Trudeau apologized this week for failing to recuse himself from the cabinet discussions that led his government to tap WE Charity to run the program after it emerged that the Toronto-based organization had paid his mother and brother hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. But it’s not clear whether he has succeeded in changing the subject.
The opposition, stung by Trudeau’s reelection last year and quieted by his generally well received performance against the novel coronavirus, is having a field day. The leader of the separatist Bloc Québécois has called for him to step aside as prime minister until the ethics inquiry has been completed. Conservatives have wondered aloud whether, say, a criminal probe might be needed.
The Canadian media, meanwhile, is asking how the Liberal leader, who swept into office in 2015 on promises to run a government beyond reproach, continues to walk into ethical controversies. A parliamentary committee opened hearings on Thursday.
Whatever the ultimate findings, analysts say, the controversy has already further chipped away at Trudeau’s brand and could cost him the political capital he has accrued from his handling of the pandemic — imperiling his effort to recover the parliamentary majority he lost in the October election.
“It’s not his first offense,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “You can’t quite dodge that. Your opponents will always bring it up. It will always be part of your story.”
Sands added that “bad news does travel” — repeated ethics lapses could sully Trudeau’s reputation abroad, too.
The arrangement with WE Charity quickly raised eyebrows. Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an “ambassador” and podcast host for the charity; she traveled to London in March for a WE event. (It was during that trip that she is believed to have contracted the novel coronavirus. She has since recovered.)
The prime minister himself has on several occasions attended WE Day, an annual youth empowerment rally. There was no competitive process for the agreement.
Trudeau initially defended the contract, which would have paid WE Charity more than $14 million, saying the organization had been recommended by the nonpartisan public service. He said the public service had determined it was the only group in Canada able to administer the grant program — a claim met with skepticism from some in the charity sector.
Then the National Post published a video from a June conference call in which WE Charity co-founder Marc Kielburger told youth leaders it was the prime minister’s office that had “kindly called” and asked whether they’d run it. Kielburger later said he “misspoke.”
With controversy swirling, the contract was severed and public servants were told to take over. Canada’s independent ethics commissioner launched his probe.
Last week, it was reported that the charity and its for-profit arm had paid Trudeau’s mother, Margaret, and his brother Alexandre more than $220,000 for speaking at events from 2016 to 2020, a revelation apparently at odds with a previous WE statement that Trudeau’s mother was “never paid an honorarium.”
Trudeau apologized Monday for failing to recuse himself from cabinet discussions on the contract. He said it was “not surprising” that the charity paid his family members but he didn’t know how much they were being paid. He said he should have known.
“I made a mistake in not recusing myself immediately from the discussions, given our family’s history, and I’m sincerely sorry,” he said.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, whose family also has ties to the organization, also has apologized. The ethics commissioner is also investigating Morneau’s involvement.
WE Charity said Thursday it was launching a review and restructuring, scaling back activities and canceling future WE Day activities for the foreseeable future.
The controversy is threatening the boost Trudeau has received from his coronavirus performance. Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said support for the prime minister had slipped five points to 50 percent in data the pollster released this week.
Though Trudeau’s base is committed, Kurl said, non-Liberals who might have been giving him“grudging respect” for his coronavirus response are “remembering why they were annoyed with him to begin with.”
Canada’s ethics watchdog has twice found that Trudeau has broken conflict-of-interest and ethics laws.
The watchdog ruled last year that Trudeau had used his office to “circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” the attorney general when he pressured her to cut an out-of-court deal with SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based construction firm facing corruption charges. The scandal left the leader on the ropes for much of 2019. He said he had taken “many lessons” from it but did not apologize.
The ethics commissioner ruled in 2017 that Trudeau had contravened the law when he vacationed at a private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Shiite Ismaili Muslims. The report also found that he should have recused himself from two discussions “during which he had an opportunity to improperly further the private interests” of the Aga Khan’s institutions.
Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University, said the controversy has common threads with the latter incident. Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, grew up on the public stage. He described the Aga Khan as a close family friend — he said he called him “Uncle K.”
“[Trudeau] is a bit of a unique case under the conflict-of-interest regulations, where not everybody would have this kind of brand, this kind of celebrity status and these kinds of connections,” Turnbull said. “We’re seeing him manage his private life and his responsibility to the public …
“I think it accounts a little bit for why he has had a few investigations into him. But also there’s obviously a judgment piece.”
Trudeau’s judgment was questioned again last year when photos and a video of him dressed in brownface and blackface as a younger man emerged.
Sands, of Johns Hopkins, said the current controversy also raises questions about the advice Trudeau is getting, given that the ties to WE Charity were well known. He said it also plays to a stereotype that the Liberal party is permeated with a sense of entitlement.
How damaging it ends up being, Kurl said, will depend on how well the opposition can keep the story in the headlines in the middle of the summer and during the pandemic, particularly as the Conservatives are also focused on a leadership race.
A third ethics investigation “either solidifies [Trudeau’s] reputation as being a prime minister who has problems with entitlement and is unethical,” she said, “or it solidifies his reputation as a prime minister who really, truly struggles with understanding where the line is on ethics.
“Either way, that’s bad news.”