WE Charity education program promoted by B.C. cabinet minister prior to new ethics probe of Justin Trudeau

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      The B.C. Ministry of Education has worked closely with a registered charity at the centre of a controversy swirling around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

      On July 3, ethics watchdog Mario Dion's office confirmed that he's investigating Trudeau for "possible contraventions" of the Conflict of Interest Act.

      The probe is linked to the federal government contracting administration of the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant program to WE Charity.

      WE Charity has previously invited the prime minister, his wife Sophie, and his mother Margaret to various public events. It backed out of the deal on July 3.

      In the 2018-19 fiscal year, WE Charity's Western Canada office received $200,000 from the B.C. government.

      That same year it piloted a program called "WE Well-being", which was developed with the Ministry of Education, UBC, and mental-health professionals.

      Since then, it's been rolled out to more than 3,500 students, 150 educators, and 43 schools in 11 districts, according to a B.C. government news release in April.

      The program aims to improve students' social, emotional, physical, and mental well-being and is part of the WE Schools @home project.

      "WE will make mental well-being as understandable and actionable as physical well-being," the charity's website states. "WE will actively celebrate diversity and promote strategies that include a focus on specific/priority populations and mental health equity."

      Last year, B.C.'s superintendent of literacy and numeracy, Maureen Dockendorf, tweeted a photo of B.C.'s education minister, Rob Fleming, welcoming more than 300 students to a WE event in Victoria.

      Dockendorf has also tweeted photos of B.C. educators involved in the project.

      B.C. has introduced a new curriculum promoting core competencies to enable students to thrive in the 21st century.

      Among those competencies are personal awareness and responsibility, including self-determination, self-regulation, and well-being.

      This is grounded in research showing that students are more apt to succeed if there is an absence of stress in their learning environments.

      Earlier this year, Fleming encouraged B.C. parents to consider making use of the WE Well-being program as they were home-schooling their children.

      He made this suggestion after K-12 schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      The WE Well-being program has been endorsed by UBC education professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an internationally known expert on the impact of students' self-regulation on learning outcomes. 

      "The WE Well-being and WE Schools @home programs provide a perfect alignment with B.C.’s focus," Schonert-Reichl said in a B.C. government news release in April, "because the WE organization has distilled the latest research into evidence-based practical approaches and resources that integrate social and emotional learning and the cultivation of positive human qualities, including empathy, gratitude, compassion altruism and resilience—those qualities that are essential for well-being.”

      Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion was a long-time civil servant before being appointed to his position on January 9, 2018.
      Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

      Trudeau under scrutiny for ethics again

      Meanwhile, Trudeau is being denounced by opposition politicians and some in the media for his handling of the Canada Student Service Grant program.

      There's no evidence that WE Charity paid the Trudeaus for their speaking events, but WE has stated that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau's travel costs were covered by the charity.

      She also does a regular podcast on a voluntary basis for WE, which was founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger.

      NDP MP Charlie Angus and Conservative MP Michael Barrett each wrote to the ethics commissioner requesting an investigation under the Conflict of Interest Act.

      Dion's office later confirmed that a probe is underway.

      Section 6(1) of the act states: "No public office holder shall make a decision or participate in making a decision related to the exercise of an official power, duty or function if the public office holder knows or reasonably should know that, in the making of the decision, he or she would be in a conflict of interest."

      Section 7 states: "No public office holder shall, in the exercise of an official power, duty or function, give preferential treatment to any person or organization based on the identity of the person or organization that represents the first-mentioned person or organization."

      Section 21 requires public office holders to recuse themselves from any discussion, debate, or vote on matters in which they would be in a conflict of interest.

      According to the law, a conflict of interest occurs when a public office holder exercises an official power, duty or function "that provides an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests".

      Under section 48 of the act, Dion has the same power as a court in civil cases to enforce the attendance of witnesses and to compel them to give evidence.

      Dion can also require them to speak under oath and to produce documents.

      These powers "shall be exercised in private" and information provided is inadmissible in court other than for prosecuting a case of perjury.

      It means that Dion has the authority to determine how much the charity paid for Grégoire Trudeau's travel expenses, whether she travelled first class, and whether any other considerations may have been granted to the Trudeau family by WE Charity over the years. 

      Trudeau is the only sitting prime minister in Canadian history who's been found guilty of violating Canada's Conflict of Interest Act. And it's happened twice.

      It occurred for the first time in connection with him accepting a free vacation for his family on a private island owned by the Aga Khan when the Ismaili spiritual leader's charity had a financial relationship with the federal government.

      It happened a second time in connection with the prime minister's office's efforts to obtain a deferred prosecution agreement for Montreal-based engineering giant SNC Lavalin.