Up until last year, Marc and Craig Kielburger enjoyed fawning press coverage. Media reports on the ever-expansive operations of WE Charity, the organization they founded, portrayed the brothers as energetic do-gooders imbued with a degree of selflessness most mortals lack.
If the scandal surrounding the ill-fated Canada Student Service Grant program that Ottawa hired WE to administer has revealed anything, it is that the Kielburgers got a free ride for far too long. WE raised millions from donors and leveraged its tax-exempt status to build an organization that, as the years went on, began to look more like a vehicle for the brothers’ personal ambitions than one dedicated mainly to helping others. It mixed for-profit and non-profit activities – a red flag if there ever was one – and sold voluntourism packages to well-off Westerners hoping to become better people by “helping” poor Africans.
The Kielburgers cozied up to politicians, corporate CEOs and celebrities, forming a kind of mutual admiration society that raised uncomfortable questions about just who was helping whom. WE raked in millions from corporations that got to place their logos on the materials the organization distributed to school-aged children. Virtue-signalling politicians and celebrities showed up at WE Day events that resembled rock concerts cum political rallies.
The Kielburgers appeared to have hit pay dirt when Justin Trudeau came onto the political scene. He lent his rising star to the organization, sang its praises and gained new fans among a generation of Canadian high-school kids on the cusp of voting age. WE paid members of the Trudeau family at least $425,000 to cover fees and expenses for their participation in WE Day events aimed at helping Canadian youth effect “transformative social change.”
Over the years, the Kielburgers morphed from precocious do-gooders into master salesmen and marketers. WE claimed to have “empowered” more than a million people “to lift themselves out of poverty” and helped “nurture compassion” in thousands of Canadian school kids. They managed to avoid questions about WE’s poor governance and opaque accounting practices.
The resignation a year ago of the chairperson of WE’s Canadian board, Michelle Douglas, should have been a red flag that alerted donors and policy makers to problems within the organization. Instead, the Trudeau government appears to have rushed last June into awarding WE Charity a sole-sourced contract to manage the CSSG program, which aimed to pay Canadian teenagers to volunteer for charities struggling during the pandemic. The proposed $544-million program never did get off the ground as conflict of interest allegations arose against Mr. Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau, both of whom failed to recuse themselves from cabinet discussions related to the WE contract.
The Kielburgers now complain about being thrown under the bus by the Liberal government, prosecuted in the court of public opinion and bullied by grandstanding opposition politicians.
They are mostly right about that. But contrary to the brothers’ claims during testimony on Monday before the House of Commons ethics committee, they are not innocent victims who have been dragged into a political scandal through no fault of their own. MPs are well within their rights to seek to get to the bottom of the relationship between the Trudeaus and the Kielburgers, and the origins of the contract that brought unwelcome scrutiny onto WE. Canadians are still a long way from knowing the whole truth about this affair.
“Here is the simple fact: Given a chance to do good for 100,000 students and other charities during the pandemic, WE Charity agreed to help,” Marc Kielburger told the ethics committee. In exchange for its “help” however, WE was to receive $43-million from Ottawa, providing the organization with a crucial lifeline as the pandemic sapped its fundraising and voluntourism business. It was disingenuous of Mr. Kielburger to suggest there was nothing in it for WE.
The Kielburgers did themselves no favours by defying and berating MPs during their Monday testimony. They came off as petulant spoiled children. Accompanied by their lawyer, they objected to MPs questioning them about allegations that WE switched the names on plaques at a school it built in Kenya depending on which donor it was trying to ingratiate itself to at the time. But it was not up to them to decide what MPs get to ask them about. And it is in the public interest that light be shed on the activities of a charity that appears to have misled donors.
Despite their objections, the Kielburgers invited all this scrutiny upon them. The self-pity they oozed on Monday smacked of immaturity. It is about time they grew up.
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