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Trudeau government tries to distance from WE Charity closure of Canadian Operations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference on parliament hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Federal cabinet ministers are trying their best to distance the Trudeau government from the decision of the WE charity to shut down its Canadian operations.

The co-founders of WE, Marc and Craig Kielburger, announced the closure Wednesday, blaming it on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the political controversy surrounding the federal government’s contract with WE to run the now defunct student service grant.

Speaking at a housing announcement in Ottawa, a pair of ministers refused to say if the if the federal government should share the blame.

“Obviously our focus was always on providing young people an opportunity to serve their community, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’re continuing to look at options to allow young people to have more support to serve their communities,” says Ahmed Hussen, Minister for Families. “What the WE Charity does is really up to them. It’s a decision that they are making.”

Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna acknowledges the controversy has been a challenge, but repeats this was not the government’s call, and their focus is on helping people through the pandemic.

“Are there lessons to be learned from that episode? Sure. But decisions by WE are solely decisions by WE,” said McKenna. “And I think we are going to continue doing what we have always said we were going to do. Which is support Canadians through this.”

The Kielburgers, who founded the charity 25 years ago, say the organization has lost many corporate sponsors over the past few months, leaving it in dire financial straits. The organization will lay off its Canadian staff in the coming months, sell of real estate, and the Kielburgers will leave the organization when the transition to a new board is complete.

But the shut down of WE’s Canadian operation will not end the opposition’s quest for answers, in fact critics argue it raises more questions.

“It suggests the WE charity was already in a lot of trouble before this scandal began. Perhaps the charity was looking for a government hand out or bail out,” Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre tells CityNews.

Those concerns are being echoed by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, “it really bolsters the argument, as we’ve been saying, that the Liberal government was just trying to help out an organization that was closely aligned with them….as a result students suffer.”

Opposition parties plan to resume committee probes into the WE controversy when Parliament resumes September 23, and the Ethics Commissioner continues to investigate whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Finance Minister Bill Morneau broke ethics rules.

They have both apologized for not recusing themselves from the approval of the WE contract, despite the fact both have direct family members with financial ties to the charity.