Canadians are miffed by the WE mess, but they are still willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. Their patience is wearing thin. The opposition parties will continue to push for Justin Trudeau’s head, and unless he does something soon, they may succeed.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 3, 2020.
OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to learn a valuable lesson from the last scandal that almost buried his government.
The agonizing internal bleed caused by the cabinet resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott almost cost him the government.
Instead of earning a robust majority in the midst of a strong economy and great job numbers, Liberals limped back with a minority. The loss of seats was the result of integrity questions related to SNC Lavalin’s effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement.
The prime minister suffered a personal hit in his popularity when allegations from two ministers dragged on for months.
History seems to be repeating itself. The damage being done by the WE funding agreement is growing daily. It appears the government does not have a strategy to make it go away.
The only thing that will work is a high-profile firing or two. That will remind the public that someone has actually paid a price for this mess.
The deeper we plumb the international workings of the WE network of not-for-profit to business links, the more the government is being damaged.
Recent surveys show that most Canadians have lowered their opinion of the prime minister because of the WE problems.
They are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but simply saying sorry is not enough.
At some point it was rumoured that Bardish Chagger would have been on the chopping block as she was the minister directly responsible for delivering the program.
Thankfully, that did not happen, as that would simply have reinforced the Raybould/Philpott narrative that Trudeau was not really supportive of women on his team.
Trudeau and chief of staff Katie Telford did a decent job of defending themselves in their testimony before a parliamentary committee.
But that will not turn the corner.
And in the dog days of summer, the opposition parties will continue to do their level best to keep the WE saga on the front pages of the newspaper.
That is their job, and they have been superb in keeping new information about WE to a public that is fatigued from hearing nothing but COVID news.
The internal machinations of WE have certainly provided fodder for critics.
Ousted WE Charity chair Michelle Douglas testified last week that she did not know the organization paid people as WE day speakers. That was a complete contradiction to statements issued by the organization when it was revealed that Trudeau family members had been paid for their appearances.
The fact is that the prime minister’s mother has built up a national following because of her personal experience with and advocacy for mental health issues.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Margaret Trudeau being paid for her work, but there is something wrong when one arm of the WE organization has no knowledge of the payouts by another arm of the organization.
Recent news concerning WE’s hiring of high-priced American lobby firms to support their initiatives in the United States is also prompting more opposition questions.
In reality, an international movement with the reach of WE needs to rely on paid help to get support and sponsorship.
And the Kielburger brothers made it very clear that if this line of inquiry continues, the very survival of the organization could be at stake.
Thousands of young people will be deprived of an opportunity to learn about community contributions because somebody jumped the gun on awarding a contract to WE.
The prime minister needs to staunch the bleeding by some bold internal moves.
One of them definitely includes moving the minister of finance out of his portfolio.
The second one must include a restructuring of the inner advisory circle of the prime minister, who apparently did not understand the basic concepts of parliamentary recusal.
Ultimately, the buck stops with the prime minister, but if his office did not provide him with proper advice, he needs to ensure that does not happen again.
The leader has done a fantastic job in carrying the country through the COVID crisis.
It is a shame that a not-for-profit sidebar could undo all the good that has been happening.
But unless the prime minister moves quickly with some dramatic internal departures, that is exactly what could happen.
Canadians are miffed by the WE mess, but they are still willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt.
Their patience is wearing thin.
The opposition parties will continue to push for Trudeau’s head, and unless he does something soon, they may succeed.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.