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Marc Kielburger, left, and Craig Kielburger speak at WE Day California at The Forum on April 25, 2019, in Inglewood, Calif.Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

A coalition of more than 90 Canadian charities and international development agencies says it is concerned about a pattern of opaque behaviour at WE Charity, including the charity’s unwillingness to sign the coalition’s code of ethics.

Cooperation Canada, formerly known as the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, which represents almost all major Canadian aid organizations, says the reports about WE Charity’s activities – most recently in Kenya – are “deeply concerning” and could damage the public trust that Canadian charities need for their international work.

WE Charity has become the subject of federal reviews and parliamentary scrutiny for the past several months after the government awarded it a now-cancelled contract to administer the Canada Student Service Grant. The charity announced in September that it would close its Canadian operations and that co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger would leave the organization.

Prime Minister Trudeau and WE Charity: The controversy explained

Until this week, the coalition of charities and aid agencies had refrained from commenting on the controversies surrounding WE Charity. But on Monday it issued a statement of concern.

The internal operations of WE Charity “remain unknown to most,” the coalition said in its statement.

Because the charity has declined to join the sector’s collective campaigns and commitments, “we are unable to fully understand [the] operational processes of the WE organizations,” it said.

Nicolas Moyer, chief executive of Cooperation Canada, said the reports about the activities of WE and its affiliates in Kenya are “deeply concerning and in no way representative of how experienced international development and humanitarian organizations operate.”

On Friday, a Kenyan state regulatory agency announced that it would be examining “regulatory and governance matters” at WE Charity’s affiliate in Kenya – including its “assets and officials” – because of “new information” that had come to light.

Earlier this year, a former senior employee of WE Charity’s Kenyan affiliate, Free the Children, had raised questions about asset transfers among WE-affiliated organizations and companies. The employee later disavowed his statement and has reportedly faced criminal charges in Kenya.

On Monday, the coalition of Canadian charities noted that WE Charity has not signed the coalition’s code of ethics, which has been signed by 91 other charities and aid groups. The code includes promises of transparency, accountability, integrity, avoiding conflicts of interest, complying with local laws and managing funds fairly and openly.

WE Charity is “the only large Canadian self-described international development organization which is not a part of any of the national co-ordination and consultative groups of the sector,” the coalition said.

“WE Charity has, for the most part, remained outside of collective Canadian international co-operation sector platforms,” it said. “The charity is not a part of our joint commitments, advocacy campaigns, policy monitoring groups or accountability frameworks.”

The reports about WE Charity’s activities in Kenya and elsewhere “are having a real impact on public trust for others who work globally for a better, fairer and more equitable world,” the coalition said.

In an early version of its statement, posted on its website on Monday morning, the coalition also called for a full investigation of WE Charity by regulatory bodies, saying that the allegations about the charity were damaging the reputation of “Canada’s entire charitable sector.” This sentence was deleted from a later version of the statement, and the coalition declined to say why.

In response to questions from The Globe and Mail on Monday, WE Charity denied that there was any secrecy in its operations. It said it had a “demonstrated commitment to transparency.” It noted that it has published financial and governance statements online and has provided “extensive financial information” from auditors.

The charity also provided a statement by Justus Mwendwa, senior director of WE Villages Kenya. “WE Charity is disappointed that Cooperation Canada chose to issue a public statement concerning our operations in Kenya without seeking any information from WE Charity, the Kenyan government or anyone in Kenya,” the statement said.

Kenya’s regulatory body for non-governmental agencies, the NGOs Co-ordination Board, said on Friday that it had “investigated allegations of irregular transfer of property” by the WE Charity affiliate in 2018. During the investigation, it said it had safeguarded the property by placing a legal caveat on a parcel of land held by the organization, but had later withdrawn the request.

In a separate statement, WE Charity said it had found “financial irregularities” in its Kenyan affiliate in 2017. This led to asset transfers, including the transfer of agricultural land, to ensure that its Kenyan assets were protected and held in trust, the charity told The Globe.

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