OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are asking the official languages commissioner to investigate the government's choice of WE Charity to run a student grant program, saying the move showed contempt for francophones.
Conservative MP Richard Martel alleges in a letter to commissioner Raymond Theberge that the youth group did not have the ability to deliver the multimillion-dollar Canada Student Service Grant program in both of Canada's official languages.
Martel, who made the letter public Thursday, wrote that the Official Languages Act clearly states the government is obliged to ensure any organization carrying out services on its behalf must do so in English and French.
Opposition MPs have been grilling the government for months over the now-abandoned program because of WE Charity's close connections to the families of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau, the recently departed finance minister.
The Liberals have consistently said it was federal public servants who recommended the program be administered by the youth group to help students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parliament has been prorogued until Sept. 23, shutting down — at least temporarily — several House of Commons investigations of the controversy, including one planned by the official-languages committee.
The finance and ethics committees were in the midst of investigations when Trudeau prorogued Parliament and the government operations committee had been planning to launch another.
The Conservatives have sought probes of the deal by the lobbying commissioner, the ethics commissioner and the RCMP, none of whose tasks are interrupted by the prorogation.
Questions about the charity's ability to deliver the program in French arose after it was revealed it had hired National Public Relations to help conduct outreach to not-for-profit and student organizations in Quebec and to help with French content development.
The disclosure cast doubt on the government's contention that WE Charity was the only organization capable of delivering the program across the country.
In his letter to the commissioner, Martel pointed to documents released by the federal government showing that Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos raised concerns about WE's ability to deliver the student grant program in French-speaking parts of the country.
Duclos wrote that he didn't see "a single word or page in French" on the charity's website and saw few signs that it "has a strong anchor" in Quebec.
The documents also show that Duclos was advised that WE Charity has a separate French website, a fact Martel did not mention in his letter.
WE officials have insisted the charity has offices and employees in Quebec, where it offers French-language programs and has worked in the past with hundreds of schools and groups.
The student program was meant to give young people who couldn't find work due to the COVID-19 pandemic an incentive to volunteer, with payments of up to $5,000 toward education expenses if they worked 500 hours. It was initially announced as a $912-million plan.
WE was to be paid up to $43.5 million to administer the program. The charity withdrew from the deal at the beginning of July, but not before the government paid it $30 million for its services.
WE announced Thursday that it has now paid back all of that money to the government. As well, it said it has waived its right to be reimbursed the roughly $5 million it spent to launch the program, which has since been abandoned.
The program became almost immediately mired in controversy over WE's ties to the Trudeau family. Justin Trudeau's mother, wife and brother have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses for participating in WE events and projects over the years.
Trudeau and Morneau, who also has family ties to WE, have both apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision to have WE administer the student program. Both men are under investigation by the federal ethics watchdog over the matter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.
The Canadian Press