One of the co-founders of WE Charity says he “misspoke” when he told youth leaders that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s staff reached out in April to see if the organization would administer a $900-million federal student-aid program.
The comments are in response to a video of the Zoom call with youth leaders obtained by The Canadian Press, in which Marc Kielburger says Trudeau’s office reached out the day after the prime minister first announced plans for the Canada Student Service Grant on April 22.
“I misspoke,” Kielburger said in a statement on Tuesday. “Speaking loosely and enthusiastically, I incorrectly referred to the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, the outreach came from unelected officials at Employment and Social Development Canada.”
Trudeau has been on the defensive since the government revealed last week that WE had been chosen to administer the grant program, which will provide students with up to $5,000 to put toward their education costs for volunteering for causes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grants are aimed at students and recent graduates who can’t find work because of the pandemic.
The attacks against the prime minister have included allegations of cronyism and questions about a conflict of interest as Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, both have longstanding connections with the Toronto-based organization.
The official Opposition Conservatives referred to those connections in a letter to auditor general Karen Hogan on Sunday, asking her to investigate the decision to have the charity administer the student grant program.
The prime minister has said the decision to use WE was made by the non-partisan public service, not by him, and that delivery of the grant program demanded an organization able to reach the tens of thousands of people the government hopes will sign up.
Contact from assistant deputy minister: Kielburger
In the video, Kielburger describes Trudeau’s April 22 announcement that the government planned to provide more money for summer jobs and volunteer positions as “substantive” given the challenges many young people are expected to face paying for their schooling during COVID-19.
“Then the next day the Prime Minister’s Office kindly called us and said: ‘You know that announcement we just made, would you be interested in helping us actually implement?”‘ Kielburger says in the recording. “After much consideration, we put up our hand and said: ‘Of course, we’re happy to be of assistance.”‘
Kielburger backtracked from that statement on Tuesday, saying that “contact came to We Charity the week of April 26 from a senior assistant deputy minister” at Employment and Social Development Canada and various additional members of ESDC staff.
“In fact, all discussions came at the instigation of departmental officials and they led discussions with respect to contract and program parameters,” he added.
WE did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about whether there was any contact between Trudeau’s staff and the charity the week of April 20.
That’s when Trudeau first announced the student grants and Kielburger, on the video, told the youth leaders that the call was received.
Asked to respond to the video on Tuesday, Trudeau spokesman Alex Wellstead said: “No one from the Prime Minister’s Office asked We Charity to administer the Canada Student Service Grant.”