Craig Kielburger Marc Kielburger in 2008. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Craig and Marc Kielburger, the two brothers who founded WE Charity and its associated businesses, have decided to play aggressive offence as they push back against the members of Parliament investigating them.

On Monday, March 15, the day they were to testify before the House of Commons ethics committee, the brothers launched a web page attacking one of the members of that committee, New Democratic MP Charlie Angus.

The ethics committee had summoned the brothers to answer questions about their and their organizations’ role in a now-defunct federal government youth volunteer program.

In the spring of 2020, members of Parliament, and all Canadians, discovered the government had handed over management of the program, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to the WE organization, without the usual competitive bidding process.

At the same time, Canadians also learned WE had paid fees or travel costs to relatives of the prime minister, and to then finance minister Bill Morneau and members of his family.

The web page which singled out Angus for attack is part of the Kielburgers’ carefully crafted strategy, the aim of which is to portray themselves and their multiple organizations as innocent victims of, in elder brother Marc Kielburger’s words, “political crossfire.”

WE’s web page devoted to Charlie Angus lists 101 “false statements” the outspoken New Democrat from northern Ontario is supposed to have made.

In fact, the page lists only 19 distinct statements. The New Democratic MP repeated a number of the statements on different occasions, and the web page lists each occurrence as though it were a separate event. In that way they have vastly inflated the number of notional falsehoods.

The Kielburgers and their advisers obviously think 101 is a more impressive figure than 19.

Matters of nuance and interpretation

However you count them, a significant number of the WE web page’s claims of falsity turn out to be false in themselves — or, at best, exaggerations.

For instance, the Kielburger web page says Angus stated the federal youth program, which the WE organization was to manage, was worth $900 million, while WE’s contract with the government was only for $538 million.

In a telephone interview with rabble, Angus explained that the government had, in fact, allocated somewhat more than $900 million to a youth volunteering project. The $538 million was meant to be a first tranche.

The WE organization also claims Angus falsely alleged the youth program was WE’s idea, but, in fact, the idea actually originated with the government.

Angus responds there is strong evidence in a series of emails between federal civil servants and WE officials which shows WE’s involvement in the formulation of the volunteer program concept from the very outset.

It all started in April 2020, with a smaller WE proposal, for a different, far less costly youth program. Then, government officials told the WE people they were, in fact, shopping for something more ambitious, designed to employ thousands of young Canadians whose summer job prospects had been torpedoed by the pandemic.

WE quickly stepped into the breach. In a matter of days, the organization handed a proposal to government officials.

It was the WE people who put tangible meat onto the bones of a vague and general concept. Readers can decide for themselves if in giving WE credit for inventing the youth program Charlie Angus falsified anything.

A good many of the other accusations on the WE web page are of the same order. They hinge on matters of nuance and interpretation, not black-and-white statements of fact.

To cite yet another example: the Kielburgers dispute Charlie Angus’ statement that the various WE entities are “adept at media manipulation.”

Angus responds that, as The Globe and Mail reported in July 2020, WE spent more than US$600,000 on U.S. political consultants in the fiscal year ending August 2019. Over $100,000 of that went to Firehouse Strategies, a “full-service public affairs firm that focuses on delivering targeted persuasion campaigns.”

The company has close links to the U.S. Republican Party.

Firehouse describes its media approach in this way:

“At a time when there is great distrust in institutions and media, the Firehouse team curates authentic content from media sources and influencers trusted by our target audience.”

Firehouse partner Terry Sullivan has been quoted as saying: “Our belief is in modern communications you either throw spears or you catch spears. Catching them is no fun.”

An NGO unlike most others

To Charlie Angus, WE’s attack web page looks like it comes straight out of the Firehouse book of tricks. It is highly unusual, the MP notes, for a Canadian charity devoted to the rights of children to hire U.S. political consultants who specialize in attack tactics.

But very little about WE seems usual or normal. It is not a typical low-key, nose-to-the-grindstone non-governmental organization (NGO), on the lines of Inter Pares, SeedChange, or Cuso-International, focusing on doing work at the grassroots level.

For years, WE achieved its success by harnessing the star power of its founders and other celebrities, many of whom it paid. To those who have carefully examined the operations of WE, the organization appears to be as much about superficial flash and sizzle as concrete results.

In their evaluation of WE’s results the highly respected Canadian charity rating agency Charity Intelligence determined the organization’s work had “low impact.” Charity Intelligence based that rating on “demonstrated impact per dollar spent.”

At the Kielburgers’ ethics committee appearance, a number of MPs repeatedly asked exactly how much money WE Charity paid members of the Trudeau family, in total.

It took a while, but Craig Kielburger finally provided the figure: $217,500 in fees to the prime minister’s mother, wife and brother, $210,250.92 in expenses, plus the 20 per cent of the total which went to Speakers’ Spotlight, a booking agency.

If you check Speakers’ Spotlight’s client list you will see they are almost all major Canadian and multinational corporations, such as General Motors, Bell, Coca-Cola, the Bank of Montreal, Dupont, and Canadian Tire.

We know WE Charity was once a Speakers’ Spotlight client, but on its website the booking agency lists not a single other charity or NGO as a client. Not one. That’s because hiring high-priced speakers is not what NGOs typically do.

If well-known people wish to help charitable organizations dedicated to making the world a better place, they contribute their time. They do not expect to collect fees.

There are a couple of aspects of this affair that really bother Charlie Angus.

One is that it has unfairly tarnished the public service. The New Democrat gives high marks to federal civil servants for the dedicated work they have done throughout the pandemic. They created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) over a weekend, he notes.

If the youth volunteering program went off the rails, Angus says the problem was not at the level of the public service. The program ran into big trouble, he suspects, because of explicit or implicit political interference.

Angus also expresses dismay that because of the WE fiasco the government missed an opportunity to invest in youth employment opportunities last summer.

Early in 2020, Angus relates, the government asked MPs to identify organizations in their ridings willing and able to hire students for summer employment — if the government would provide some financial support. That was before WE got involved, and before the government decided its youth program should be based on volunteering (although, oddly, paid) rather than employment.

In his own northern Ontario riding, Angus reports he identified 25 such organizations, including farm groups, soup kitchens, the Northern Ontario Medical School, and long-term care facilities. Other MPs from all parties did the same, he says.

In fact, in rushing to outsource a major program to WE, the government overlooked one of its greatest resources, the 338 members of Parliament.

The lesson for next time might be that the government should trust itself — its civil servants and its elected members — when it has a big job to accomplish.

The shiny bullet of a flashy outside organization can easily turn out to be a dull dud.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note, March 29, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to USC-Canada, which is an earlier version of the organization’s name. It is now called SeedChange. The story has been corrected.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...