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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is like a child who, when caught doing something wrong, admits to it in dribs and drabs; but only when his back is up against a wall.
Trudeau has been embroiled for weeks in a controversy over a sole-sourced contract handed to WE Charity, an organization with close ties to his government and to members of his family. At first, Trudeau said there was nothing wrong with awarding the contract, claiming WE was the right organization for the job. (WE has since backed out of the deal). He was happy to stand by that, until reports surfaced that his mother and brother were paid by the organization for speaking engagements, and that his wife was reimbursed for expenses incurred while volunteering for the charity.
That forced Trudeau to admit there was an "appearance" of a conflict. That was his first admission of guilt. The prime minister said he should have recused himself from a May 22 cabinet meeting where the contract was approved. He apologized for not doing so.
That was just the beginning of the story. Canadians later found out WE was in contact with government officials as early as mid-April to discuss their possible involvement in administering the Canada Student Service Grant program. WE even started incurring expenses in early May before the contract was approved by cabinet (a revelation heard at the House of Commons finance committee Thursday that has still not been properly explained). Trudeau said he knew nothing at the time about those discussions or transactions, a claim that’s increasingly difficult to believe.
During his testimony at the finance committee, Trudeau squirted out another piece of information he was hiding. He said he first heard of the WE contract just before a May 8 cabinet meeting. The prime minister said he knew there would be questions about the proposed contract because of his family’s cosy relationship with the organization. He was so concerned about it, he now claims, he had his officials take the item off the agenda for that meeting. He "pushed back" and insisted the public service take another look at the contract to ensure it had done its due diligence, he said.
It’s unclear what kind of "due diligence" the public service supposedly did during those two weeks. Whatever it was, it didn’t stop Trudeau from approving the contract two weeks later.
The story that government continues to peddle is that WE was the only organization in Canada that could administer this program. They couldn’t possibly know that without going through a competitive bid process. Had they issued a request for proposal (which, with very few exceptions, is what governments are supposed to do by law when hiring third parties for service contracts), they would have been able to properly examine their options. One of the reasons governments have procurement rules is to prevent politicians from giving contracts to their friends or political allies.
The argument that government didn’t have time to tender the contract is disingenuous. Government began discussing the summer student program in mid-April and didn’t officially announce it was up and running until late June. Within that two-month period, government could have issued a request for proposal. They could have expedited the process if necessary, as the federal government has done with other RFPs during the pandemic.
Instead of instructing the public service to issue an RFP, Trudeau approved the sole-sourced contract at the May 22 cabinet meeting knowing full well he was in a conflict of interest. That’s not a momentary lapse in judgment. That’s a premeditated act.
Trudeau made the same piecemeal admissions with the SNC-Lavalin scandal. He began by denying the story outright. Once he could no longer do so in the face of evidence, he admitted there may have been some misunderstandings around his government’s attempt to cut the Montreal-based engineering firm a deal on its criminal prosecution. As evidence grew, he was forced to concede that he did try to interfere in the prosecution, but argued there was nothing wrong with doing so.
Trudeau’s first instinct is to deny and cover up. When he’s caught, he admits to as little as possible until he’s forced to admit more. The WE Charity controversy is a continuation of that pattern.
The question for Canadians is: how long can they tolerate that level of deceit from their prime minister? Eventually, the untruths and the manipulation will catch up with him.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
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