The latest news
- The Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23 has put committees’ inquiries into the WE Charity affair on hold. Three committees – finance, ethics and government operations – were investigating. They’ll be reconstituted when the House comes back, but hearings could be delayed for weeks after that.
- Just before Tuesday’s prorogation, the finance committee got thousands of pages of government documents related to bureaucrats’ decision to put WE Charity in charge of a student grant program. Many documents support Justin Trudeau’s claims that it was public servants who recommended WE Charity for the contract, but others also suggested they may have been nudged in that direction by their political bosses.
- A week earlier, WE said it would lay off dozens of full-time employees in Canada and Britain and was looking to sell some of its Toronto real estate, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and other “recent events.” It also told MPs it was now federally registered for lobbying, claiming it hadn’t done so before because it didn’t know that was necessary.
WE Charity: The basics
What is WE Charity?
An education and international-aid group, WE Charity started life in the 1990s as Free the Children, founded by Canadian anti-child-labour activists Craig and Marc Kielburger. For the past 13 years, it’s been the organizer of WE Day, an annual youth-empowerment event that has attracted prominent speakers, including Mr. Trudeau, his family and political colleagues (more on that below). The Globe and Mail is a media partner of WE Charity, which has involved giving the group advertising space to promote WE Days and other events. The agreement expires on Aug. 31 and will not be renewed.
Why did Ottawa hire WE Charity for the student grant program?
In April, the federal government rolled out COVID-19 relief for youth that included the $543.5-million Canada Student Service Grant, which would pay students for volunteer work. WE Charity was chosen to administer it, Mr. Trudeau announced on June 25. But WE Charity’s strategy later raised red flags: Its grants were below the equivalent of minimum wage, it created 450 “virtual volunteering” placements at its own organization and it originally wanted to pay teachers $12,000 each for recruiting at least 75 student volunteers, seeming to blur the lines between volunteerism and paid work. All told, WE Charity could have received up to $43.5-million if the program continued to its conclusion, or $33-million by July 2, just before it was cancelled.
Who authorized this?
Mr. Trudeau told the House finance committee that WE Charity was the choice of public servants, who concluded in April that it had the experience and size needed to get the grants out faster than the federally run Canada Service Corps. Mr. Trudeau said he only learned that hours before a May 8 cabinet briefing, where he took it off the agenda so the public servants would have more time for due diligence. He says they again concluded WE was the only logical choice, so it was brought to cabinet and approved on May 22. Mr. Trudeau says he regrets not recusing himself from that decision.
What happened to the program?
The federal contract with WE Charity was cancelled on July 3 in what Youth Minister Bardish Chagger called a “mutually agreed-upon decision.” WE Charity laid off hundreds of people it had hired for the partnership.
Connections to Trudeau and his team
Mr. Trudeau and his wife’s work with WE Charity was already widely known before the group was awarded the contract, but since then, media reports have revealed even more connections to senior Liberals and Mr. Trudeau’s staff. Those connections have raised new questions about whether Mr. Trudeau was in a conflict of interest and potentially in breach of federal law.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s family
- Sophie Grégoire Trudeau: The Prime Minister’s wife is an official WE Charity ambassador and hosts the WE Well-Being podcast. The Kielburgers told the House finance committee that Ms. Grégoire Trudeau attended seven WE Days over three years, with average expenses of $3,618 each, which would add up to $25,326 over all.
- Margaret Trudeau: The Kielburgers say Mr. Trudeau’s mother, a long-time advocate for mental-health issues, went to 28 WE Days over five years. They estimated the average expenses at $5,998 each, or $167,944 total.
- Alexandre Trudeau: The Prime Minister’s younger brother attended eight WE Days over two years with average expenses of $2,447 each, or , according to the estimates the Kielburgers gave MPs.
Ministers and staffers
- Bill Morneau: When he was Finance Minister, Mr. Morneau had several connections to WE through his daughters, Clare Morneau and Grace Acan (whom he and his wife sponsored to come from Uganda in 2010). Ms. Acan took a contract job at WE Charity in 2019, the website Canadaland first reported in July. Mr. Morneau travelled with her on a WE-related trip to Ecuador in 2017. Clare Morneau has a WE Charity connection through her work with schoolgirls in a Kenyan refugee camp; in 2017 she and her parents went to Kenya, and she later published a book about the girls’ experiences. On July 22, Mr. Morneau paid the organization $41,366 to reimburse them for the travel costs. Weeks later, he quit as finance minister, and Mr. Trudeau gave that portfolio to Chrystia Freeland.
- Seamus O’Regan: The Natural Resources Minister was involved in raising $400,000 for WE Charity in 2010-11, when the Liberals were still in opposition and the group was still called Free the Children. Mr. O’Regan went to Kenya in 2011 to help build a school the charity would then manage. He, too, did not recuse himself from the cabinet decision.
- Katie Telford: Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff was a co-founder of WE Charity initiative Artbound and also raised money for WE Charity but she ceased to be involved in Artbound in 2012.
Election and leadership donations
- 2008 election: Marc Kielburger gave $350 to the Liberals in 2008.
- 2012 leadership race: Craig Kielburger gave $1,200 to Mr. Trudeau’s bid to lead the Liberals.
Who is investigating this?
Federal watchdog Mario Dion launched an investigation on July 3 of whether Mr. Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act, as he and his predecessor found the Prime Minister to have done in two previous scandals, the Aga Khan and SNC-Lavalin cases. It’s unclear when Mr. Dion might reach a determination. Mr. Morneau will be investigated separately.
The committees of finance, ethics and government operations and estimates are each reviewing the WE Charity controversy, but those hearings are on hold until at least late September, when Parliament comes back from a six-week prorogation. In the videos below, you can watch some of the highlights from the past testimony of the Kielburgers, Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Morneau and others.
The future of WE
WE’s federal contract put renewed scrutiny on how the group is run, and why most of its Canadian board of directors – theoretically the independent watchdog of its activities – was replaced earlier this year. The shakeup replaced Ms. Douglas as chair with Greg Rogers, an educator who used to be one of Marc Kielburger’s high-school teachers, and added several new members with former senior employees of WE’s for-profit division. The charity has said the shakeup was part of a renewal planned since 2019. But Ms. Douglas said her exit wasn’t part of a routine process, but instead the result a “breakdown of trust” with the Kielburgers as they withheld documents from the board that could explain WE’s financial circumstances and its layoffs of hundreds of staff.
The contract controversy triggered even more significant changes to WE Charity, which plans another board review in 2021 and is winding down its North American operations, including WE Days, to focus more on international development. In August, it announced dozens of layoffs in Toronto and London, the centralization of its U.K. operations in Canada and the possible sale of some of its Toronto real estate.
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Bill Curry, Marieke Walsh and Janice Dickson
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