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Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee meeting in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on July 28, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Good afternoon. Bon après-midi. My name is Craig Kielburger. This is my brother, Marc. Firstly, thank you, Mr. Chair. Our gratitude to the rest of the committee. We’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to speak with you here today.

[In French]

Over the last few weeks, our team has answered thousands of questions from the media. We published dozens of documents, including an annotated version of the contribution agreement for the Canada Student Service Grant [CSSG] and information on the programs, operations and finances of WE Charity. All the while, we announced that additional experts will be carrying out analyses of our system in order to streamline our organizational structure, to further improve our governance and to concentrate our efforts to help the most vulnerable children in the world.

[Interruption due to point of order]

[In English]

25 years ago, we started WE Charity as teenagers because we believe that young people have much to offer through service. We still hold this belief. There is a crisis in Canada’s charitable sector. Over the past 30 years, Canada has seen steadily declining rates of civic engagement, and reached a record-low percentage of Canadians donating to charity. WE Charity sought to reverse this trend by launching WE Schools, active in 7,000 Canadian schools, to educate and inspire young people to learn about causes, volunteer for the first time in their lives and fundraise to make an impact for thousands of charities across the country.

Through WE Day, over one million youth earned their free ticket through logging over 70 million hours of service. Youth joined us to build 1,500 schools and classrooms in developing countries around the world, educating over 200,000 kids … and clean water and medical programs reaching over a million beneficiaries.

We launched ME to WE Social Enterprise because traditional models of charity are too limited again. Its purpose is to help end poverty overseas. We create empowering jobs and bring to market fair trade and socially conscious products, helping mostly women entrepreneurs. Although its purpose was never simply profit, since its founding in 2008, 100 per cent of profits from ME to WE Social Enterprise have been donated to WE Charity or reinvested to grow the social mission. Every single penny.

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This model is called a social enterprise; it is common in Europe. But in Canada, the Canadian Revenue Agency limits a charity’s ability to operate a business model as a solution to solving social problems. In 2019, the Senate of Canada released a report which recommended that the government recognize and reconsider those restrictions for charitable and non-profit organizations. We strongly support that recommendation.

With such change, we would have simply started ME to WE Social Enterprise as a charity. We acknowledge that over 25 years, our organizational structure has grown overly complex. Our model is different, sometimes misunderstood, and yes, far from perfect. But our purpose has always been social innovation to better Canada in the world.

WE Charity is a non-partisan organization. We have worked with federal and provincial governments of every party across Canada. We have welcomed politicians of all stripes to the WE Day stage, including Conservative MP Mike Lake and then-NDP premier Rachel Notley. We’re grateful to the previous government that Laureen Harper hosted the WE Day after-reception at 24 Sussex. Over the years, thousands of stories have been shared on the WE Day stage. We invite individuals to speak who can inspire youth to volunteer and serve, which is what our mission is all about.

WE Charity agreed to implement the Canada Student Service Grant not to be helped by government, but to help government, and to help young people across Canada. This program was developed in the midst of a global pandemic when governments and the private sector were scrambling.

Some have suggested that WE Charity was in dire financial straits prior to the CSSG, and that somehow motivated our actions. It simply isn’t true, because like many Canadian non-profits and businesses, we had already taken difficult actions to adjust staff numbers, and to pivot our programs to the new realities of COVID. As you heard a moment ago, my comments about that time are not false bravado.

As we see the organization today, I acknowledge that the fallout now from this political process has resulted in serious challenges that risk the entire organization and our 25 years of work. As you heard in previous remarks to this committee, from Rachel Wernick and from the clerk of the Privy Council, we were not chosen for this work by public servants, or because of our relationship with politicians.

We were chosen because we were willing to leverage every part of our 25 years of experience and to build this program at the breakneck speed required to have an impact for Canadian youth over the summer. WE Charity had experience in this area. We had previously built two large-scale youth service programs. When Ontario introduced the mandatory 40 hours of community service, we developed a program for many school boards across the province. And the college [indiscernible], which is the largest U.S. association of colleges and universities, selected WE Charity three years ago to develop a national U.S. service program across all 50 states.

Now to the contribution agreement itself. As per the contribution agreement, WE Charity would only be reimbursed its costs to build and administer the program. To be clear, there was no financial benefit for the charity. WE Charity would not have received any financial gain from the CSSG program, and it’s simply incorrect to say otherwise. The contribution agreement had proper oversight built in. 13 references to audit, and taxpayers were protected. Our team worked incredibly hard to build and launch the CSSG as a national bilingual service program.

The results were evident within the first week. 35,000 youth applications from every province and territory. 83 not-for-profit coalition partners, 24,000 and increasing service roles. But the program quickly got pulled into politics. We handed the built system, technology, even the call centre to the public service, hoping to save the program. We declined any reimbursement for our costs.

We thought that our actions would enable the program’s long-term survival, and we are deeply saddened that it did not. We also regret that the fallout has created hardship for our staff, our partners, and the communities that we serve. When Employment and Social Development Canada asked us to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, we regret that we didn’t recognize how this decision would be perceived.

We would never have picked up the phone when the civil service called asking us to help young Canadians get through the pandemic if we had known the consequences: that young people would not get the help they need now and that 25 years of WE Charities programs, helping millions of youth, would be in jeopardy. We are most sorry for the students of Canada. We know that this pandemic has put so many in dire straits, unsure of whether they will be able to continue their education or even pay the rent.

This committee heard yesterday about MPs’ offices being flooded with e-mails and calls from students desperate for help. These students should be volunteering, serving their country and receiving critical support for their education. We respect this process and we are happy to participate. We hope that the people of Canada will have their questions answered about how the contract came about and what the value of money would have been.

We also hope that as soon as it concludes, all of us – non-profits, governments and all Canadians – can get back to helping the students of Canada get the support they need to get through this time of national crisis.

Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to share the words. We appreciate that. We’re ready for your questions.

Craig and Marc Kielburger told a House of Commons committee probing the abortive plan for a national volunteer program that the WE organization they run never should have taken it on.

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