A ‘celebration of young leaders’ becomes a scandal for old political families

OPINION: Canadians like to throw stones at our southern neighbour about its messy conflicts of interest involving politics and family — but the WE scandal shows we should be focusing more on our own glass house
By Melissa Alice - Published on Jul 15, 2020
Marc (left) and Craig Kielburger speak at the WE Day celebrations in Kitchener on February 17, 2011. (Geoff Robins/CP)

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The first two ethics breaches under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government caused concern, but, with the pandemic and global crisis in full swing, we as a nation seemed to have moved on. There were more pressing challenges to deal with. Then, last week, the WE scandal broke.

I stumbled upon treasured Canadian R&B singer Jully Black’s frustrated Instagram video montage, in which she asked, in earnest, whether she’d been had by the celebrated WE Charity. Black has regularly hosted and performed at their big event, WE Day, for free: Justin Trudeau’s mother, Margaret, and his brother Alexandre received a combined honorarium of almost $300,000 for speaking at the events between 2016 and 2020.

A few years ago, I was downtown, heading to a meeting near the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena). On that sunny spring day, the square was packed with energetic, fresh-faced schoolchildren. The air was warm and the day as bright as the looks on their faces as they laughed, joked, and headed to the gates. Many of these young students were wearing T-shirts that said “WE Day” across the front in bold blue letters. I had no idea what WE Day was, and I was curious about the event that had inspired thousands of kids to fill a hockey arena, their enthusiasm and innocence palpable.

Then Canadian politics got involved.

 “A celebration of young leaders,” as per the tagline on its website, WE Day is organized by the WE Charity and grew from a 7,500-student event at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto in 2007 to a multi-city, stadium-filling tour, pulling in notable social activists and celebrities who perform, MC, and give motivational speeches to young people. From my introduction to WE Day up until now, there was always a bit of mystery and surrounding it. In 1995, at 12 and 18 years old, the WE Charity founders Craig and Marc Kielburger had already co-founded their first charity, Free the Children, which would later be renamed WE Charity. Tickets to WE Day are free, as long as schools meet certain volunteering criteria and promote social activism, volunteerism, and leadership. The WE Charity is a multimillion-dollar international charity that earned the Kielburger brothers each the prestigious Order of Canada and a host of other perks, such as board seats and honorary doctorates. For over a decade, it seemed that WE Charity’s upward trajectory was limitless — but, then, in 2019, cracks began to show, culminating in the dissolution of a plum $912 million government program contract it was set to receive.

Jully Black’s Instagram video led me to another account, with the username @antiracistwe. It was there that I learned that one of WE Charity’s former employees, Amanda Maitland, said her speech about her experiences as a Black women dealing with racism had been significantly edited without her consent by her white colleagues. When Maitland brought up the issue, she says, she was “aggressively” shut down by Marc Kielburger while her colleagues looked on. Other past and present colleagues soon began to open up about their “horrifying” experiences at WE Charity. Interestingly enough, one statement, from former staffer Santai Kimakeke, was later retracted.

As if things weren’t interesting enough at WE Charity, on June 25, the Liberal government announced that it was awarding the charity a $19.5 million sole-source (as in, no other NGOs had an opportunity to bid on this project) contract to administer the $912 million Canada Student Service Grant program. Note that this is the same government whose leader’s close family members had been compensated by this very charity. This makes the waters around the awarding of this grant very murky. For starters, WE Charity initially denied having paid Margaret Trudeau for speaking. The situation got even murkier when Prime Minister Trudeau admitted that he had not recused himself from the cabinet discussions that had led to the decision to award the CSSG contract to WE Charity. Murkier still: it came out shortly after that Finance Minister Bill Morneau also has family connections with the charity.

While this is not a good look for the Liberals, it follows the centuries-old tradition of Canada’s old political and industrial families disproportionately benefiting from taxpayers’ and the public’s goodwill. Both Trudeau and Morneau are legacy kids from their own family dynasties, in politics and human resource services, respectively, while Morneau’s wife is from the McCain frozen-foods family. For those of us who are old enough, the Sponsorship Scandal certainly rings some bells, as does British Columbia’s BingoGate. Then there are the near-oligopolies that several Canadian family empires own across several industries. Many of us Canadians like to throw stones at our neighbour to the south about its own messy conflicts of interest involving politics and family, when we should be focusing more on our own glass house. Perhaps our clean-cut, polite, don’t-rock-the-boat Canadian tendencies have allowed us to turn a blind eye to our politicians’ and elites’ ethically ambiguous, financially advantageous power moves. But, in the era of COVID-19 and civil unrest, those days may be over.

As countries keep their economies float on billions of dollars of debt, topics that were once avoided are now being discussed freely and questionable practices regularly challenged. It’s more important than ever to hold our leaders accountable. The fate of our country moving forward depends on it.

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