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WE Charity decision was poor, and consequences are required

The typical WE Charity story over the years has involved school kids in the area encouraged to think globally and act locally.

Founded in 1995 as Free the Children by then 12-year-old Craig Keilburger in response to child-labour concerns, the charity has expanded to international development efforts in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Today, it’s known for a growing controversy that’s embraced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other members of his government, most notably Finance Minster Bill Morneau.

In a nutshell, Trudeau, Morneau and company had too many links to the organization even before the government awarded it a lucrative contract to administer a youth program. The contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process, essentially a unilateral decision that would have paid WE Charity up to $43.5 million to administer the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant.

While Ottawa has been throwing a great deal of money at coronavirus-related relief programs, the WE Charity deal was a bridge too far.

While there were issues with the program itself and the charity that would oversee the work, Trudeau’s close links to the organization raised more than a few red flags. His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an ambassador to the charity. His mother, Margaret Trudeau, earned speaking fees of some $250,000 for WE events between 2016 and 2020. And his younger brother, Alexandre, was paid $32,000 for eight events in 2017-18.

Likewise, two of Morneau’s daughters were involved in the charity, and the minister himself went on two junkets – Ecuador and Kenya – with them.

In light of the conflict of interest, the government contract was cancelled, but that didn’t sweep the matter under the rug.

Democracy Watch has called on federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to launch investigations and rulings on the confirmed actions of Morneau related to the Canada Student Service Grant program.

“Democracy Watch is calling on the Ethics Commissioner to ensure an independent investigation and ruling on Minister Morneau and anyone acting on his behalf participating in and attempting to influence the decision-making process in spring 2020 in favour of recommending that a sole-source contract be awarded to WE Charity worth up to $43.5 million, and also on his announcement of $3 million in funding for WE Charity in August 2019,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. “The RCMP should also investigate as there is evidence that raises the question of whether the situation involves more than just ethics violations and amounts to a breach of trust,” said Conacher.

That the program was aimed to help young people taking an economic hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and involved a generally well-regarded charity, doesn’t excuse anyone involved in this affair. And it’s not as though Trudeau is a stranger to scandals and controversies, particularly the SNC-Lavalin affair.

While he’s avoided the kinds of egregious missteps we’ve seen in the past, Trudeau can only remain teflon-coated for so long. Ethical lapses serve only to undermine our faith in politics and politicians.

Unfortunately, they’re commonplace in political and corporate circles. Numerous politicians have campaigned on cleaning up the past, closing loopholes and governing differently. In the end, they all disappoint, and then the system disappoints us even more by failing to jail or even punish them remotely in line with the crimes they’ve committed.

Ethics run to the heart of politics and good governance. That’s precisely what we should be paying attention to, all the while holding politicians’ feet to the fire

Increasingly, however, it’s the system itself that poses ethical challenges. A win-at-any-cost mentality that’s more about gamesmanship than it is good governance. Too many machinations and too much strategy, and not enough doing what’s right for the country.

In an ethical government, the means are as important as the ends.

If we’re going to reverse the ethical slide, we’ll need change, starting with voters making ethics an issue. We have to push for real controls – politicians write the rules, going very easy on themselves so far – that will hold them accountable.

Over the years, we worked toward universal suffrage and the elimination of blatant patronage in forging a more democratic system. Ethics are the next issues if our democracy is to evolve

Unfortunately, Canada’s system of democratic representation is faltering, as a majority of Canadians do not believe their interests are well represented by their elected representatives.

In fact, we believe our elected representatives are not accountable and don’t pay attention to what they think. Canadians feel their MPs represent their political party better than they do their constituents, focusing much of their efforts on a job that Canadians see as a low priority: representing the views of their political parties. It’s partisanship above all else.

Canada’s system of democratic representation is faltering if a majority of Canadians do not believe their interests are well represented by their elected representatives.

In the case of the WE Charity scandal, the government’s move from moral and small-scale support for what is ostensibly a well-regarded organization to literally handing out a multimillion-dollar contract damages the government’s credibility. Legalities aside, the optics were horrible, meaning Trudeau was either naive or willing to take the public relations hit for something beyond charitable reasons.

The feds aren’t the only ones being tarred by the now-cancelled agreement. The charity itself is under increased scrutiny, and has already lost sponsors due to the controversy. That’s not a bad thing, as charities, especially those that have grown large with convoluted connections to for-profit businesses, should be under the microscope.

We Charity’s bona fides notwithstanding, the Canada Student Service Grant decision was a bad one. As  Democracy Watch notes, there should be consequences.

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