Just when you think our prime minister may actually be growing into his job, he does something so ill-considered, so tone-deaf and so contrary to generally accepted political convention that all the confidence he has earned in the past few weeks evaporates in a flash.
Such was Justin Trudeau’s foolish and inexplicable attachment to the WE Charity, an organization to which he and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau have a personal connection.
WE was initially granted a $19.5-million sole source contract to administer the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant.
Finally, after a string of critical stories about its internal turmoil and labour practices, the group mercifully exited the contract late last week.
It was pretty much impossible for the contract to continue in the face of such controversy. But WE’s withdrawal comes too late to spare Trudeau’s image – so carefully cultivated through his daily COVID-19 briefings – as a prudent and thoughtful leader.
Instead, Canadians are once again asking themselves: “What was he thinking?”
WE is clearly in no state to run a federal program as it deals with its internal upheaval. The chairs of both WE’s Canadian and U.S. boards of directors resigned in the spring. Most of the other members of both boards have been replaced and staff have been laid off in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michelle Douglas, the former Canadian chair of the board of directors, tweeted that she resigned on March 27. She added that “almost all” of those on the Canadian and U.S. boards resigned or were replaced around the same time. When approached by CBC News, she refused to say why.
In defending his decision to award the contract to WE, Trudeau claimed: “Quite frankly, when our public servants looked at the potential partners, only the WE organization had the capacity to deliver the ambitious program that young people need for this summer that is so deeply impacted by COVID.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents 140,000 public servants, immediately denounced Trudeau’s claim as not only factually wrong but also “insulting to our members.”
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre jumped on that point. In an interview broadcast Saturday, he said the Canada Summer Jobs program, which has been run by the federal government for nearly two decades, could easily have been retooled to give more placements for students with charities and other non-profits.
Meanwhile, NDP MP Charlie Angus said the $912 million allocated to the program could have been used to better effect. He said he and other MPs were asked to identify 25 organizations in their ridings that could use youth this summer to help with the pandemic. He did so, but Canada Summer Jobs funding never came through for most of these recommendations.
Beyond all those points, however, here’s the problem with Trudeau’s WE-gate moment: He and Sophie clearly are not at arm’s-length from the organization. Although WE says that neither has been paid for their contributions to WE, Sophie’s travel expenses have been covered in the past.
As an experienced politician, Trudeau ought to have stayed away from recommending WE for any federal work. To do otherwise merely reinforces the deeply-rooted public belief that the leader in power gets to throw favours to his buddies, if not for financial gain then at least to win a popularity contest with his cohort.
Such behaviour is so deeply beneath the dignity that Canadians expect from their leaders that it leaves one slack-jawed. And it adds fuel to the fire of the mistrust and cynicism we all feel.
Sunny ways have been replaced with dark days of the same old cronyism we believe haunts the halls of power.
When Trudeau’s poor judgment has been exposed in the past, he has asked for the public’s forgiveness. Canadians have generally been pretty gracious and most have given our PM the benefit of the doubt, even for the egregious black-face racist makeup he wore when he was a younger, seemingly less mature, man.
Canadians did so because they believe a person can change and acquire wisdom with age. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, people who are forgiven for past sins use it as a hall pass that merely sets them up to test the public’s tolerance yet again with new outrages.
Trudeau doesn’t appear to be a humble and contrite person who is learning from past indiscretions. Instead, he more and more appears to be the kid who thinks he has his parents wrapped around his finger.
We expect more, so much more, from a national leader.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.