TORONTO — Canadians are lifting their heads from the exhausting struggle with the coronavirus to watch a political spectacle that is increasingly familiar — their prime minister, Justin Trudeau, under fire for questionable ethical decisions, and the opposition parties calling for him to step down.
This time — in an unusual move for a Canadian prime minister — he is answering questions before a parliamentary committee. The subject is his Cabinet’s vote to award a no-bid contract overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars for an emergency youth volunteer program to WE Charity, a group intricately tied to not only Trudeau’s family but also to his finance minister, Bill Morneau.
Trudeau’s wife and brother earned more than $200,000 over the past four years for speaking engagements with the charity. Morneau’s daughter works there, and his family has traveled overseas with the charity twice in recent years.
Both Trudeau and Morneau have apologized for not recusing themselves from the Cabinet decision. Both are under investigation by the country’s ethics commissioner.
Trudeau’s testimony before the standing finance committee to answer questions will be followed by an appearance by his chief of staff.
“People who never watch these committee meetings will be watching,” said Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who is among the rapt viewers who have blocked off hours to see the unfolding testimonies.
The question many are asking is whether Trudeau’s testimony before the partisan committee will open more questions about his actions and lengthen an investigation he has no control over — or whether he’ll again work his magic to regain the narrative, subdue the media frenzy, and halt the damage done to his popularity.
“He’s not controlling the agenda on any of this,” said Darrell Bricker, the chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs, an international polling and market research firm in Toronto. “It’s really thin ice.”
Still, the country’s general satisfaction with the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has remained high, at 73 percent, according to one poll this week.
At the very least, though, Canadians will be left asking about Trudeau’s judgment when it comes to conflict of interest issues, particularly since he was already found by the ethics commissioner to have breached conflict laws twice since becoming prime minister five years ago.
“There’s a pattern here that is a very sloppy pattern,” said Janice Stein, the founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
The story has unfolded since late June, when the Trudeau government announced it had awarded the job of administering an emergency summer program for youth volunteers, worth up to 912 million Canadian dollars (almost $679 million), to the WE Charity, a network of organizations best known for inspiring young Canadians to get involved in social justice issues through school programs and huge concert-like events featuring motivational speakers, including Prince Harry, Malala Yousufzai, Trudeau, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.