Justin Trudeau parried hostile questions from lawmakers over a mishandled student grant program that’s tarnishing the Canadian prime minister’s reputation.

Trudeau faced the opposition in parliament for the first time since his finance minister was drawn into the scandal, and was accused of rewarding friends in his decision to enlist a charity with ties to his family to oversee a $900-million fund for students. Trudeau reiterated he should have recused himself.

“When they’re pushing $300 billion worth of deficit out the the door, they will stop and take the time to reward their friends,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in the Ottawa legislature, referring to a budget gap that’s ballooned to 16 per cent of total output. “That’s the essence of this Liberal Party under this Liberal prime minister.”

The controversy is starting to take a toll on Trudeau’s popularity. A poll released Monday by Abacus Data showed 36 per cent of Canadians would vote Liberal were an election held today, down from 40 per cent at the end of June. The prime minister’s personal approval rating also suffered. A separate survey by Nanos Research released Tuesday showed similar results.

“The WE Charity controversy challenged the public’s perception of the prime minister’s motivation,” Abacus Data Chief Executive Office David Coletto said by email. “For many, it was an example of using a crisis and public funds to help friends and supporters.”

Woe Is WE

The government announced in June it had chosen the WE Charity to manage the Canada Student Service Grant, which provides grants of as much as $5,000 to postsecondary students who volunteer over the summer. WE could have earned as much as $43.5 million in fees had it fully advanced.

But the contract was rescinded after it emerged Trudeau’s family had been paid for speaking engagements by the charity. The prime minister’s mother and brother earned more than $350,000 for their work with WE over the years, according reports by the Canadaland podcast and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Trudeau apologized last week for participating in the decision despite his family’s connections to the organization, and did so again Tuesday in defending his government’s record.

“During this unprecedented pandemic we put out billions of dollars to support Canadians,” the prime minister said in response to Scheer’s questions. “We’ve continued to look for ways to encourage volunteerism. We will continue to stay focused on the things that matter to students and all Canadians.”

New details continue to emerge. Youth Minister Bardish Chagger, who accepted the public service’s recommendation that WE be awarded the contract, met with the group’s co-founder, Craig Kielburger, five days before the student grant program was announced on April 17, according to a report by the Toronto Star. Chagger’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the meeting, which she didn’t disclose in testimony to lawmakers last week.

More could be revealed next week when Kielburger and his brother appear before lawmakers to tell their side of the story.