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Justin Trudeau drops into another pitfall of his own making

Justin Trudeau and his government have shown a remarkable ability to find trouble in novel places — a Christmas vacation, the Shawcross doctrine and the possibility of a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, the prime minister’s choice of attire during a trip to India.

And now, a national program for student volunteers.

News that a subsidiary of the WE Charity paid Trudeau’s mother and brother for speaking engagements raises further questions about the government’s decision to enlist WE to disburse the funds from that program — and the prime minister’s apparent involvement in signing off on that decision.

It inflames doubts that were already being raised about the intent behind the government’s decision to partner with WE.

But it also makes one wonder why the prime minister keeps putting himself in these situations.

WE insisted at first that “the charity” had “never paid an honorarium” to Margaret Trudeau, the former wife of Pierre Trudeau, who is known for her advocacy on the issue of mental health. In some cases, that statement now appears to be incorrect: the charity did pay Margaret Trudeau for some appearances, though WE now claims that was a paperwork error. But WE’s original claim also elided over the fact that its for-profit arm, ME to WE, had paid the prime minister’s mother.

For WE, it’s impossible to justify that omission. For Trudeau, the newest facts make it much more difficult for him to explain why he went anywhere near this decision.

Trudeau insists that the recommendation to partner with WE came from public service officials and an associate deputy minister has defended the choice. A committee of the House of Commons has requested the internal documentation related to the government’s decision and the paper trail will now be studied closely.

But even a recommendation from a non-partisan public servant won’t be enough to entirely redeem what has happened here.

Even without the participation of Trudeau and his family members in WE events, it’s now obvious that the charity’s involvement would have attracted WE’s various critics regardless. In fact, it was criticism of WE’s general practices and new complaints about how it was administering the volunteer program that compelled the government and the charity to walk away from their arrangement last week.

A scandal in plain sight

That false start has real implications for a program that is supposed to be creating opportunities for young people.

But the demise of the partnership was not enough to end the controversy because of the known ties between Trudeau and WE. In addition to the appearances by Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau has made several appearances as prime minister at WE events and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau hosts a podcast for WE (she is not paid for that, though she was paid for an appearance in 2012).

That was always going to be enough to raise suspicions. The fact that Margaret and Sacha were paid for their appearances now adds money to the mix.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on Nov. 10, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Maybe, by some strict reading of the applicable rules, the Liberals can argue that Trudeau’s involvement in the decision to go forward with WE didn’t amount to a conflict of interest. That ultimately will be up to the ethics commissioner to decide. But the prime minister himself could have eliminated the possibility of any conflict — simply by stepping back and excusing himself from any participation in the decision.

As Trudeau acknowledged earlier this week, he did not recuse himself. And now he faces the possibility of a third reprimand by the ethics commissioner — after earlier rulings against that vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island and the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case.

Some may choose to believe that there was corruption in any or all of those cases. A final verdict on the current controversy will depend on both documentation and the testimony of officials. But even a less-damning read of the last five years is unflattering.

Self-inflicted wounds

For whatever reason, the prime minister and his office seem to have a recurring problem of failing to check themselves. As a result, they have now repeatedly wrecked themselves.

Perhaps believing their motives are sound and their intentions are good — and that meaning well should transcend all potential problems — they have waltzed into a series of avoidable spectacles.

In each case, it seems as if someone (not least the prime minister himself) should have seen the trouble coming — that what this government lacks is someone willing to put their hand up and ask, “Wait, are we sure about this?” (In that respect, Trudeau’s worst moments as prime minister might have something in common with his infamous decision to wear blackface in previous years — the lack of an internal or external voice counselling caution.)

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Trudeau apologized in September 2019 after images and a video of him in blackface and brownface became public, just weeks before the federal election.

Trudeau’s life has played out at a rarified level, where your father can be a friend of the Aga Khan and your mother and your brother can be celebrities who get paid to speak. Someone from that world should be keenly aware of how vulnerable he is to the charge of being out-of-touch — should know how dangerous it is to leave the impression that the standards of mere mortals don’t apply to him. And yet, more than once, he seems to have lost track of what is expected from a politician.

Burning through the benefit of the doubt

Trudeau’s Liberals came to power having made many promises to do big things. They might tell themselves now that their electoral fortunes still depend ultimately on getting those big things right — on the economy, equality, climate change, and so on. There is still a pandemic to battle. But ethics and judgment and character become big things when people in public life leave room for doubt — when they can be labelled arrogant, or entitled, or worse.

It also gets much harder to do those big things every time you turn a Christmas vacation or a student volunteer program into a multi-chapter affair of revelation and recrimination.

In the absence of the WE controversy, the focus of political attention in Ottawa yesterday might have been the new jobs numbers, or the testimony of grocery store executives who recently withdrew a wage bonus for their employees. The Liberals might only have had to worry about how they were going to manage the economy’s restart and the government’s fiscal situation.

Instead, the prime minister is being asked again to account for actions that apparently weren’t accounted for very well to begin with.

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