alberta? Here are the latest CPC numbers in the province from the last five pollsters in the field:

A simple average of the above numbers gives 48 per cent. Therefore, according to the current data, the CPC would have lost about 20 points in Alberta since last fall’s federal election.

I am a data-oriented person and I believe data—especially from experts with proven track records—is very often far more precise than mere impressions (albeit not always). This is not merely a belief of mine: It is a verifiable fact that political polling in this country has hit the mark far more often than not in recent years. Take a look for yourself.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I find this hard to believe.

One plausible hypothesis for these low poll numbers for the CPC in Alberta would be that the CPC leadership race has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to vast amount of polling data, has mostly been handled appropriately by both provincial and federal levels of government in this country. In fact, the latest Léger poll measures satisfaction for the federal government’s handling of the pandemic at above 70 per cent—a figure that has remained mostly constant for many months now.

Nonetheless, given that polls had also underestimated the right-of-centre UCP vote in the 2019 Alberta general election (see complete table here), this may be a systemic issue pollsters in this country may want to study further.


Theresa Tam: The buzzkill Canada needs

Politics Insider for Aug. 5: The chief public health officer says a vaccine won't erase COVID-19, Doug Ford changes his public image dramatically and buyer beware of certain Canadian-made hand sanitizer

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Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, recently told Congress he was “cautiously optimistic” that Americans could see a vaccine before the end of the year. Not so fast, says Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. “I would say that vaccine is a very important aspect of the response going forward but we can’t at this stage put all of our focus in the hopes this is the silver bullet solution,” she told reporters yesterday. “We’re planning … to manage this pandemic certainly over the next year, but maybe planning for the longer term, the next two to three years during which the vaccine may play a role. But we don’t know yet.” Slow and steady, Canada.

Try to see WE from 35,000 feet: Andrew MacDougall doesn’t believe Trudeau’s story on WE. MacDougall, the former director of communications to Stephen Harper, says the PM’s tale demands from its audience that he wasn’t hiding a thing the whole time, and simply waited for his parliamentary testimony to spell it all out for the country. But MacDougall, whose résumé demonstrates a certain acuity for political speak, has another word for Trudeau’s story: spin.

Why did it take five long weeks into a scandal that’s eroding trust and support in his government for Trudeau to let slip that he was actually the hero in this sordid tale? One would think it’s the kind of information you’d put out early, to help douse the fire before it started raging. I mean, how could Trudeau’s office have misplaced this (seemingly) exculpatory nugget? The answer is because it was most likely crafted after the fact. Welcome to the world of political damage control, friends, where the job is sifting through the embers of your failed spin to find an explanation, any explanation, that can stand up for a news cycle.

The Liberals have lost an MP to another line of workiPolitics broke the news that Michael Levitt, who represents a riding in North York, Ont., is stepping away to become president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. A draft message to constituents included a familiar refrain: “I know deep down that now is the time for me to put family first and come back home, both physically and mentally.”

What happened to the old Doug Ford? Before the pandemic arrived in Canada, the Ontario premier’s ratings were in the tank. Only a couple months later, Ford had flipped his reputation on its head. Your newsletter correspondent talked to people near him, Tory insiders, public-health experts and political opponents to get a sense of how the coronavirus forced the premier to evolve.

A cascading series of mid-March events jolted the premier into taking the virus seriously. Ford’s pre-pandemic reputation bent toward overconfidence. He’d gotten in trouble for various patronage snafus, including when he appointed his friend as provincial police commissioner. But a senior government source at Queen’s Park said the public response to that March Break misstep “caught the premier’s attention.” That’s when it hit home that the province was paying close attention, and demonstrated, the source said, “how much people hung on to every single word.”

Canada’s behind-the-scenes work at the World Trade Organization has produced a semi-workable appeals process that involves 23 signatory countries to what’s called a Multi-party Interim Arrangement (MPIA). The WTO’s formal appeals process has ground to a halt amid a lack of arbitrators. Now, a Canadian lawyer is among the roster of arbitrators cobbled together by the MPIA nations who will settle disputes: Valerie Hughes, senior counsel at Bennett Jones and veteran of 70+ WTO disputes. Before she joined the firm, Hughes was a senior bureaucrat in several departments.

As Canadian companies push out record amounts of hand sanitizer, Health Canada is busy catching up to any of the disinfecting gold that violates federal regulations. Yesterday, the department flagged HgH Integrative Aromatics for selling its Clean & Green Hand Sanitizer Gel, which reportedly contains “technical-grade ethanol” that “may pose a risk to health”—and has been recalled.

Murray Sinclair, a former judge and sitting senator who headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is dipping his toe back in the legal world. Sen. Sinclair is joining Cochrane Saxberg, which is the largest Indigenous law firm in Manitoba. CBC News reports Sinclair will mentor young Indigenous lawyers—many of whom were educated in mainstream law schools but are looking for guidance on practicing from an Indigenous perspective.

The feds are everywhere: Last week, your newsletter correspondent noticed a small jet flying above his apartment in Ottawa. FlightAware records showed the aircraft had flown from Winnipeg and was returning the same day. The day before it had popped over from Winnipeg to Dryden, Ont. Who exactly was on that plane? The department had an explanation. The Dryden flight carried a civil aviation inspector on a training run. The longer flight carried pilots who were maintaining flight hours. No cabinet ministers sneaking around on the public dime (this time).

General Dynamics is back at it: The company that built Saudi Arabia billions of dollars worth of light armoured vehicles is now building “combat support vehicles” for the Canadian military. The first of the batch should roll off the line in December. As you can see, they resemble mechanized warthogs.


The Trudeau WE testimony: What, you wanted a micromanager?

Paul Wells: The Prime Minister and his chief of staff laid out their arguments for how to defend this honker. There were just a few problems.

Nobody appreciates the subtlety of a light touch. We are pleased to take the Prime Minister at his word, as captured in Thursday’s virtual meeting of the Commons Finance Committee, and to report the sum of Justin Trudeau’s involvement in the development of the Canada Student Service Grant.

(a) Amid a global public-health crisis there is preliminary brainstorming. What about something like Katimavik, the PM asks. One presumes this is a familiar refrain.

(b) on April 22, more than a month after the coronavirus lockdown began, the PM appears on the front step of Rideau Cottage and announces that nearly $9 billion will soon be disbursed to post-secondary students and recent grads. Roughly one-tenth of that sum will go to a new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG). Trudeau’s announcement captures a certain conceptual tension—the program is for “students who choose to do national service and serve their communities,” and it will “provide up to $5,000 for their education in the fall.” It’s easier to be selfless if there’s something in it for you. On the day Trudeau makes this announcement, he does not know how the new program will be delivered.

(c) Sixteen days pass. Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, hear nothing further about the delivery of the CSSG. On May 8, hours before a cabinet meeting, they learn that the public service wants the program delivered by WE Charity, which was not previously in the business of delivering government programs. Trudeau is expected to go into cabinet and rubber-stamp this. He does not! He pushes back! He knows there are “perceptions” based on frequent interactions between WE and assorted Trudeaus and Morneaus. He has the CSSG pulled from the day’s cabinet agenda. He tells the bureaucrats to “try and make sure everything [is] done exactly right.”

(d) Fourteen days pass. Before another cabinet meeting, the PM is told that WE has been vetted and it checks out fine, and his “binary choice” is to let WE expand into the program delivery business or to abandon the CSSG altogether. Given this choice, he lets his May 8 concerns about perceptions slide and accepts the WE delivery mechanism.

So that’s a month, during which the Prime Minister’s only instructions are “wait” and “OK.” This is plausible, and would be plausible even in the absence of a global public-health crisis and attendant economic meltdown and, perhaps, even if somebody else were the Prime Minister. But Trudeau also spent his Thursday afternoon assuring everyone he takes a keen interest in youth service and that he has had, through unfortunate force of habit, to become a keen student of the conflict-of-interest law. So…this is how he watches a file like a hawk?

I should say that by the standards of the July they’d been having, Trudeau and Telford had a good afternoon. The opposition parties didn’t break them on the witness stand, forcing them to blurt out admissions of guilt. Trudeau was approximate in his understanding of things—how much did assorted Trudeaus and Morneaus get paid? Who in his office worries about whether somebody is or should be a registered lobbyist?—but Telford was poised, better briefed than her boss, and respectful even towards antagonistic MPs. (I’m reminded that it would be good if this government had somebody who was familiar with the PM’s thoughts and actions, and authorized to talk about them, full-time. Might as well dream big.)

Together Trudeau and Telford managed to put on the record the elements of an argument that can be used by Liberal partisans who’ve been wondering how on earth they’re supposed to defend this honker. Trudeau cares about The Youth. His government was moving at light-speed in a crisis. The civil service, which absolutely nobody is throwing under any kind of bus, made all the decisions everyone’s angry about. Apologies, which are off-the-rack in this government and never bespoke, have been deployed: they must “do better.” (Do what better? Never mind.)

Sure, bits of the argument do come untucked if you tug at them, including the notion that nothing was authorized before May 22, given that WE was at work on the program from May 5. Further investigation is needed and will happen. But I keep coming back to what we can learn even if we take the top Liberals’ testimony at face value.

First, that tension over what the CSSG was even supposed to do. Charlie Angus, the NDP’s lead interrogator, pointed out that the program would have paid $10 an hour, far less than the minimum wage. Trudeau was politely angry. Canada was built by volunteers, darn it, he said. (Fact check: mostly false.) If you insist on money for volunteering, he said, “then you are missing a really important part, Mr. Angus, of the fabric of this country.”

Contrast with Telford, who said later that as they considered which support programs the government could introduce, one question that occurred to them was, “How do we help those students who had rent to pay, who needed to put food on the table?”

Well, de deux choses l’une: Either you’re celebrating the fabric of the country, in which case you shouldn’t pay, or you’re helping students pay rent, in which case you need to stop chintzing. The Finance Committee has already heard from witnesses who said that if the government had simply run the CSSG in-house and avoided WE’s impressive overhead costs, it could have paid the program’s entire cohort a proper minimum wage. The lower stipend, handily, injected just enough money into the program that there would have been money left over to cover WE’s impressive overhead costs.

Second problem. Trudeau got into a debate with Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre over the content of the conflict-of-interest law. Do you know what Section 21 says, Poilievre asked. Trudeau couldn’t recite it by heart. Again, he shouldn’t be expected to. Poilievre refreshed his memory. It’s the section that says a public office-holder “shall recuse” himself from “any matter” on which there’s a conflict of interest.

Oh-ho, Trudeau said, but do you know how the act defines “family”? It’s an office-holder’s spouse or dependent children, he said, quoting from the act. So his mother and brother, he implied, can’t be included!

That’s great, except that the next paragraph after the one that defines “family” also defines “relatives,” in the way you or I would define relatives. And the rest of the act rules relatives’ benefits out, just as clearly as it forbids family benefits.

Trudeau’s triumphant little debating point was (a) useless (b) misleading (c) oddly similar to arguments that have been deployed on his behalf by Twitter trolls. So we’re left to wonder whether Justin Trudeau’s job is to win arguments over the definition of “family” in the conflict-of-interest act, or to understand the conflict-of-interest act.

Last problem. The CSSG represented half of one per cent of all the money this government has allocated to “supporting” Canadians. How confident are you that the other 99.5 per cent is in well-designed and well-administered programs?


Three key takeaways from Justin Trudeau's testimony

The Prime Minister's appearance to explain his latest ethics scandal revealed conflicting priorities, and that chaos is still possible in Canadian politics

The much-anticipated questioning of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, finally played out on the country’s laptop screens and televisions Thursday afternoon. 

It was MPs’ first opportunity to grill Trudeau on an ethics scandal during his five years as Prime Minister. They would be able to hear him explain, in his own words, how he and his government ended up partnering, to the tune of more than half a billion dollars, with a charity that has deep ties to his own family. 

Alas, surely to the disappointment of the opposition, this was, for neither official, a dumpster fire in the style of Finance Minister Bill Morneau. He, in the early part of his own testimony last week, revealed that he’d paid back some $40,000 to WE Charity for free trips his family had historically taken with the organization, for which his daughter works. 

But it did lead to some new insight in the PM’s timeline and decision-making, and new questions over his office’s involvement in the early stages of the program. Here are three takeaways from the day’s proceedings: 

1. Trudeau describes a truncated timeline and conflicting priorities in his decision-making

In Trudeau’s testimony, he asserted that he was not aware of WE’s involvement in the implementation of a student grant program until the matter was to be raised at a cabinet meeting on May 8. Neither was Telford, she stated.

Several staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office had been aware of the program and the recommendation for WE to administer it before that. Telford declined to formally commit to releasing the names of a “handful” of PMO staffers, a sticking point for opposition MPs. 

WE Charity wouldn’t sign a formal contribution agreement with the government until later in June. But on May 5, before the PM says he had knowledge of its involvement, the organization began working on the program. That was also the same day that a cabinet committee, sans Trudeau, had met to discuss it.

The knowledge that WE had already been chosen to administer the program led Trudeau to two conclusions, per his testimony. 

He recognized it was possible that questions would be raised over his own family’s connections to the WE empire. And, in light of the perceptions stemming from those connections, he decided there should be greater scrutiny on the program. 

Those two conclusions could have led Trudeau in a number of directions. He could have recognized that he should recuse himself, and asked his ministers to provide the due diligence he thought was required. He could have asked for a program scale-down, given his own instinct that the lower-capacity Canada Service Corps, within the public service, should administer such a program. 

Instead, claiming to be seized by his own interest in youth issues, Trudeau decided to participate in the due diligence that his own perceived conflict-of-interest would demand, then sit at the cabinet table for the final rubber stamp. That due diligence, by the way, seems to have consisted of a single briefing by officials two weeks later—and Telford declined to go into specific detail as to what due diligence exactly meant in this case. 

He now admits that this was a problematic rationale, whether or not you agree that there was an actual conflict-of-interest. Which he does not. Trudeau said he did “absolutely nothing” to influence the recommendation in the first place, and he strongly pushed back on the idea that the program would in any way benefit the Trudeau family members who had worked with, or received payments from, the WE organization.

2. The Prime Minister and his entourage are genuinely convinced of their own virtuousness. That leads to blind spots. 

Canadians can decide whether or not they believe that Trudeau and Telford have their hearts in the right place, and how earnest are their treatises on the importance of supporting Canadian youth.

But concerns around financial help, youth mental health and whether we’re going to have a “lost generation,” as Telford put it, are easy to back up with data and were strenuously defended by both of them. And as confident as they were about their pure intentions, there was a rare flash of humility. “We’re not perfect,” Telford admitted, saying that none of this went the way it was supposed to have gone. “But we are committed to doing better.” 

The enthusiasm for addressing problems facing youth would lead to several blind spots around finding solutions within the $9 billion envelope Trudeau announced on April 22. The ill-fated Canada Student Service Grant, whose details had not yet been nailed down, was announced as part of that package.

First, they underestimated how intense the questions would be over the appropriateness of outsourcing work to an organization deeply tied to Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s immediate families—even though the Prime Minister was well aware that questions would be asked and delayed its approval, according to his testimony. “We wanted to make sure that everybody was perfectly comfortable with it,” Telford said, referring to public servants and senior officials involved in the decision. The fact they arrived at perfect comfort is perhaps troubling.

Second, WE had been speaking with officials as recently as April about another, also costly, prospective program. While it is unclear whether its employees contravened lobbying rules through those engagements, the hearing Thursday made clear that nobody in the Prime Minister’s inner circle sought to clarify that point.

Third, much criticism around the program itself has questioned the virtue of paying students to volunteer, given that volunteerism is unpaid by definition. The amount they would’ve been paid was well short of minimum wage. But Trudeau flatly rejected that the spirit of volunteerism couldn’t be celebrated within such a structure.

Finally, Trudeau and Telford kept repeating that the cabinet’s decision was always a “binary choice”: Program? Or no program? It will perhaps strike Canadians as a little rich that there was no flexibility whatsoever in the program’s design, even as the government was contorting itself in myriad other ways to deliver pandemic-era programs. 

3. Unscripted anarchy is still possible in Canadian politics. 

Tired of endless talking points, scripted remarks and carefully-worded sparring? Happy to report that chaos is still very possible in Canada’s political life. 

On Thursday this took the form of Chair Wayne Easter losing power during a wild thunderstorm. As Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre was hammering Trudeau on questions over financial benefits his family has received from WE, a Liberal MP, Sean Fraser, interjected to let the others know that Easter was offline, having lost power. He figured they might suspend.

But an NDP MP, Peter Julian, piped in with a procedural note: Actually, the committee’s vice-chair could take over the proceedings. 

“That would be me,” Poilievre said. He then ceded the floor to “the member for Carleton”—himself. 

The ensuing exchange between him, Trudeau—who, though cornered, declined to provide a dollar figure to Poilievre for the umpteenth time—and Liberals attempting to make points of order was entertaining, though short-lived. Easter returned and cajoled Poilievre saying it wasn’t the first time he tried to “put his lights out.”

Sure, that lawless display may have reminded you of the filibuster antics or question period heckling from days gone by. But in an era of banal Zoom calls, we’ve sort of missed that eye-rolling performance art. And if there was a moment on Thursday when popcorn was appropriate, it was then. 


The WE scandal and Justin Trudeau's testimony: A primer

The Prime Minister took questions from MPs on the Commons finance committee. Here's what you need to know about Parliament's midsummer fireworks display.

In the latest development in the WE Charity drama that’s taken over Ottawa this summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared at the House of Commons finance committee on Thursday.

Twice before, the federal ethics commissioner has dinged Trudeau for breaking ethics rules. First, he took a secret family vacation to the Aga Khan’s island in 2016—and used a private helicopter to get there. Thus was born the commissioner’s first investigation report into the sitting PM. Last year, an exhaustive report into the PMO’s insistence that SNC-Lavalin be offered a deferred prosecution agreement—a mechanism that allows companies to escape conviction—found the Trudeau team had fiddled with prosecutorial independence. Both times the commissioner said Trudeau broke the law.

Mario Dion, the current commissioner, is investigating Trudeau once again. After the Trudeau Report and the Trudeau II Report, so there will eventually be a Trudeau III Report. Mary Dawson, Dion’s predecessor, said earlier this summer that Trudeau may have a “blind spot” on ethics.

So MPs have questions for a Prime Minister who keeps breaking the law and may be found guilty thrice before this is all said and done.

RELATED: The obvious lessons Justin Trudeau keeps failing to learn

His appearance was not unprecedented though. As parliamentary geek David Akin explained, four sitting prime ministers have testified at House committees—William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1924; R.B. Bennett in 1932; Joe Clark in 1979; and Pierre Trudeau every year from 1980 to 1983. Stephen Harper also sat down at a Senate committee in 2006 to talk about Senate reform. So it’s not unheard of for PMs to find themselves in this particular hot seat. But it is rare, so this is not exactly a typical meeting.

If you need a basic primer on the WE scandal, see the bottom of this post.

What did the opposition want to learn?

Before the meeting, Conservatives published a list of 16 questions they hoped to ask the Prime Minister. They probed the PM’s relationship with WE, his family’s financial ties to the organization, his understanding of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s connections to the charity, his staff’s ability to caution him against conflicts of interest, and how cabinet dealt with the matter. Some, including whether or not Trudeau would cooperate with a prospective RCMP investigation, embraced hyperbole (there’s no hint of criminal conduct at this point, though the Tories want an investigation). Others were rhetorical and unlikely to elicit anything but denials. Some weren’t asked.

What did Trudeau say in his opening statement?

In his opening statement, Trudeau revealed his version of a behind-the-scenes retelling of events. The PM said in early May, he hoped the Canada Service Corps, an existing federal program, could be “super-charged” to deliver the student service grant. He said the COVID-19 cabinet committee debated WE’s involvement in the grant program on May 5, and asked some tough questions. Three days later, on May 8, Trudeau first heard about the WE proposal during a pre-cabinet briefing. (See below for a full explanation of what the WE scandal is all about.)

At that point, Trudeau said he had his own questions about WE’s involvement. He removed the item from the cabinet agenda for that day. On May 21, the PM was again briefed on the WE proposal and was assured, he said, that the public service had done its due diligence—and WE was the only option on the table. “It wasn’t between providers,” Trudeau told the committee. “It was either happening or it was not.” On May 22, cabinet approved WE’s involvement.

What did MPs learn?

Here, we annotate the long list of Tory questions.

1/ Did Justin Trudeau or his office have any contact with WE before handing them a billion-dollar contract?

The Liberals would quibble with the premise of the question—the contribution agreement was worth $543 million. But on the substance, Trudeau said he had no direct contact with WE before they signed that agreement. His chief of staff, Katie Telford, said a member of the PM’s policy shop spoke to stakeholders about the grant program in broad strokes on May 5. WE was on that call.

2/ Was anyone in the Prime Minister’s office aware of WE’s proposals or helping to advance them?

The PM and Telford both claimed only to have learned of WE’s potential involvement on May 8.

3/ Was WE given a massive contract because of their close ties to the Trudeau and Morneau families and the Liberal Party?

This is one of those loaded questions.

4/ Did Justin Trudeau not think that Canadians would find out that WE had paid members of his family more than half a million dollars?

This is another of those loaded questions.

5/ Was Sophie Grégoire Trudeau paid for her WE trip to London in March?

The PM said WE covered Grégoire-Trudeau’s expenses, though under questioning Trudeau was unable to account for an itemized list and seemed unaware of specific trip details. He also couldn’t, for example, name the hotel where she stayed.

6/ Has Justin Trudeau’s family received other financial benefits from WE?

The PM confirmed recent reporting on remuneration received by his mother and brother.

7/ Are there other companies with financial relationships with the Trudeau family that receive government contracts?

The committee didn’t get to this question.

8/ Did the Prime Minister know that a member of the Finance Minister’s family worked for WE Charity?

The PM told parliamentarians he was aware that one of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughters had worked on WE projects, but added he was unaware that another of Morneau’s daughters was directly employed by the organization.

9/ Has the Prime Minister been involved in any contracts, grants or contributions that WE Charity received since 2015?

The committee didn’t get to this question.

10/ Did anyone warn the Prime Minister about the many conflicts of interest in this case?

We expand on this one below.

11/ Is there a conflict of interest filter at cabinet? Can the Prime Minister describe it?

Trudeau explained that it’s not up to him to talk to ministers about conflicts of interest. That job falls to ministers and their staff.

12/ Given he’s already been found guilty of breaking ethics laws twice before, has Justin Trudeau actually read the Conflict of Interest Act?

The PM—and later, Telford—said they had, indeed, read the conflict-of-interest rules. Trudeau appeared ready to consult a paper copy on his desk before Poilievre read him Section 21, which governs recusals.

13/ Does the Prime Minister believe that the meetings and discussions the Kielburgers had with various Liberal ministers and their staff are a contravention of the Lobbying Act?

When Poilievre asked this one, the Prime Minister said the Kielburger brothers weren’t lobbying government. (Technically, lobbyists only have to register when they spend at least 20 per cent of their time doing lobbying.)

14/ Has the Prime Minister ever read the Lobbying Act?

The committee didn’t get to this question.

15/ Will Justin Trudeau fully cooperate with any RCMP investigation into his latest scandal?

The committee didn’t get to this question.

16/ Will Justin Trudeau fully waive cabinet confidences so that the Ethics Commissioner can investigate his third ethics violation?

The committee didn’t get to this question.

What did Trudeau have to say about not recusing himself from the WE decision?

Trudeau said he was well aware of the existing connections between WE and his family—including his own appearances on stage at WE events for many years. He knew any WE involvement in the CSSG would be “closely scrutinized.” He was aware that his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, had spoken at WE Day events (including as recently as March 4 in London, U.K.) and hosted a WE podcast. He told the committee that the ethics commissioner had cleared Grégoire Trudeau’s volunteer work with WE, including reimbursement of expenses. Trudeau also said he knew his mom, Margaret, and brother, Sacha, had spoken at WE events. He was not aware of the details of that work, including payment. Under questioning from Poilievre, Trudeau did not offer the combined remuneration for all the Trudeaus.

What’s next?

Two House committees, finance and ethics, are currently studying the WE foofaraw. The ethics committee has so far met only in-camera on a study to “review the safeguards in place to prevent conflicts of interest in federal government expenditure policies.” But no one’s work here is done.

What is the WE scandal?

On April 22, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a student service grant program pegged at $912 million. Almost two months later on June 23, the feds announced WE Charity—an international development charity that describes itself as a youth empowerment movement—would administer the program. It didn’t take long for Trudeau’s critics to point out the PM’s long history with the charity, which raised suspicion that the fix was in from the start and WE Charity simply benefited from connections in high places.

On July 3, the $543-million contribution agreement that governed the program was kaput. And controversies piled up. Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, whose daughter works at WE, didn’t recuse themselves from cabinet discussions on the Canada Student Service Grant. Trudeau’s mother and brother had taken hundreds of thousands in combined speaking fees. Morneau failed to reimburse WE for a “complimentary” trip to Ecuador in 2017, a serious flub he revealed during testimony at a parliamentary committee on July 22. Earlier that day, he cut a cheque for $41,366 made payable to WE to repay the cost.

READ MORE: Every important number in the WE drama that’s consuming Ottawa

All the while, everyone was claiming the public service—not the PM or his staff—recommended WE Charity as CSSG administrators. Rachel Wernick, a senior civil servant, testified to that effect. So did Bardish Chagger, the minister who signed the contribution agreement. But the opposition wasn’t satisfied by what they’d heard, especially as the reputation of WE Charity came into question. Craig and Marc Kielburger, the brothers who co-founded Free the Children in 1995 (later WE Charity), testified for four hours at the Commons finance committee on July 28. Their responses raised yet more questions about the status of their charity as the pandemic hit—and they put up their hands to run the student service grant.

Is this hurting the Liberals in the polls?

The scandal appears to be dragging down the governing party, which had, like many parties in power across Canada, seen a bump for most of the pandemic. Abacus Data had the Liberals as high as 40 per cent in a June 20 poll, but they’ve since dropped five points. They’re just a single point ahead of the Conservatives. The Angus Reid Institute recently found the PM’s personal approval rating, which also saw a boost this past spring, has also dipped.



A literally explosive day on Parliament Hill (due to construction)

Politics Insider for July 30: The Prime Minister faces his opposition at the finance committee, the Tories process their ballots and Scott Brison—remember him?

Welcome to a sneak peek of the Maclean’s Politics Insider newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

If you’re in and around Parliament Hill today, you’re in for an explosive experience. Seriously. Excavations are underway in preparation for the second phase of the Hill’s subterranean visitors’ welcome centre. Listen for a brief symphony of horns honking before the final act—specifically, three short horn signals will give way to a minute of silence; then another short horn signal will be the final opener for a controlled explosion. Rinse and repeat until sunset.

Within the safe confines of a parliamentary committee meeting, Justin Trudeau will answer questions on the WE scandal. The PM will testify at the Commons finance committee starting at 3 p.m. His chief of staff, Katie Telford, will follow for her own session. Yesterday, the committee met to talk logistics before today’s rendezvous. Opposition MPs passed a motion that demanded Trudeau stick around for three hours. As of early this morning, the exact length of Trudeau’s appearance doesn’t seem to have changed.

The obvious lessons Justin Trudeau keeps failing to learn: Paul Wells and Marie-Danielle Smith, writing in Maclean’s, sketch the organizational structure of a Trudeau government that hatched the ill-fated Canada Student Service Grant. At the heart of the bungled file, they found a Prime Minister and a process and a program caught up in Trudeau’s recurring flaws.

If it were all just a sloppy bit of program design in the midst of unprecedented crisis, the WE mess would be bad enough. What makes it worse is the weary sense of déjà vu it provokes. This doesn’t feel like a random Trudeau screw-up. It feels like a highly characteristic Trudeau screw-up. It’s the sort of thing the Prime Minister does now and then.

Addison Cameron-Huff, a cryptocurrency lawyer in Toronto who knows his way around various corporate registries, dug into the “labyrinth” of organizations—that’s Craig Kielburger’s word—tied to the WE empire. Cameron-Huff found his way to an Internal Revenue Service tax form for the U.S.-based WE Charity, submitted last year, that [scroll to page 8] revealed a $297,570 consulting expense paid last year to 202 Strategies LLC. One of that firm’s tag lines: “Turn crisis into opportunity.”

The Globe and Mail dug into a separate $130,000 expense paid to Firehouse Strategies, a Republican-connected consultancy that has ties to individuals who last year tried to discredit Canadaland, a media outlet that has published critical stories about WE.

How they see us: Jason Leopold, a BuzzFeed News reporter, got his hands on a document meant to prepare then-homeland security secretary John Kelly for meetings with Canadians. The three-page primer on Canucks reminds us what it means to be Canadian: our head of state is the Queen of England (wrong—she’s the Queen of Canada); we all speak English (wrong—13.8 per cent of us don’t); and we keep small talk to a minimum (wrong—our Prime Minister loves to dish about Trump with fellow world leaders).

Economist Armine Yalnizyan told her followers that John Loxley, whom she called the “father of the alternative budget”—the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ annual exercise in left-leaning fiscal advocacy—has died. Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew said Loxley “helped shape my understanding of economics” at the University of Manitoba—where, Kinew says, he met fellow Manitoba pol Matt Wiebe at the back of the class.

Anyone can watch every single step involved in the Conservative party processing leadership ballots. When Maclean’s tuned in, a party operative wearing a Roy Halladay T-shirt was opening “outer” envelopes that contain both “ballot secrecy envelopes” and other required documentation. From there, submitted ballots and documentation are verified in another room. Don’t miss the “escalation area.” Party spokesman Cory Hann explained that some voters might have inadvertently placed all documents—not just their ballots—inside their secrecy envelopes. “Escalated secrecy envelopes” are opened to verify that all documentation was, in fact, provided, even if slightly incorrectly. This, folks, is radical transparency at a devastatingly slow pace.

A Tory leadership debate hosted by the Independent Press Gallery of Canada fell apart yesterday after Leslyn Lewis’s doctor ordered her to stay away and frontrunner Peter MacKay backed out because he would only join a debate that included Lewis. MacKay called for a virtual rescheduling asap.

One man’s accountability law is another man’s lost job opportunity. Jamie Carroll, a former national director of the federal Liberals, wrote an op-ed for National Newswatch that insisted Stephen Harper’s first piece of signature legislation, the Federal Accountability Act, has reduced the labour pool of experienced politicos to the point that the best prospective staffers are barred from working in government. Tory MP Dan Albas politely subtweeted that view with a tidbit of trivia about good people in Ottawa: Scott Brison once gave up his private member’s bill slot so Albas could advance a bill to liberalize wine trade within Canada. Brison took no issue with the compliment.


The obvious lessons Justin Trudeau keeps failing to learn

Tired, wired and operating with the fail-safes turned off, team Trudeau made a big mistake. And it had an awfully familiar feel to it.

By the time the Trudeau government decided the WE Charity should administer a program worth hundreds of millions of dollars in stipends to students who wanted to volunteer for other charities, the apparatus of the Canadian federal state was running way over its normal capacity.

There may be no precedent for the speed at which the Trudeau government, not renowned for its decisiveness, was suddenly making momentous decisions. A major new federal program can take a year or more to develop, debate, prep and troubleshoot. Take pharmacare and marijuana legalization as examples of how things usually go. Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Eric Hoskins, a former Ontario health minister, in June 2018 to come up with options for a federal pharmacare program. Hoskins submitted his report a year later. A year after that, there’s still no pharmacare program, nor was anyone really expecting one yet. A 112-page report on cannabis legalization was published in November 2016. In the spring of 2017, the Liberals tabled a bill to give the policy effect in the House of Commons. Pot wasn’t fully legal until the end of 2018.

The ship of state is no speedboat. And that’s usually a good thing, because haste makes for error.

But the global coronavirus outbreak put entire populations in danger. Keeping Canadians safe meant keeping them at home and shutting down much of the economy as a consequence. Dozens of new support programs were needed to ensure careers and businesses could go on hiatus without triggering waves of bankruptcies. Trudeau was announcing new programs every morning in front of his Rideau Cottage residence. Much of the criticism from opposition parties accused the Liberals of moving too slowly.

It was an environment ripe for trouble.

“I’ve seen a lot of decisions made, big decisions, in rapid-fire time,” one staffer to a cabinet minister told Maclean’s. “Huge programs, multi-billion-dollar programs have been put together really fast. The idea being that there was no time to wait.”

Public servants and political staff were working from home like everyone else. Interactions that would normally be easy had to be shoved through the same narrow pipeline of Zoom calls that have complicated life everywhere.

Structures were streamlined. Usually government business goes through a series of cabinet committees. At least one committee checks another’s work, questioning its assumptions, before a project goes to the full cabinet for what is almost always a final perfunctory green light. But in March most of the committees were shut down, leaving only the powerful Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee on the Federal Response to the Coronavirus Disease.

READ MORE: Pulling off a bureaucratic miracle: How the CERB got done

The coronavirus committee has Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as its chair and Jean-Yves Duclos, a former Laval University economist with a lower public profile, as vice-chair. Ideas for new support programs would come from that committee, bureaucrats would be tasked with figuring out how to implement the ideas, and the resulting product would go to full cabinet, sources familiar with the government’s crisis management say. A crucial step, oversight by a second cabinet committee, wasn’t available.

Tired, wired and operating with the fail-safes turned off, team Trudeau made a big mistake. The new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) would be administered by WE, which isn’t so much a traditional charity as a complex web of holding companies pursuing both charitable and profitable ends, administered by Toronto’s telegenic Kielburger brothers. WE’s fitness to run the CSSG would come under withering scrutiny, forcing the Kielburgers to withdraw from the agreement, abandon federal money paid up front and promise a thorough corporate restructuring.

And the fitness of Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau to sign off on the CSSG deal in the first place came under question, too, when it became clear both men and their families had long histories of close relations with WE. Trudeau’s mother and brother had chased speaker fees from various parts of the WE empire. Morneau’s daughter had worked at WE, and the family had travelled to Kenya and Ecuador on trips for which WE did not expect to be paid and that Morneau didn’t reimburse until the eve of his July testimony to the Commons finance committee.

Both Trudeau and Morneau are now under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner, not for the first time. Both have apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision to seal the WE deal. The WE fiasco has become the latest episode to rattle many Canadians’ faith in Justin Trudeau’s ability to run an efficient and irreproachable government. By late July, public opinion polls were showing a discernible dip in voter satisfaction with Trudeau, though probably not enough to endanger his re-election chances, should the opposition parties even work up the gumption to force an election.

RELATED: WE all fall down: the Kielburgers and Liberal ‘whataboutism’

One question the latest mess raises is, if Trudeau and Morneau can’t be trusted to notice conflicts of interest the size of barn doors, shouldn’t somebody else in their offices keep an eye out? Rachel Wernick, the senior bureaucrat who helped design the CSSG program, told the Commons finance committee that spotting conflicts of interest isn’t the public service’s job. Political staffers should be the ones keeping an eye out for political problems, she suggested.

One long-time politician Maclean’s interviewed had the same opinion. “Political staff are important in protecting their ministers who are dealing with and inundated with this crisis,” this veteran observer said. “And therefore it’s up to political staff to flag things like potential conflicts of interest, bring them to their minister’s attention so they can have a discussion both around perception and reality.”

If it were all just a sloppy bit of program design in the midst of unprecedented crisis, the WE mess would be bad enough. What makes it worse is the weary sense of déjà vu it provokes. This doesn’t feel like a random Trudeau screw-up. It feels like a highly characteristic Trudeau screw-up. It’s the sort of thing the Prime Minister does now and then.

Ethics commissioners Mary Dawson and Mario Dion have already found he twice contravened the federal conflict-of-interest law, first for his secret family vacation with the Aga Khan, then for sending wave after wave of staffers and factotums to sway Jody Wilson-Raybould in her capacity as attorney general in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Dawson, now retired, has said Dion is “fairly certain” to find Trudeau guilty yet again.

It’s becoming part of the lore of this government that nothing the hapless opposition parties do or say about Trudeau can damage his reputation as consistently as the decisions he makes. And to the extent that WE illustrates what’s become a reliably flawed governing style, its characteristics are worth examining, because Trudeau seems unwilling or unable to change his ways. The strain and rush of crisis didn’t make him do anything out of character, in other words: they made him act on instinct in familiar ways.

What are the elements of the Trudeau governing instinct?

First, a tight decision-making circle. Decisions are made “by a very small, very centralized group that very closely surrounds the Prime Minister—and at times acts as a barrier to others trying to get in to see him,” one former Liberal MP says. “MPs are often among the last to know about significant policy changes or new ideas.”

Trudeau’s MPs would hardly be first to complain that the Prime Minister is less than accessible. But Trudeau himself acknowledged, during the SNC-Lavalin crisis of 2019, that he had become too distant from cabinet and caucus members, and he pledged to change that. Instead, most of the staffers who were influential on the SNC file kept positions of influence in Trudeau’s government, led by his chief of staff, Katie Telford. The former Ontario provincial government staffer is now the second-longest-serving chief of staff since the position was created for Brian Mulroney in 1984. Only Jean Pelletier, the glowering and efficient chief of staff to Jean Chrétien, lasted longer.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in the House of Commons on May 13, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

After the 2019 election resulted in Liberal losses and a minority government, Trudeau seemed intent on making real changes to the structure of his government. There was an unusually long transition between the first and second Trudeau governments, lasting more than a month and presided over by women Trudeau trusted but hadn’t worked with closely: former justice minister Anne McLellan and Isabelle Hudon, a Montreal business leader who now serves as Canada’s ambassador to France.

That process led to one big change: the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as deputy prime minister, the first cabinet minister to carry that title since McLellan had served as Paul Martin’s deputy in 2005. Trudeau didn’t want to be the centre of attention all the time, people familiar with the 2019 transition said. Freeland was supposed to pick up some of the slack. That was indeed the way it worked out. For a while. But the new year brought a string of crises that left no room for a self-effacing Prime Minister: the attack on a Ukrainian airliner with hundreds of Canadian passengers in January; the national rail shutdown by protesters proclaiming their support of Indigenous rights in February; the COVID-19 crisis since March.

So power is right back where it always was, with Trudeau, Telford and a small cadre of loyal advisers. Freeland has had to admit she played no meaningful challenge function on the CSSG project, even though the committee she presides was part of its genesis.

Muscle memory has proved sturdier than superficial institutional reform. This is not entirely surprising. There are former senior Trudeau government staffers who delayed career decisions through the post-election transition and then handed in their resignations when they decided the new government would function too much like the first instalment.

The government “has no COO,” or chief operating officer, one long-time Trudeau adviser tells Maclean’s, speaking on condition of anonymity. Freeland was meant, in her new role as Trudeau’s deputy, to be a utility player, more or less active on files in ways that would vary with her interests and the needs of the moment. She doesn’t play any kind of central coordinating role over the bulk of the government’s activity.

RELATED: What Chrystia Freeland’s real role will be

Telford is the right-hand adviser of a Prime Minister who’d stand a good chance of winning his third consecutive election if forced into one, so any blanket condemnation of the system she presides over should be taken with a grain of salt. But Telford is said to be reluctant to drive processes to decision, and loath to let a major decision get made outside the PMO.

Cabinet ministers, almost all of whom were freshly elected rookie MPs when they entered government in 2015 or 2019, have very little decision-making autonomy. Ministers’ offices are expected to seek layers of approval for any action or statement—from their own department, from the bureaucracy’s central Privy Council Office and from the political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office. That’s a formula for delay, gridlock and groupthink, the tendency for dissenting voices to be mistrusted or discredited.

The Trudeau brain trust has had to learn to be zen about public criticism after it makes a decision because it has so little patience for private criticism during the decision-making process. Internal dissenters are at best gently mocked. Cyrus Reporter, the Ottawa lawyer who served as Trudeau’s chief of staff while the Liberals were in opposition, was sometimes called “the disapproving uncle” for his habit of pointing out the downside of the latest scheme. (Reporter worked in the Prime Minister’s Office for several weeks after the 2015 election, returned to his law practice and volunteered on the 2019 election in a senior role. He has not been shunned or excommunicated.) Scott Brison, whose job as treasury board president was to guard against foolish expenditures, was described by the chief of staff to another minister as sounding like the trombone voice of grown-ups in old Peanuts cartoons. You shouldn’t do that, womp-womp-womp. At different times, Stéphane Dion and Jane Philpott were criticized for being overly harsh in their criticism of other ministers’ work at cabinet. Eventually, in different ways, both Dion and Philpott were no longer at the cabinet table.

So it’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that the WE deal didn’t get its tires kicked thoroughly around the cabinet table. Tough questions aren’t conspicuously rewarded in this government.

Co-founders of WE Craig and Marc Kielburger are seen on stage during WE Day California in Inglewood, California, U.S. April 25, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

What is rewarded, consistently, is a certain quantum of showbiz razzle-dazzle. Some of the most poignant testimony the finance committee has heard as it investigates the WE mess came in late July from Rahul Singh, the founding CEO of GlobalMedic, a Toronto-based international relief charity whose stated mission is to be “an efficient aid agency that delivers the maximum amount of aid with a minimum operating cost.”

GlobalMedic retooled quickly to deliver crisis relief within Canada during the COVID-19 lockdown, and Singh testified he was able to identify more than 800 volunteer positions that could have been filled by students receiving CSSG grants. So on April 22, the day the program was announced, he called the PMO to let them know. He didn’t hear back from WE, in its capacity as CSSG administrator, until June 15. GlobalMedic was no closer to getting its students enrolled for CSSG stipends when WE pulled out of the scheme on July 3. By the end of July he still hadn’t heard from the minister responsible for administering the CSSG, Bardish Chagger, about what will happen in the wake of WE’s withdrawal.

GlobalMedic is an established charity with excellent connections, including in Liberal Ottawa. Singh moved fast and in the spirit of the program. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that his only mistake was to not be a Kielburger, with a long history of delivering a rock-star spotlight and adoring audiences to various generations of Trudeaus and Morneaus. This was reminiscent of the ease with which the Aga Khan managed to turn Justin Trudeau’s head with the offer of a tropical vacation in 2016. Every politician strives to be just like the rest of us. Trudeau seems to have a particularly hard time remembering that part.

Repercussions from the WE affair will take months to play out. As soon as word of the Kielburgers’ deeply intertwined relationship with the Trudeau and Morneau families became headlines, the brothers undertook a radical overhaul of their family business, bringing in outside consultants to design changes in WE’s mandate, structure and transparency. So one question we’re left with is this: will Justin Trudeau make comparable changes to the way he runs his family business? Does he even have it in him?

This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Justin Trudeau’s flaw.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


WE all fall down: the Kielburgers and Liberal 'whataboutism'

Tying other parties to WE won't work unless opposition politicians or their relatives took money for their appearances. But that's not discouraging the Grits.

Grasping for any available defence or deflection from Justin Trudeau’s WE scandal, government MPs relied on a familiar approach, a Liberal security blanket of sorts: Stephen Harper whataboutism.

The retort of “your side sucks too” is more typically the refuge of hyperpartisan trolls on social media. But the tweeted and hashtagged tit-for-tat games now tend to bleed into our legislative debates and hearings, so politicians who should know better engage in logical fallacies, too. They respond to charges of Alleged Misdeed du Jour by dredging up Alleged Misdeed de 2008, or raise 2015’s Seemingly Innocuous Occurrence.

At the Commons finance committee, Liberal MPs routinely tried to “Whatabout” the Conservatives over their governing days and other opposition parties’ involvement with WE Charity and WE Day. The Kielburger brothers gamely played along.

RELATED: Every important number in the WE drama that’s consuming Ottawa

“To your knowledge, have federal Conservative MPs or ministers or prime ministers or individuals who are affiliated with the Conservative Party or any other opposition party appeared at WE events and/or hosted WE events?” Québec MP Annie Koutrakis asked, as though the mere presence of individuals with the Trudeau surname at the motivational student days at hockey arenas was the pit and prune juice of the Liberals’ current ethical mess. In her followup question, the Liberal went further: “Specifically do you recall being hosted at 24 Sussex back in April of 2013 after WE day in Ottawa?” The Harper days!

Craig and Marc Kielburger went on a name-dropping spree: Laureen Harper did host a WE reception at the Prime Minister’s residence; Alberta Conservative MP Mike Lake had been on WE-sponsored stage to discuss autism and his son; Peter MacKay’s spouse Nazanin Afshin-Jam spoke, conservative Prairie premiers Scott Moe and Brian Pallister were great supporters—and on the other side of the spectrum, provincial NDP leaders Rachel Notley and Wab Kinew in various capacities, too. “Truly we appreciate that the issue of service isn’t a political issue, we hope shouldn’t be a political issue—that every party believes in getting youth to volunteer and serve,” Craig replied to Koutrakis’ gently lobbed questions.

When Sean Fraser, a Nova Scotia Liberal, asked about WE programs with the past government, Craig got to mention former Conservative ministers Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty, and offer this conveniently selected factoid: “There’ve been previous years in the previous government under Harper where we actually had a higher percentage of our total budget given by the federal government than last year under the Trudeau government.” That’s an assertion which attempts to tiptoe past the fact that it wasn’t last year that Trudeau’s cabinet directed the operation of a hastily designed $543.5-million program (including up to $43.5 million in administration payments) to the Kielburger-led charity.

RELATED: Five takeaways from the Kielburgers’ testimony

The other politicians or spouses weren’t paid for their involvement with the organization that had long stated it didn’t pay for appearances—except to a select few speakers who do “auxiliary” events alongside WE Days, including Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother Sacha. So the potential conflicts of interest don’t apply, despite the strained parallels the governing MPs attempt to make. “I’m wondering if Mr. Lake, Madame Harper, Mr. Pallister—were they paid by your organization or did they engage you with a half-billion dollar contract?” Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked during the committee. (Craig, in a non-answer, replied that he really appreciates their work, all the same.)

Linking politicians of all stripes to WE does serve to remind the public of the charity’s longstanding reputation for good works, to which leaders across Canada and across decades have sought to attach themselves. Stephen Harper was also happy to associate himself and government grants with the Aga Khan, years before Trudeau accepted a helicopter lift to the philanthropic religious leader’s private island. With the Aga Khan, as with WE, sharing a stage is not the same as landing oneself into an ethics investigation for sharing much else.

Trudeau himself had played this bit of WE whataboutism earlier this month in House of Commons debate, so what about the likelihood he does so again when he faces the Commons committee?


Every important number in the WE drama that's consuming Ottawa

A $912-million program with a $43-million payout and 100,000 student volunteers who needed $5,000? And what about that $41,366 cheque?

The scandal of the summer doesn’t go by a single name. Is it the Kielburger affair? Maybe the WE affair? The value of the failed program at the heart of the scandal, the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), ranges from $543 million to $912 million. As far as scandals go, this one’s got a lot of numbers, and numbers within numbers. It’s a bit of a Russian nesting doll. As the Tories call for the heads of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his finance minister, Bill Morneau, here is a comprehensive look at every significant dollar total, data point and date in the scandal with no name.

$912 million: The total value of the Canada Student Service Grant when the program was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 22. A comprehensive table that lays out all federal emergency spending estimates still assigned that number to the CSSG program on July 28. A separate estimate, last updated on July 24, pegs the program’s cost at $900 million.

$543.53 million: The total federal funding allotted to the CSSG according to the contribution agreement signed by both WE Charity Foundation representatives and Minister Bardish Chagger. (Read the full contribution agreement here.) The discrepancy between this figure and the $912-million estimate hasn’t yet been fully explained by federal officials.

$500 million: The total federal funding allotted for students, who would be eligible to receive $5,000—paid in increments of $1,000 for every 100 hours volunteered.

$43.53 million: The total federal funding allotted to WE Charity Foundation for “eligible expenditures” associated with the “design, implementation and delivery” of the CSSG.

$33.03 million: The amount to be paid to WE Charity Foundation as early as July 2, only nine days after the contribution agreement was finalized.

$5 million: The total loss to WE Charity Foundation after the cancellation of the contribution agreement on July 3, according to a statement made by Marc Kielburger during parliamentary testimony on July 28. (Kielburger said WE had already started spending funds, including the hiring of staff.)

40,000: The combined number of students who could sign up for what the contribution agreement calls “WE volunteer service opportunities across Canada,” which included roles with both WE and the program’s other non-profit partners.

60,000: The combined number of students who could sign up for what the contribution agreement calls “non-WE volunteer service opportunities,” which would be “generated by not-for-profits who proactively reach out and would like to be part of the program.”

$41,366: The total amount reimbursed to WE Charity by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who’d joined his family on a service trip to Ecuador in 2017

$12,000: The total amount that would have been available to teachers who recruited students into the CSSG, according to a Globe and Mail report that cited a WE posting.

390: The number of employees at WE Charity before layoffs prompted by the pandemic.

187: The number of employees at WE Charity after layoffs prompted by the pandemic.

33: The length, in words, of the affirmation given by each of the Kielburgers when they appeared before the House finance committee (“My name is Craig/Marc Kielburger. I do swear that the evidence I shall give on this examination shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”)

20: The length, in minutes, of the opening statement the House committee granted the Kielburger brothers on July 28

10: The actual length, in minutes, of the Kielburgers’ opening statement

Key dates in the WE affair

March 27: WE Charity’s chair of the board, Michelle Douglas, resigns after a disagreement with the organization about the disclosure of financial documents. WE was in the process of laying off staff in the midst of the pandemic.

April 9: The WE Charity submitted a youth entrepreneurship proposal to the federal government.

April 19: Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada, requested an urgent phone call with Craig Kielburger to discuss a prospective federal program that would evolve into the Canada Student Service Grant

April 22: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces the creation of the CSSG. Craig Kielburger submits a proposal to Wernick that would see WE Charity deliver the program.

June 12: In a statement he’d later retract and apologize for, Marc Kielburger tells Canadian youth organizations that the Prime Minister’s office contacted WE directly in April to take on implementation of the CSSG. When the National Post reported on a leaked version of that videoconference, WE reportedly reiterated that a senior public servant—Wernick—actually made the call.

May 5: The contribution agreement formalizing WE Charity Foundation’s administration of the CSSG goes into effect.

June 23: The contribution agreement is signed by Scott Baker, the head of WE Charity Foundation; Victor Li, WE’s CFO; and Minister Bardish Chagger. The agreement is implemented retroactively to May 5.

July 2: WE Charity Foundation would have collected more than $33 million.

July 3: The contribution agreement is cancelled.

July 21: Finance Minister Bill Morneau receives a bill from WE Charity for the costs of a trip, initially covered by WE Charity, to Ecuador in 2017.

July 22: Morneau testifies at the Commons finance committee, and states that he cut a cheque to WE earlier that day.

July 28: The Kielburgers testify for four hours at the finance committee. They followed Douglas, who testified for an hour.


The Nova Scotia inquiry: Maybe next time, listen first

Paul Wells: An unprecedented avalanche of public contempt got the fake inquiry turned into a real one. The question remains, what was Ottawa thinking?

There’s something satisfying in watching a house of cards collapse. It’s reassuring to be reminded that there is, in fact, a level of absurdity that is unsustainable from people who depend on votes for their positions. And so, with due respect to the Kielburger brothers and their marathon testimony to the Commons Finance Committee on Tuesday, by far the day’s most heartening spectacle was the governments of Nova Scotia and Canada finally closing a show that had run too long, the Refusal To Hold A Public Inquiry.

“We’ve listened to Nova Scotians,” federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair wrote on Twitter, where this government does all its best work. Well, yes, I suppose listening to Nova Scotians was an option. It seems to have occurred to the minister a bit late.

Blair was writing to concede defeat in the face of an avalanche of public contempt such as I’ve rarely seen in 31 years in journalism. The contempt was the appropriate reaction to Blair’s attempt, in concert with Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey, to improvise a stunningly bogus “review” of the April 18-19 murders in and around Portapique, N.S. The review, they announced last Thursday after three months of dithering, would take the place of a public inquiry under the available federal and provincial Inquiries Act, and would have every characteristic of an inquiry except public hearings, subpoena power and the ability to compel witnesses to testify under oath. That’s like announcing you’ve invented a fruit that’s like a banana in every way except it isn’t yellow, bendy or edible. And expecting gratitude.

As often happens with unwise structures—a faulty bridge, the Hindenburg—the collapse was quick and spectacular. Questions from journalists calling in to Thursday’s announcement by Furey and Blair were real stumpers. I’m told “Who asked you to do this?” was a particularly low blow. Furey was big enough to admit the answer was “no one.” By Friday, at his regular COVID-19 news conference, Premier Stephen McNeil was feeling the outrage and starting to blame the Trudeau government.  “The reality is that we all know today that we have a public inquiry going on in this province that the federal government is not sitting at the table. We want them at the table. They need to be part of the solution.”

McNeil was referring to the inquiry into the deaths of Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond and members of his family in a gruesome murder-suicide. McNeil’s government called the inquiry under provincial law, but even though it obviously has a lot to do with federal portfolios like Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Forces, only a lawyer representing the Attorney General of Canada is attending the hearings.

What McNeil was hinting was that the Trudeau government was privately threatening to boycott, and thus to wreck, a formal inquiry that will inevitably focus on the performance of the RCMP. I still do not understand why he didn’t just say so. Federal and provincial governments are not superior and inferior. They’re sovereign in their jurisdictions, and to say the least, there is ample precedent for a provincial government crying foul when Ottawa doesn’t act appropriately.

A Halifax colleague suggested a cat might have McNeil’s tongue because Nova Scotia receives $4 billion a year in federal transfer payments. My own theory is that we were being given a runaround. If Blair could appear with Furey and swear he’d make the RCMP cooperate with a fake inquiry, he could bloody well ensure they’d participate in a real one. Except it was increasingly clear both governments were terrified of what a real inquiry might find: a perpetrator who might well have a working relationship with the police force that was tasked with stopping him, and vast stretches of rural Canada that might discover it’s not protected by competent and accountable police.

So the Blair-Furey announcement was a shambles, the McNeil presser was a festival of passive aggression, and suddenly it was the weekend. The contempt for the governments’ action was wall-to-wall. Honestly, there’s always somebody happy to defend something any government does, even in Belarus, but not this time. Monday was given over to 22-minute wildcat strikes across Canada and to a #22reasonswhy social-media blitz to pressure the governments.

It worked. Nova Scotia’s nine Liberal MPs had signed, or been presented as having signed, a letter endorsing the fake inquiry on Friday. Tuesday morning the CBC reported that one of them, provincial New Democrat turned federal Liberal Lenore Zann, now said she hadn’t been consulted on the federal response and disagreed with it.

Lenore Zann is the MP for the riding where the murders happened. Bill Blair needs to look around his office, find who decided to ignore Zann, and fire that person. If that person resides in Blair’s mirror my advice is the same.

By midday three more Nova Scotia Liberal MPs were disagreeing with their public position from Friday. So along came Mark Furey, echoing McNeil’s sotto voce argument that Ottawa was the problem. Sure he’d like a full inquiry, Furey wrote—if the feds would ensure the RCMP and other federal agencies participated.

Finally, Blair decided he wasn’t going to be the only politician sticking to last week’s principles. He’ll transform the fake inquiry into a real one under the federal Inquiries Act, with subpoena power and sworn testimony, just as everyone with an interest in this story has demanded since it happened.

We are left to draw lessons.

Everybody—everybody—who had expressed an opinion on this question had called for a public inquiry with real power to compel testimony. Here’s my first column on the subject, five weeks ago. By then law professors, Nova Scotia Senators and the victims’ families had already repeatedly called for an inquiry. Furey had promised one so frequently that his repeated assurances were already hard to take seriously. In early July, dozens of the country’s major women’s groups announced their impatience with both governments’ apparent willingness to claim a “restorative approach” as a pretext for a toothless process. By mid-July, my questions to both governments were being answered with distracted, meaningless boilerplate of the sort governments now routinely spit out when they can’t be bothered even to read the questions.

This is the problem. These two Liberal governments are the problem. I come late to the McNeil government in Nova Scotia, but I have lived long enough with the Trudeau government in Ottawa to be heartily sick of its crap. They both spend far too much time talking to themselves because they like the answers better than the ones they would get if they listened to citizens.

So they consult but they never listen. They proclaim the value of evidence-based policy, and then they pick a judicial process, an NGO to administer a social program, a Governor General without bothering to seek out any evidence. When you complain, they threaten you: what if the other guys were in power instead? As if the other parties were a walking license to govern badly.

I really believe the communications style of these governments, particularly the one here in Ottawa, is at the very heart of its current malaise. If you can’t explain yourself, it may be because you’re doing something indefensible. If you won’t even read questions before emitting non-answers, it may be because you haven’t begun to think. If the only comfortable conversations you ever have are with five or six people in your office, it may be that you’ve forgotten what you might ever have known about the country.

That’s why people were so angry. We still think we live in a democracy. In fact, we insist on it.


Five takeaways from the Kielburgers' testimony

It was a different sort of WE day in Ottawa, as the charity's co-founders appeared before the House finance committee. Here’s what you need to know.

There were no tough questions on the name of the charity itself, which could understandably cause confusion in how to read particular statements: “We (WE?) regret that WE (we?) didn’t recognize how this decision would be perceived.” Or: “WE (we?) wish that we (WE?) had never answered the phone.”

But WE, and we, as it were, had quite a day.

A marathon House finance committee hearing on Tuesday featured the testimony of a former board chair of WE Charity, Michelle Douglas, and a four-hour Q&A with co-founder brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger.

The afternoon-long videoconference yielded nuance, conjecture and, unsurprisingly, bickering as MPs continue an investigation into the Liberal government’s decision to award a contribution agreement to WE Charity for the administration of the dead-on-arrival Canada Student Service Grant program.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is facing his third ethics investigation over the foofaraw, will add his own testimony to the pile on Thursday.

Here are five key takeaways from the five-hour circus:

1. A Parliamentary committee is an infuriating forum for parsing questions of fact

If it weren’t for the grace, chairmanship skills and occasional shouting of Liberal MP Wayne Easter, the committee hearing could at times have turned into a brawling disaster.

MPs can perhaps be forgiven for falling into partisan patterns, but this sometimes led to curious veerings off course. Precious minutes were spent litigating details such as the date of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s testimony to the committee—which was only six days ago. Conservative MP Michael Cooper, for his part, was interested in the means of transportation Morneau’s family might have taken to get from the airport to WE accommodations during trips they have since reimbursed the charity for. One of the proffered methods: “motorized canoes.”

In addition to the usual political hyperbole were MPs’ attacks on each other for their questioning styles, phony points of order and confrontational debates with witnesses that left questions unanswered and tempers flaring.

New Democrat Charlie Angus and Conservative Pierre Poilievre were especially guilty of overplaying their hands, with the latter causing Easter, three hours into the Kielburgers’ testimony, to raise his voice and threaten to suspend the meeting altogether.

2. But the Kielburgers missed an opportunity to gain public sympathy

Canadians watching the committee testimony will arrive at their own opinions on the sincerity of the Kielburgers, their cause and their explanations over a gruelling four hours.

It was hard to miss, though, their frequent chuckling at MPs’ questions. As laughable as some of the politicking may have been, there was a constant flavour of condescension in the responses. On Craig’s face, as he extolled his own virtues, was a smirk reminiscent of Trudeau’s—a smirk, accompanied by a smize, that seemed to ask: “How dare you question my righteousness?”

The Kielburgers expressed delight at the opportunity to respond to committee members’ questions and dispel what they called media “mischaracterizations” and “misinformation,” despite their organization’s reported reluctance to address journalists’ questions over the past month and earlier. Your correspondent could not find any examples of open-ended “accountability” style interviews given to the press by either brother in recent years.

Now a “beautiful” program, with “beautiful” partnerships, is dead in the water. Inaccurate political and media statements, the brothers said, are “killing” their charity and “harming young people in this country in the process.” Will their committee performance convince prospective donors to reverse that trend?

Even as they were dealing with a particularly prickly Poilievre, will it help their case that Marc’s exasperated response was that they’d been sitting at the committee for longer than “anyone in the SNC-Lavalin or Duffy affairs”?

3. The Kielburgers’ self-described ‘labyrinth’ organizational structure is still murky

WE Charity. ME to WE Foundation. ME to WE Social Enterprise. WEllbeing Foundation. Imagine1day. WE 365 LP, and at least two other entities that sound like the prototype numbers for do-gooder androids. There is such a long list of entities in the WE umbrella that the former chair of WE Charity’s board, Michelle Douglas, wasn’t confident enough to say how many.

The brothers clarified that they need to incorporate in every country where they operate. And under Canada Revenue Agency rules, charities can’t operate as businesses in the administration of “social enterprise,” said Craig. So they had to “build a labyrinth to adhere to Canadian laws and regulations.”

Marc later explained the two started the charity when they were children. He said it’s like building a house. “You add a wing, and add a skylight, and add a swimming pool for your kids,” he said. “This wasn’t out of malice.” A global consulting firm, Korn Ferry, has been hired to help streamline the structure.

The Kielburgers said the government was fully briefed on the fact they planned to use a separate nonprofit entity, the WE Charity Foundation—which had been set up to help limit liability—as a party to the contribution agreement. (In the agreement, WE agreed to full liability for participants in the program.)

4. Transparency issues plagued the charity even before the current controversy

Former board chair Michelle Douglas, in her testimony, described concerns around the executive team’s refusal to provide substantial financial records that would allow the board to fulfill its functions.

“I did not resign as a routine matter or as part of a planned board transition. I resigned because I could not do my job. I could not discharge my governance duties,” she said in an opening statement.

She described in March, the executive—including Marc and Craig—had not fulfilled requests for evidence, reports or data that could support their rationale for laying employees off during the pandemic. In a March 25 phone call, she alleged that Craig asked for her resignation. She gave it. Most of the rest of the board left the organization shortly thereafter, although Craig claimed in committee that this could be explained by an existing “renewal” process.

Douglas said she had also raised concerns, in early 2018, about the WE Charity Foundation. “The board was never satisfied that the operation of this foundation was in the best interests of the charity or its various stakeholders,” she said, adding her understanding at the time was that the organization was intended to hold property. In their testimony, the Kielburgers dismissed the real estate claim as an inaccuracy, saying there were “multitudes of purposes” for such an entity.

Although Douglas said nothing in the organization’s operations caused her “deep concern,” she described a climate characteristic of “founder-led” organizations: “We were always striving to get greater insight into the work.”

5. Transparency issues have worsened the scandal for Trudeau

The first time Marc Kielburger heard the figure $912 million—a figure repeated over and over during the past month—was when it came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, he told the committee. It’s not the only dollar figure that has come to plague the government without apparently having a basis in fact.

The contribution agreement provided to the committee on Monday details the actual amounts in the agreement. Up to $500 million could be disbursed to students in grants for volunteer hours. Up to $43.5 million would go towards program fees incurred by WE Charity.

According to Marc, based on the organization’s modelling the ultimate cost would have likely been in the range of $200 to $300 million. WE would not have gained any profits, they claimed—the program fees were to cover “summer teachers,” or supervisors, technology grants for students in rural areas, translations, a call centre, insurance, etcetera, etcetera.

The Kielburgers further asserted that they incurred a $5 million loss when the program was cancelled.

If the Prime Minister had been clear on any of the above, could he have mitigated the impression that this was not only a rush job and a personal conflict-of-interest problem, but a case of cronyism and “friends helping friends,” too?

On the ethics front, no interactions between the Kielburgers and government ministers came to light for the first time during the testimony. Many of the specifics to do with conflict-of-interest concerns around Trudeau, Morneau and their families—speakers’ fees for Trudeau’s family members and a bill for Morneau’s trip to Ecuador, among other things—were still to be provided to the committee. Trudeau testifies on Thursday.


It's a different kind of WE Day on Parliament Hill

Politics Insider for July 28: Craig and Marc appear at the finance committee, Doug Ford gets folksy and Rideau Hall invites circus puns with the GG's newest hire

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Never has a federal “contribution agreement” endured such scrutiny. The document codifying WE Charity‘s delivery of the Canada Student Service Grant was supplied to the Commons finance committee, after which it was supplied to Ottawa journalists. They reported a strange finding. The CSSG was pegged by Department of Finance spending estimates as a $912-million program, but the official agreement added up to only $543.5 million—with an even $500 million headed for students’ bank accounts, and the rest to WE and its charitable partners. Add questions about that minor discrepancy of $368.5 million to the pile as everyone on the outside looking in keeps finding new reasons to furrow their brows.

In the same tranche of documents, the Globe and Mail observed that WE would have received $33 million by early July, only weeks into the life of the program. CBC News published the details of correspondence between public servants and WE co-founder Craig Kielburger. The Toronto Star noted that WE Charity had started working on the program before cabinet signed off on it.

Tomorrow, the finance committee will hear testimony from the Kielburger brothers, Craig and Marc, as well as WE Charity CFO Victor Li. Parliamentarians will also talk to Michelle Douglas, the former chair of WE’s board of directors who told the Globe she resigned earlier this year over “concerning developments.”

The finance committee will also hear this week from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford. The PM will sit in the proverbial hot seat for an hour—which, a Tory partisan points out, means Trudeau will face tough questions for just a fraction of 60 minutes after an opening statement and friendly questioning from fellow Liberals. Of course, Liberal MPs were happy to say what they really thought when they went off the record with the Hill Times.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford settled into his populist, folksy happy place at a press conference yesterday. Ford expressed disbelief at reports of a 200-strong party hosted by an as-yet-unnamed Brampton man. Evoking tasty images of sharp eastern Ontario cheddar improperly placed on a fibrous, Ontario-made Breton cracker, the premier chirped that “you’d think that the cheese slipped off the cracker with these people.” Ford even half-requested news agencies “name and shame” the man, adding the city should fine him $100,000 and his “yahoo” party-goers $800 a head. (Only a few days ago, Ford said he “never believed in hitting someone with an $800 fine,” because “people are hurting right now.” Patience apparently disappears quickly. The local mayor, Ford frenemy Patrick Brown, did confirm charges were laid.)

Will Canada stand against modern slavery? Terry Glavin, writing in Maclean’s, shines a light on one Liberal MP’s quest to get his government to take seriously a human-rights disaster in China. John McKay, a parliamentarian for 23 years, appears to have hit a brick wall.

While the Trudeau government is coming under increasing pressure to extricate Canada from commercial supply chains compromised by slave labour in China, a frustrated senior Liberal MP says the Prime Minister’s Office appears to be ignoring mounting evidence that China’s persecuted Uyghur minority, after being rounded up into re-education camps in the northwestern province if Xinjiang, is now being corralled into industrial gulags to satisfy the needs of global corporations.

God forbid the federal government call a loss a loss. Trade Minister Mary Ng announced a “partial agreement” with Australia on a complaint from down under about Canadian tariffs slapped on wine imports. The Aussies whined to the World Trade Organization that the duties violated global rules. Canada backed down, but dressed up the slap-down as a continued effort to “ensure a competitive Canadian wine industry.” Meanwhile, as the Aussies are popping a bottle, B.C. MP Dan Albas—a noted champion of freer trade in liquor across provincial borders—revived a call for more B.C. wine across Canada.

Prepare the circus puns: Governor General Julie Payette‘s office has brought in Brigitte Carbonneau, a 25-year veteran of Cirque du Soleil—where she reportedly worked on “high profile and sensitive files”—to ensure that “deadlines and quality standards are met for all documentation related to the Governor General.” CBC News obtained a leaked memo from the GG’s secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, announcing the hire.

Finally home: After a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean during which HMCS Fredericton lost six crewmates in a helicopter crash, the ship returns to port in Halifax today. Tareq Hadhad, a Syrian refugee and new citizen who co-founded a sweets company called Peace by Chocolate—and once told Maclean’s he would cherish his right to vote in Canada—has crafted bespoke chocolate bars for everyone aboard.


338Canada: The end of the Liberals' pandemic bump

Philippe J. Fournier: While the Liberals still hold a solid lead over the Conservatives, a host of new polls shows the party beginning to shed support

While many Canadians are taking much needed time off from work and/or their pandemic routines, the news cycle out of Ottawa has not slowed down one bit. The WE Charity stories alleging potential conflicts of interest with the Prime minister and Bill Morneau, the minister of finance, appear to be evolving daily.

One question on the mind of many is whether Canadians are actually paying attention. (And do they care?) No fewer than four new federal polls were published in the past week to measure the impressions of Canadians:

  • Léger’s weekly COVID-19 tracking has the Liberals at 39 per cent nationally, 11 points ahead of the Conservatives. While Léger polled the Liberals as high as the mid-40s earlier this summer, these newer numbers still suggest the LPC remains in majority territory. Moreover, satisfaction with handling of the pandemic remains high with all levels of government, with 74 per cent of Canadians satisfied with the federal government and 79 per cent satisfied with their provincial government. See Léger’s full report here.
  • Innovative Research’s July survey also has the Liberals up by double digits over the Conservatives. However, notice this excerpt from Innovative’s poll report: “Though approval of the government’s handling of COVID-19 has remained stable, general satisfaction with the federal government has been declining since May.”
  • Abacus Data’s latest release shows the Liberals sliding in voting intentions to 36 per cent, with the WE stories making a noticeable dent in both government satisfaction and overall impressions of the Prime Minister. From Abacus’ report: “It is worth noting that 31 per cent of those who voted Liberal say the WE Charity controversy was about trying to reward friends and supporters.”
  • Finally, the latest poll from EKOS Research Associates shows similar numbers to Abacus’, with the Liberals at 35 per cent nationally, down six points since EKOS’ previous poll in June. According to EKOS president Frank Graves: “While the WE Charity scandal clearly hurt the Liberals, there is no evidence that it has helped the second-place Conservatives, who haven’t budged in the polls since the election.” See EKOS report here.

We add these latest figures to the 338Canada model and present today this updated electoral projection. All federal polls are listed on this page. For details on the 338Canada methodology, visit this page.

The Liberal Party remains on top of voting intentions with an average of 37 per cent nationally, seven points ahead of the Conservatives at 30 per cent:

The NDP has remained remarkably stable throughout the spring and summer and currently stands at 17 per cent. The Greens and Bloc are at 7 per cent each (the Bloc stands at 30 per cent in Quebec).

The regional breakdown of support still heavily tilts towards the Liberals: The LPC leads by an average of 23 points in Atlantic Canada, by six points in Quebec (over the Bloc), and by 11 points in Ontario. Additionally, the LPC currently leads a tight race in British Columbia—six points over the Conservatives and only 10 points over the NDP.

As for the Conservatives, they remain comfortably in the lead in Alberta and in the Prairies.

Here is the progression of national voting intentions since January 2020. We see the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical tie throughout winter, and the Liberals taking the outright lead from April to July:

Has the pandemic/CERB bump in the polls come to an end for the Liberals? It certainly is a plausible hypothesis at this point in time, and we will know more in the coming weeks, but once again we must use caution with summer numbers, as several Canadians are on vacations and fewer voters usually pay attention to the news. Nevertheless, it appears the Liberals have indeed shed some support of late.

For the Conservatives, while they could rejoice in seeing their main rival slide for the first time since early spring, these latest numbers show the CPC has remained stuck at the 30 per cent mark (or below) since April. In short, the latest Liberal misfortunes have not yet translated into additional Conservative support. The new leader of the CPC will be elected in the second half of August, so it will be interesting to see what kind of bump—if at all—the CPC gets then.

In the national seat projection, the 338Canada model has the Liberals winning an average of 177 seats, just above the 170-seat threshold for a majority at the House of Common. Notice however that the confidence intervals show the real possibility of the LPC falling into minority territory.

The Conservatives win an average of 102 seats. According to these numbers, the best-case scenarios for the Conservatives would have them win around 125 seats, slightly above their 2019 election result of 121 seats. The Bloc, NDP and Greens all remain close to their 2019 election results.

From a purely political point of view, every sitting government in Canada has enjoyed surging support and increased satisfaction level to some extent since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada’s borders. The federal Liberals were no exception. But as the pandemic goes from a public health crisis to a financial one with billions and billions of dollars of projected deficits, which governments across the country will keep voters on their side to weather the storm ahead? And will the WE Charity stories coming out on an almost-daily basis of late further hurt the Liberals in the eyes of voters?

This fall’s parliamentary session should be interesting to say the least.

For complete numbers of this 338Canada federal projection, including regional and district-level projections, visit 338Canada


The Nova Scotia shooting 'review' and the deafness of government

Paul Wells: Everyone was demanding a public inquiry. What we got was something zero people asked for—a toothless, rickety review panel.

We might as well give it a name, this odd feeling of having been heard, understood—and ignored—by government.

It’s a familiar enough sensation, after all. It’s not that the lines of communication have broken down. It’s not that the message isn’t getting through. It’s not even that governments are inert or inactive. On the contrary, they’re whirlwinds of action. They’re just doing… something else… besides what circumstances warrant and populations demand.

This odd feeling is all I have after Mark Furey, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, and Bill Blair, the federal minister of public safety, announced the end of three months of confusion about how governments would respond to the April mass murder around Portapique, N.S. They’re convening a review. It’s like a public inquiry, only toothless and secretive. But look, they’ve put nice people in charge of it!

As recently as Wednesday, hundreds of people, many of them relatives and friends of the people Gabriel Wortman shot dead on April 18 and 19, marched in Bible Hill, N.S., demanding a full public inquiry into the murders. They are joined in this call by several of the country’s most prominent women’s groups; dozens of senators, including most of the senators Justin Trudeau has appointed; and much of the Dalhousie University law faculty.

Here’s the Nova Scotia Public Inquiries Act. It’s six paragraphs long. Two of them ensure that inquiries will have the power to compel witnesses to testify under oath. That’s central. As the women’s groups put it, “We wish to express our grave concern about, and opposition to, the use of any process for the federal-provincial response to the Nova Scotia mass shooting which is not fully open and public or which does not mandatorily compel the pertinent institutions and state actors to provide relevant information.”

So that’s who asked for a public inquiry. Who asked for an independent review panel? Give Furey credit for this much: When I asked him, he admitted nobody had. That’s zero people.

The rickety claptrap Furey and Blair announced will be backed by stern letters from both ministers ordering organizations they’re responsible for to cooperate with the review. That list includes “RCMP, the Canada Firearms Program, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Criminal Intelligence Service and the national Alert Ready Program.”

What happens if an organization ignores a stern letter? Well then, by God, the review panel can… complain to Blair and Furey (or their successors; the review panel is to report by August, 2021, which may well be after Nova Scotia and federal elections). If that doesn’t get the recalcitrant agencies to play ball, well then, by God, the review panel can… say so, in public.

Stop, or I’ll shout “stop” again.

What’s to stop an RCMP officer from, say, retiring from the force and suddenly being institutionally out of reach of the review panel? Nothing, but thanks for asking. What’s to ensure you and I can see the testimony so we know whether it’s reflected in any final report? Nothing. There’s no provision for any public testimony, let alone for subpoena power or sworn veracity.

The ministers put great emphasis on the fact that interim and final reports from the panel will be public. They were extravagant in their praise for, as Furey put it, the “competence” of the panellists, who are led by former Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald and include former Fredericton police chief Leanne Fitch and Anne McLellan, the former federal justice minister who gets called for everything these days.

I agree they’re competent! But in our system (I find myself having to explain, as if to a child), we don’t send people into public tasks armed with only their competence. We normally like to arm them with an apparatus of law. Anne McLellan was competent before she had the authority to introduce laws in Parliament. But it was the authority that made her a minister of the Crown. Leanne Fitch was competent before she had the authority to administer lethal violence. But it was the authority that made her a cop.

I know Furey and Blair know this. Their news conference was an exercise in saying obvious things while ignoring other obvious things, for reasons about which we can only speculate until one of them writes his memoirs. In that gap between the act and the explanation, a gap that will certainly last years, lies the latest erosion of our sense that we are understood by the people who get to confiscate our money and tell us what we are permitted to do. It’s alienating.

Before the ministers’ announcement, I asked Dalhousie University law professor Archibald Kaiser for some comment on the delay in announcing any sort of inquiry. Kaiser sent me a long, thoughtful essay. “Instead of reassuring the public, the behaviour of governments has been opaque, tardy, uncertain, avoidant and condescending,” he wrote. “It is hard to make sense of why there have been so many bungles and missed opportunities in the aftermath of Canada’s worst mass killing.”

Probably this… thing the ministers have concocted will be better than nothing. Certainly the two governments’ amen corners will activate on Twitter to warn us that if we are ungrateful, other parties might replace them in government, and then where would we be. This is our lot: government by slogan, diversion and threat. Surely there should be a name for that.


Bill Morneau's very bad day

Politics Insider for July 23: The finance minister limps through an appearance at committee, the U.S. is no longer safe and the Maid of the Mist is packed—with Americans

Welcome to a sneak peek of the Maclean’s Politics Insider newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

Who among us hasn’t lost track of $41,000? Yesterday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau admitted to a serious bout of fiscal illiteracy that reminded most people watching that he was wealthier than them—and then he apologized for it. Morneau was testifying at the Commons finance committee, which expected to grill him about his non-recusal on WE’s involvement in the fledgling Canada Student Service Grant. But the FinMin, for whom the old cliché “embattled” now sounds appropriate, gave them the red meat they never expected.

Morneau’s family embarked on two WE trips in 2017—one to Kenya and another to Ecuador. They repaid $52,000 in expenses for the Kenyan jaunt, but only yesterday did he cut a cheque for $41,000 in expenses related to the South American sojourn. He and his family had, Morneau said, not noticed that they hadn’t accounted for those expenses. If he’s telling the truth, that’s damning all on its own for a minister whose daughter works at WE, and whose family donated $100,000 to the charity over the past few years—including $50,000 last month.

The comparisons came at Morneau fast. The sum at hand added up to more than the average Canadian income in 2017, and more than 2,500 glasses of orange juice—perhaps the worst expense ever claimed in the Harper era—at London’s Savoy Hotel. Eventually, Morneau virtually limped away from the committee. The Tories are now demanding his resignation.

And then, in a split second, Morneau’s boss stole some headlines. The Globe broke new news at 3:38 p.m. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself staring down a serious case of embattlement, will testify at the same committee. The date and time are still to be determined.

Speaking of ethics and the law, access-to-information commissioner Caroline Maynard submitted a special investigation into the Department of National Defence‘s poor record on disclosing public information. Maynard identified not one, not two, but nine serious concerns with the department’s conduct. And she referred a case of potential law-breaking, in which she alludes to possible destruction or falsification or concealing of documents, to Attorney General David Lametti. Anyone found guilty of breaking that particular law can face hefty fines or even time behind bars.

The U.S. is no longer safe: A federal judge has ruled the Safe Third Country agreement, a bi-national deal with the Americans, unconstitutional. The terms of the agreement say that refugee claimants must make their claims at the first safe country they reach. They can’t arrive in the U.S., and then venture north to make a claim at a Canadian port of entry. But the judge’s ruling—read it in full here—concluded that claimants who are turned back from Canada could face imprisonment in the U.S.—a violation of their Charter right to “life, liberty and security of the person.” Shall we start the countdown to the Trump tweet?

Jason Markusoff, writing in Maclean’s, observed that the judge was able to step in where the Trudeau government, wary of breaking the asylum pact with an unpredictable and anti-refugee White House, would simply not tread.

When the feds eventually wrestle with the massive deficit and look for “efficiencies” that are often code for “real people with jobs,” the famously recession-proof nation’s capital may be in for a reckoning. But for now, collective bargaining with annual pay increases is still on the table. Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos announced a new tentative agreement with 10,000 public servants in “technical services” that’ll see their salaries rise by 6.64 per cent over three years. That agreement only extends to next July, though. The previous contract expired back in 2018.

Twenty-seven per cent of all federal workers—that’s 76,804 employees—took what’s known as “699” leave in the first 11 weeks of the pandemic. CBC News reported that specific absence, which covers workers who are “unable to report to work for reasons beyond their control,” cost the feds $439 million. The largest public servants’ union said school and child-care closures, which kept kids at home, forced parents to make alternative arrangements.

Buckingham Palace had no comment: The latest allegations of harassment at Rideau Hall has senior management in damage-control mode. CBC News reported that Julie Payette’s second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, sent an internal memo that committed to “fostering a healthy work environment.” Buckingham Palace sent a brief statement to CBC: “It’s a matter for the GG’s office.” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has called for an independent investigation.

Mark your calendars: On July 28, our friends at Ottawa Magazine are hosting a fireside chat with Mayor Jim Watson. The order of the day is a conversation on how cities—including the nation’s capital—can recover from COVID-19. Sign up for the virtual event right here.

The Maid of the Mist, coronavirus and America’s ship of fools: Even as Canada’s coronavirus case count ticks up amid large-scale economic reopening, the impression persists that Canadians are treating the pandemic with seriousness and Americans are routinely more cavalier about it all. An image of duelling ferries beneath Niagara Falls—one has barely anyone aboard, the other is packed—tells the whole story.