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

School board chair Rod Ross voted on the Langley School District’s annual budget on Tuesday, Feb. 23. The budget was impacted by the pandemic in several ways. (YouTube/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Pandemic means less overseas student revenue for Langley School District

The board of education approved its annual budget Feb. 23

School Board Trustee candidate Joel Neufeld said his favourite children’s book is Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. (Special to The Star)
Langley School District trustee candidates pick favorite children’s books

Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Robert Munch, and Dr. Seuss top the list

(File photo)
Township to hold COVID-safe baseball spring break baseball camps

Aldergrove minor baseball and North Langley Trappers run two week camps

The Langley School District has issued COVID-19 notifications for H.D. Stafford Middle and Blacklock Fine Arts Elementary schools. (Langley Schools)
The Langley School District has issued COVID-19 notifications for H.D. Stafford Middle and Blacklock Fine Arts Elementary schools. (Langley Schools)
Langley schools issued COVID-19 alerts, third this week for H.D. Stafford

As of Friday there are four local schools on the exposure list

Nesting season is marked after South Surrey preserve pair welcome first egg on Feb. 24, 2021. (Hancock Wildlife Foundation)
VIDEO: South Surrey bald eagle preserve welcomes first egg, marks nesting season

Second egg is expected Saturday afternoon and the babies will hatch in April

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after Friday cancellations due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

Most Read