OTTAWA — A parliamentary hearing on the federal government’s now-dead deal with WE Charity threatened to devolve into chaos on Monday after the Liberals sent a cabinet minister to answer questions on behalf of one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior aides.
Members of the House of Commons ethics committee had expected to hear from Trudeau’s director of policy Rick Theis after opposition parties used their majority in Parliament last week to demand he appear to answer questions on the WE deal.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez instead appeared via teleconference, even though he admitted that he had no direct involvement in the multimillion-dollar agreement to have WE run a federal student grant program last summer.
While the committee ultimately opted to hear what Rodriguez had to say in place of Theis, opposition members repeatedly criticized his testimony over the course of nearly three hours, and accused the Liberals of ignoring Parliament’s will and trying to mount a coverup.
The Conservatives suspect the Liberals of steering the deal to WE Charity because of the organization's close links to members of Trudeau's family.
Rodriguez and Liberal committee members in turn accused the opposition of trying to score cheap political points by dragging out the committee's study on WE, suggesting there was little more to learn about how the deal came together.
The stage for a battle was set from the start of the meeting as committee chair Chris Warkentin struggled to keep order while opposition and Liberal members talked over one another, trading barbs and accusations.
Warkentin himself described Rodriguez’s appearance on behalf of Theis as “an unusual situation” given last week’s vote in the Commons for the committee to hear from either the prime minister or several senior political staff members.
Opposition members suggested that while they would hear Rodriguez’s testimony, they still intended to call the prime minister or Theis and other senior political staffers to testify at a future date.
For his part, Rodriguez accused the opposition parties of trying to use the committee hearing to “intimidate and mistreat staff members who work in political offices,” and said he was there as a representative for cabinet, which had ultimate responsibility.
He also suggested that he was simply following a precedent set by Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government, which refused to let ministerial staff testify at committees in 2010. Harper led a minority government, as Trudeau does now.
Rodriguez’s testimony largely repeated what the government has previously said about the decision to have WE administer the $543-million Canada Student Service Grant program before it was cancelled in early July.
That included the assertion that non-partisan civil servants were responsible for selecting the Toronto-based organization founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger to run the grant program.
Rodriguez played down a phone conversation that Theis had with WE on May 5, saying Trudeau's aide had told him the call lasted about 25 minutes and focused on how the charity would ensure the grant program included degrees of diversity and inclusion.
Yet Rodriguez, who said he spoke to Theis on Sunday and Monday in advance of the committee meeting, was unable to answer several questions, including more specifics of the aide's phone conversation with WE in May.
"You’re testifying on his behalf here today, but you claim not to know anything about what he did,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said. “And so it's hard to understand what you're able to share.”
Rodriguez was also accused at times by opposition members of contradicting some of the thousands of pages of documents produced by the government last summer about the deal.
Rodriguez shot back by accusing Poilievre of cherry-picking from the pages, and suggested the questions being asked at the committee had already been answered during previous testimony.
“I think that Mr. Poilievre is looking for information that he already has,” he said. “And there's nothing new here.”
The committee, which has also asked to hear from Trudeau’s senior adviser Ben Chin and Amitpal Singh, a senior adviser to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, is scheduled to continue its study on Wednesday.
The deal between the government and WE fell apart last year folllowing questions and concerns about the organization’s close ties to members of the prime minister’s family, before the student grant program was cancelled entirely.
It also led to the demise of WE Charity's Canadian operations.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press