Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to thank you, chair, and members of the committee for the invitation to appear today.
My name is Michelle Douglas. I'm the former chair of the board of directors of WE charity. I resigned from WE Charity on March 27, 2020. I was a volunteer with WE Charity for approximately 15 years. For 30 years, I worked as a federal public servant. I retired from the Department of Justice in September 2019 from the role of director of international relations. I am also a military veteran, and I have been a human rights activist for most of my adult life.
My human rights activism emerged as a result of my experience in the Canadian military in the late 1980s. I was fired by the military in 1989. I was a victim of Canada’s shameful LGBT purge, and endured quite a devastating experience being subjected to horrendous practices designed to rid the military of LGBT people. My 1992 lawsuit resulted in the formal ending of Canada’s Armed Forces policy of discrimination against LGBT people. This life-changing experience launched me into a life of human rights activism as a volunteer. I volunteered on several boards of directors over the past few decades, and volunteerism and service to others are central pillars in my life. Currently, I’m the executive director of a not-for-profit organization that is focused on reconciliation initiatives associated with the LGBT purge.
I joined the board of directors of Free The Children in approximately 2005 following a meeting with Marc Kielburger. I’d been inspired by his brother Craig’s work as a young teen, and I was excited by the prospect of working with an organization that would inspire young people to contribute to a more just, hopeful and loving world. I was an enthusiastic supporter of Free The Children, and later WE Charity.
The board that I chaired consisted of dedicated, skilled and committed volunteers. Board members included academics, educators, human rights activists, businesspeople, a chartered accountant, a lawyer, and others. In addition to attending board meetings, board members committed a tremendous amount of time to the organization. This took various forms, from regular meetings with the executive team to travelling to see the charity’s international operations, to spending time with WE’s employees, and to attending events such as WE Days.
Given my passion for the organization, it was a difficult decision for me to tender my resignation. I did not resign as a routine matter or as part of a planned board transition. I resigned because I could not do my job. I could not discharge my governance duties. In March, the WE Charity executive team were scrambling to contend with the impacts of the pandemic, and they began to lay off large numbers of staff. As the days went by, the number of job losses grew quickly into the hundreds. The board felt, of course, a duty to protect the organization, and to consider the interests of its stakeholders including its employees, its donors, partners, beneficiaries and others.
I convened an ad hoc committee of the board to hold daily calls with the executive team for briefings and updates, and we provided key updates in turn to the board at large. The committee made requests of the WE Charity executive team that we considered necessary for the board to discharge its oversight duties. By March 23, aside from verbal briefings, we had not seen any written evidence, reports or raw data to support the drastic measures that were being taken by the organization. Our oral briefings were largely focused on things like the status of support from sponsors. We were told that the executive team was running daily financial reports to inform their decision making, but those reports were not shared with the board despite our requests.
It was our view that you could not fire hundreds of people without very strong, demonstrable evidence and even then, should explore mitigation measures to save jobs. Instead, the executive team were dismissing employees with great speed and in large numbers. Given the pace and volume of job losses, the board committee demanded that the executive team produce the documents and reports immediately that were said to be being generated and relied upon on a daily basis. If the organization was making drastic decisions based on daily reports, we needed to see them. The executive team, when asked, did not agree to provide these documents.
On March 25, Craig Kielburger called me to ask that I resign from the board of directors of WE Charity. It was clear that there was a breakdown in trust between the founders and me as the board chair. WE is a founder-led organization and Marc and Craig Kielburger hold significant power in the organization. As I was not going to be able to discharge my oversight duties, I opted to resign immediately. In an accelerated process, the remainder of the board of directors was replaced, but for one Canadian member and two U.S. board members, in early April. I was not on the board at that time, and therefore cannot speak to the circumstances of their replacement.
Given the nature of these proceedings, I would like to also add the following. Having resigned on March 27, 2020, I have no knowledge whatsoever of the Canada Student Service Grant program. I was involved in some discussions in 2018 with the board of directors that concerned an entity called the WE Charity Foundation. While the entity was established in January 2018, the board was never satisfied that the operation of this foundation was in the best interests of the charity or its various stakeholders. To the best of my knowledge, it was not in operation as of my departure from the board. The WE Charity board always understood that speakers were not paid by the charity or the related organization to speak at WE Days. The board made direct inquiries on this issue.
As I wrap up my remarks I want to conclude on two points. My family has been deeply involved in the WE organization for many years. We have fundraised, volunteered, and my sister and nephew once worked for the organization. My family values serving others, and WE allowed us to express that value over many years. I know that all of us are saddened by the developments that have led us here today. Finally, I’d like to affirm my belief in the very good work done by WE Charity. I’ve always believed in the organization’s empowerment of young people to change our world. I’ve always believed in WE Charity’s international development work and life-changing impacts. I’ve always been grateful for the incredible commitment of the organization’s supporters and volunteers. And finally, I’ve always been inspired by the amazing and selfless professionals, the employees, that work so hard to implement the mission of WE. Those people have my respect and deep thanks.
Those conclude my remarks, chair, thank you.
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