Finance Minister Bill Morneau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday July 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Finance Minister Bill Morneau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday July 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Morneau repays $41K in travel expenses to WE, faces resignation calls

Cabinet ministers are forbidden to accept such a benefit

Finance Minister Bill Morneau faced calls for his resignation Wednesday after revealing he had just repaid over $41,000 in travel charges to WE Charity — an organization MPs heard had multiple contacts with his office while the government planned its $900-million student-volunteer program.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also agreed to testify before the House of Commons finance committee probing the aborted agreement, a rare move for a prime minister. So will his chief of staff, Katie Telford.

Trudeau’s office said exact times and dates for those appearances have yet to be set.

The federal ethics commissioner is already investigating Trudeau’s and Morneau’s role in giving the WE organization a contract to run the Canada Student Service Grant, which the government presented as a way to help students with education expenses as they faced a summer of unemployment in a COVID-19-stricken economy.

It would have paid the group up to $43.5 million.

Both have apologized for not recusing themselves from discussions because of their familial ties to the organization — Trudeau because of speaking fees paid to his brother, mother and wife, and Morneau because one of his daughters is nearing the end of a one-year contract in an administrative role.

READ MORE: PM Trudeau agrees to appear at House of Commons finance committee over WE deal

(Trudeau also faces a call to testify before the Commons ethics committee, which late Wednesday voted to seek copies of records for his and his family’s speaking appearances dating back years and to call him to appear. Six opposition members outvoted five Liberals to have that committee start its own investigation.)

Morneau began his appearance at the finance committee by saying he sent a cheque to the WE organization Wednesday to repay $41,366 in expenses the group covered for trips his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017 to see some of its humanitarian work.

In a statement following Morneau’s testimony, WE said those trips were always meant to be complimentary, part of a practice of showing donors WE’s work to encourage them to give more.

Morneau said he always planned to personally cover those amounts, but WE never charged him, much to his surprise after poring through receipts ahead of his testimony. He said his family has since made two $50,000 donations to the charity.

It wasn’t appropriate to accept the expenses even unknowingly, Morneau said, adding he passed the information on to the ethics commissioner.

“I’m not making an excuse. It was my mistake,” Morneau told the committee.

Cabinet ministers are forbidden to accept such a benefit, a lesson Trudeau learned after the ethics watchdog cited him for his family’s 2016 vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island.

Morneau was found in violation of rules in 2017 for failing to disclose to the ethics commissioner a private holding company that owned a villa in France.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre told Morneau he had “lost the moral authority to hold your office” as the Official Opposition called on the finance minister to step down.

“It’s time for Bill Morneau to resign,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters on Parliament Hill.

“You would have thought that he would be extra careful after already being found to have violated (rules), but once again, we see a pattern from the Liberals that one set of rules for them, and one set of rules for everyone else.”

READ MORE: Students ask Liberals to scrap grant program as Morneau to testify on WE deal

The timeline of events Morneau provided the committee on the WE controversy began April 5 when he had a conversation with Trudeau about how to help students whose summer-job and volunteer opportunities were vanishing due to the pandemic.

Two days later, WE was one of a dozen groups his office contacted to gauge challenges and possible program options.

WE sent a pitch to ministers on April 9 for a different, but related, youth program that would have cost between $6 million and $14 million. Morneau said the same day he got a briefing about a potential grant program for students looking to gain experience over the summer.

Trudeau told the House of Commons that pitch made its way to his office via the normal policy process, but was ultimately rejected.

By April 18, WE was being discussed as an option as Morneau’s officials raised the idea of partnering with a non-profit, or for-profit group to administer the program. Morneau said it was the first time he was involved in any talk about WE and the grant program.

A senior Finance Department official, Michelle Kovacevic, told the committee Wednesday that on April 20, Morneau’s office connected with WE to suss out its ability to deliver a volunteer program.

She told the committee that the records of the call note that “WE Charity will re-work their 10-week summer program proposal to fully meet the policy objective of national service and increase their current placements of 8,000 to double.”

Morneau approved going with an outside organization to run the volunteer program on April 21, but no specific group was chosen. The next day, Trudeau announced the broad parameters of the program, and WE sent an updated pitch to the department now taking the lead: Employment and Social Development Canada.

Morneau spoke with WE co-founder Craig Kielburger on April 26, but the minister said neither he nor Kielburger talked about the Canada Student Service Grant program.

On May 4, Kovacevic said, WE sent a third proposal to ESDC, this time with more details and specific to the grant program. (Kovacevic said she received it May 7.)

The next day, Youth Minister Bardish Chagger went to a cabinet committee with the recommendation to go with WE. Cabinet, including Trudeau and Morneau, approved handing the reins of the program to WE on May 22.

The Liberals have said the non-partisan public service recommended WE, calling it the only organization able to launch a program as quickly and as broadly as the government wanted.

The opposition parties argue the timeline of events suggest the Liberals gave the charity the inside track on landing the program.

WE ultimately gave up the program at the start of the month as controversy swirled, along with criticism about effectively paying students below minimum wage and calling it volunteering.

Weeks later, the government is stumbling to roll out a pared-down version of the program.

Chagger told reporters officials are looking at multiple ways and programs to deliver the grants, but neither she nor ESDC provided a timeline for things to roll out.

Two groups representing thousands of post-secondary students called on the Liberals to abandon the troubled program and push its $912-million maximum budget to other student supports.

The Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations say it’s clear the program, which pays students up to $5,000 toward education costs based on the number of hours they volunteer, won’t provide the financial help students are looking for.

— With files from Stephanie Levitz

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusLiberalsMorneau

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and two new death in the region Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
79 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths reported in Interior Health

Both of Friday’s deaths were both recorded at long-term care homes

Interior Health reported 91 new COVID-19 cases in the region Jan. 20, 2021 and three additional deaths. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
95 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health, two deaths

Another member of Vernon’s Noric House has passed

KBFR
Driver taken to hospital after hitting ditch near Genelle

Kootenay Boundary first responders attend single vehicle accident, RCMP investigate

Long-term care staff and physicians from the priority group received their first dose of Moderna vaccine on Friday, Jan. 15, including Dr. Corrine Knox. Photo: Submitted
Moderna vaccine arrives in Trail

Vaccine rollout began in West Kootenay with long term care residents and staff the first recipients

The Trail Curling Club closed its doors for the rest of season in response to an extension of provincial health orders. Photo: submitted.
Trail Curling Club cancels remainder of season

The Trail Curling Club had an emergency meeting last week to deal with the PHO extension

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Sunnybank in Oliver. (Google Maps)
Sunnybank long-term care in Oliver reports third COVID-19 death

The facility currently has an outbreak with 35 cases attached to it

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital surgical unit

Despite 6 South being a surgical unit, RIH said surgeries are continuing at the hospital

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

Volunteer firefighters from Grand Forks Fire/Rescue head towards the scene of fatal car crash near Gibbs Creek Road, below Highway 3, Thursday evening, Jan. 21. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Motorist dies in Highway 3 crash west of Grand Forks

City first responders were called to the scene Thursday evening, Jan. 21

Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram could be playing for Colorado when the NHL resumes play. (Rik Fedyck/file)
Cranbrook product Bowen Byram makes NHL debut with Avalanche

Highly touted prospect marks first pro game following World Junior tournament in Alberta

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Most Read