Just before Christmas 2020, Marc and Craig spent four hours answering questions from journalist Mark Kelley for an episode of The Fifth Estate that Kelley said would tell the entire twenty-five-year story of WE Charity.
There was a measure of trust on the part of the Kielburgers—after all, the CBC is a public broadcaster, financed largely by taxpayer dollars, and it touts its commitment to journalistic principles of accuracy, balance, and fairness. The brothers understood there would be tough questions, but they were told by the CBC that this would also be an opportunity to remind viewers of all the good the organization had done and to put a period at the end of the sentence as it wound down its Canadian operations.
Most concerning to me was how little Kelley and his team—including Fifth Estate producer Harvey Cashore—understood about the cultures and communities in which WE Charity operated and the work the organization did on the ground. For instance, Kelley brought up the supposedly fake kitchen that Bloomberg reporter Natalie Obiko Pearson had asked about in her emails and later described in her lengthy article.
He was told there was no truth to that rumour, but Harvey Cashore raised it again in a conversation with Marc and Craig in early January. This time, he was shown a picture of a substantial kitchen built of chiselled stone, with a cement floor and piped clean water—proof that nothing had been slapped together to fool a donor—but he continued to protest. If it was a kitchen, he asked, why was there no refrigerator? The organization had to explain that rural Kenyans do not typically have refrigerators because homes often do not have electricity.
Many people would have felt embarrassed about making such an error, but apparently Cashore did not. The CBC went ahead and alleged in its February documentary that the charity “manufactured” a kitchen overnight to deceive a donor.
This was the backdrop against which members of WE Charity’s executive and senior leadership teams gathered together on a videoconference The Fifth Estate 307 to watch “The Price WE Paid: An Investigation into WE Charity’s Rise and Fall from Grace” in February 2021.3 They all understood there was a lot at stake. Marc recalled, “We were all holding out the vague hope that the program would be a more even-handed presentation of how things had gotten so out of control, but deep down we knew it wouldn’t be good.”
Alarm bells went off when the face of Jesse Brown filled the screen. That Mark Kelley was presenting him as a reliable source of information was almost comical because at roughly the same time, the cbc’s top brass was accusing Brown of being a purveyor of fake news. On December 14, 2020, the network had issued a press release to refute a Canadaland article alleging that the president of the Canadian broadcaster lived in Brooklyn.4 “This assertion [by Canadaland],” the release said, “has been repeated by other media, including The National Post and Le Devoir, and spread on websites, such as The Post Millennial, Canada Proud, and True North. It is false.” The statement went on to say that despite receiving clarification, Brown refused to issue a correction (a situation well known to WE Charity).
Nevertheless, he was a cornerstone of the Fifth Estate episode, which started out by recycling well-trodden issues with the prime minister, WE Day speakers, corporate partners, and the funding model. But the show soon veered off in an unexpected direction. At about the halfway point, while the screen filled with footage of Craig in front of a massive machine digging deep into the ground, Kelley began to talk about the importance of clean water projects to the charity’s Kenya mission. “But,” he asked, “was it always clear where the donors’ money went?” This was the first indication to the public that the CBC had a new theory to float—one that would eventually span three programs and several corresponding articles stretching through almost the entirety of 2021.
The theory was that the charity was tricking its donors into funding the same project many times over, a practice known as double pledging. The cbc was implying fraud—a very serious charge that would soon be asserted even more directly by the Fifth Estate team. For now, Kelley offered as evidence several social media and online posts that he said showed different organizations “appear[ing] to take credit for funding the same borehole in [the] same Kenyan village.” He singled out a group from Whistler and a student group from ubc, saying both “said they paid for a clean drinking water project in [the Kenyan village of] Kipsongol.”
When she heard this latest allegation, Dalal knew it didn’t look good. “I remember thinking, ‘People are going to believe what is being said. Because of who they are—The Fifth Estate—people are going to think they have done their research. They’re going to think that their sources are legitimate. People aren’t going to give us the benefit of the doubt. What are we going to do?’”
But the CBC hadn’t done its research. Kelley provided a voice-over that painted a picture of upset donors, but not a single donor was featured on camera. And the very people Kelley claimed were duped later said he was wrong—in lawyer-speak, the purported victims said the crime never happened. The group from Whistler, for example, had donated money raised through an event called the Whistler Water One Climb. The brainchild of Stuart and Della McLaughlin, owners of Whistler Water, this event inspired almost two thousand people to scale Grouse Mountain, overlooking Vancouver, and raised more than $100,000 for WE Villages water projects in Kenya. The McLaughlins—who described themselves as “heartbroken” about what happened to WE Charity—told me they are skeptical by nature and had travelled to Kenya to see WE’s impact for themselves. “I wanted to see whether WE was living up to its commitment around creating sustainable projects, understanding what it is really doing, seeing first-hand,” Stuart explained. “It was important for me to see the sustainability and to know that what had been built wouldn’t fall apart after five years.” The McLaughlins later publicly criticized The Fifth Estate’s reporting and said they weren’t the least bit confused about how their donations were used. They understood that a water project is much more complex than simply drilling a borehole, and they supported the idea of pooling resources to create the greatest impact for a community.
So what about that student group from the University of British Columbia? Mark Kelley specifically said he had talked to James Cohen, the head of that group, and Cohen said he’d been told the ubc donation The Fifth Estate 309 “paid for the entire borehole in Kipsongol.” There was just one problem: Cohen knew and understood that his group’s $5,000 contribution was in fact funding a water kiosk connected to a six-figure infrastructure project. There were several unequivocally clear email exchanges from years earlier between the charity and Cohen discussing how his group’s donation was one part of a much larger water project. In one email from 2015, for example, a WE Charity team member wrote, “You are correct, a borehole does cost a lot more than $5,000. On average the general cost of a borehole is $250,000.”5 The larger infrastructure project is a substantial undertaking that involves drilling, piping, distribution points, pump machinery, and years of fuel, repairs, and community water education. What’s disturbing is that the CBC was told about the comprehensive water projects prior to the broadcast and went ahead with the allegation anyway.6 Despite also receiving the email exchanges between Cohen and WE Charity, The Fifth Estate never admitted its mistake, and the original broadcast was re-aired on at least four occasions. It still remains uncorrected online to this day.
Other donors who were not explicitly referenced in the program also came forward to reject the CBC’s claims. One older gentleman whose
church had donated generously to WE Charity many years earlier spoke with Harvey Cashore and then later relayed that conversation to Scott Baker. “After speaking with Mr. Cashore,” Scott told me, “he thought that he had been deceived by the charity. He became convinced that he had been told by the charity that he was the only donor to fund a specific water project. But when I searched our email records, I was able to send him exchanges from years ago telling him that he was one of many contributors to the water project. The man apologized for jumping to conclusions. Mr. Cashore had put an idea in his head, and he misremembered the events.”
None of this was surprising to me. The CBC has a reputation for accurate and responsible reporting, and most people would assume that its journalists have done the legwork and are sure of what they’re saying when they put forward a set of supposed facts. It’s little wonder that some people began to question their own recollections, especially when trying to recall events from years ago.
To make matters worse, Cashore and Kelley doubled down on their original claims in a segment broadcast on cbc’s The National in March.7 And their “donor deception” theory increasingly began to rest on allegations by Reed Cowan, whose outrageous claims before Parliament were the fuel that helped this fire take hold. Harvey Cashore later told many interviewees that Cowan’s testimony had sparked his interest in the story. But as we saw in the last chapter, Cowan had acted with unclean hands and should never have been trusted as a source by anyone who calls himself an investigative journalist.
The National segment accused the organization of deliberately raising more money than needed for a water project in the village of Osenetoi. One of the supposedly deceived donors featured was Donna McFarlane, a retired teacher from Mount Forest, Ontario. She was the first and only donor to be shown on camera in either this segment or the first Fifth Estate episode. Donna was an active WE fundraiser who had been to Kenya three times to see the programs with her own eyes. She told me in an interview that she understood the model and the work and was so disappointed with the cbc’s portrayal of her views that she wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper to try to set the record straight. “Unfortunately cbc reporting took parts of my answers to certain questions and tacked the words onto answers to other questions in order to make it seem that I agreed with an attack on WE Charity . . .
When I told them that our experience had been completely positive and that WE Charity had always sent us regular updates about the work our money was helping to finance, they kept repeating, ‘But surely you were upset to learn that other groups also were fundraising for the deep bore well at Osenetoi, just as you were!’ In actual fact we always knew other groups were raising funds for this community.”
McFarlane also wrote to the cbc ombudsman, Jack Nagler, describing the questionable practices that had been used in her interview.10 “It would be very important to watch the entire raw footage of the interview and to listen to the voice not on camera,” she said. “This voice belongs to Harvey Cashore as he periodically heckles me in an attempt to unsettle or fluster me into agreeing with the negative statements he was putting forward. At one point, he even shoved printed material in front of me The Fifth Estate 311 and asked me to comment on it immediately . . . Mark [Kelley] and Harvey both guaranteed me that my very positive experience with WE Charity would be the focus of my interview, but in actual fact edited my words to serve their own purposes.”
McFarlane’s version of events was confirmed by Barb Cowan, also a retired teacher and a member of the same fundraising group. She was present for McFarlane’s interview and subsequently complained to a high-ranking executive at the cbc.12 In her email, she described one troubling moment when both Kelley and Cashore were pressuring McFarlane to watch a video of Reed Cowan.13 When she refused, Cashore took what Barb Cowan described as “great liberties” to summarize Reed Cowan’s allegations. “He clearly wanted to prove Reed Cowan’s claim that WE Charity essentially tricks donors into believing they are raising funds for one thing and then uses the money elsewhere,” Barb Cowan wrote. She said she was shocked by the journalists’ “extremely biased” conduct, which she called “dishonest and deceptive.”
Other donors cited in an article on the cbc News website also came forward, writing an open letter to the cbc to object to what they described as “misinformation.”14 They said that the article “did not fairly represent our responses to [Kelley and Cashore’s] questions,” and they voiced their “frustration and disappointment in the cbc’s reporting.” Stuart McLaughlin was among those who signed the open letter, and on the day The National piece aired, he also emailed Mark Kelley to complain that the cbc continued to misrepresent where the money from his Grouse Mountain fundraiser had gone. “I would have thought the journalistic standards of our national media outlet and the National specifically would be much higher than this,” he wrote.
Given the political and media climate, it took courage for these people to speak out, both publicly and behind the scenes, against a story that Canadians had been led to believe was true. Despite this, the allegations continued to be recycled in other news outlets. The National Post repeated the CBC’s already disproven—but not properly corrected—story about James Cohen, declaring, “[Reed] Cowan isn’t the first donor to express frustration regarding allegedly dubious WE Charity donor recognition practices.”18 Bloomberg combined Cowan’s
story with the allegations The Fifth Estate had whipped up for its own article about the supposed trail of grieving donors.19 The CBC returned the favour by picking up on Bloomberg’s reporting on Cowan’s story.
By the spring of 2021, Mark Kelley, Harvey Cashore, and the Fifth Estate team had advanced their narrative about donor deception in two national broadcasts and multiple online articles. But big and embarrassing holes had been poked in that storyline. The only donor featured on camera, Donna McFarlane, publicly complained about her words being manipulated, and a witness to her interview—also a retired schoolteacher—wrote to the cbc to say Kelley and Cashore were selective with the truth. Eight donors who were presented as purported victims of deception wrote an open letter saying they had not been victimized.
And evidence provided by WE Charity directly refuted what the cbc put on the air about James Cohen and his group at ubc.
To my mind, the story was dead. But Kelley and Cashore were undeterred and continued to hunt for disgruntled donors to corroborate the tale they’d already told Canadians.
The question I’ve been asked by many people is why The Fifth Estate barrelled forward. My answer is unsatisfying—I don’t know. Maybe Kelley and Cashore thought they would eventually find deceived donors if they just kept looking. Maybe they had invested too much time and professional capital in the story and had to salvage it even though it had fallen apart. Maybe someone in a corner office pressured them to keep pursuing a high-profile story that would attract viewers and boost ratings. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. In 2019, the Globe and Mail wrote about a staff revolt that took place when Fifth Estate producers proposed a series of episodes about a notorious killer.20 The idea, according to the Globe, was “part of a bid to shore up the program’s failing ratings,” which had dropped by 16 percent from the previous season…
And WE’s experience was not isolated. In January 2022, a former Calgary medical examiner named Evan Matshes launched a $15 million lawsuit against the CBC, as well as Mark Kelley and Harvey Cashore, alleging that The Fifth Estate had defamed him in a January 2020 two-part episode called “The Autopsy: What If Justice Got It Wrong?”21 The episodes “foster[ed] false allegations that Dr. Matshes had caused or contributed to miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions,” the suit charged. It called the story “deliberately dramatic” and “misleading,” and said it was “the result of selective and incomplete presentation of opinion, conjecture, and facts calculated to present . . . a distorted, inaccurate, incomplete and wrongful picture of the circumstances.”
Even some of the cbc’s own employees have raised concerns about how the broadcaster has been operating. In a widely shared Substack post published in January 2022, journalist Tara Henley said that she had resigned from the cbc over concerns about journalistic integrity. “When I started at the national public broadcaster in 2013,” Henley wrote, “the network produced some of the best journalism in the country.
By the time I resigned last month, it embodied some of the worst trends in mainstream media. In a short period of time, the cbc went from being a trusted source of news to churning out clickbait that reads like a parody of the student press.”
Whatever Cashore and Kelley’s reason for refusing to let go, their efforts were relentless. According to reports to WE Charity, one donor group received forty-three calls or emails from the cbc and felt they were being harassed. The Fifth Estate team also called one supporter’s local church and another’s ex-husband’s workplace.
John Knapp, a retired teacher who was involved with WE for more than twenty years, was one of the donors the cbc approached. Before retiring, Knapp had overseen a large and thriving WE Club at his school, and he’d taken part in eleven trips to WE projects by himself, with students, and with other educators. “It’s the only program I’ve ever been involved in in thirty-five-plus years in education that I would consider 100 percent successful for every participant,” he said.
“And that’s astounding.” But this wasn’t what Harvey Cashore wanted to hear when he set up an interview with Knapp. Every time the former teacher said something positive about the organization, Cashore tried to steer the conversation back to the donor deception theory. Knapp was so concerned that he wrote to Brodie Fenlon, the cbc’s editor-in-chief, to complain that Cashore’s approach was “at best manipulative, and at worst highly unethical.”23 Other donors said their assertions were dismissed or their words twisted.
So if Cashore and his team weren’t listening to anyone who had good things to say, who were they listening to? It turned out that since at least August 2020, they’d been scouring social media to try to find posts where two or more donors appeared to be funding the same WE Charity project.
Kelley and Cashore had been offered the opportunity to speak with Kenyan government officials, local community leaders, WE Charity staff and donors, and independent auditors and investigators, but instead they went with a keyword search on Twitter.
Where was the due diligence? Did they cross-reference emails or other documents to determine whether these donors were fully funding a project or had ever been told they were by the organization? If so, they never showed any of those documents on their broadcasts. Did they consider the possibility that they themselves might have misunderstood something when trying to interpret a donor’s intentions in the Twittersphere? Was the CBC the one telling donors they had fully funded a project when the donors had no such view to begin with?
That seemed to be exactly what had happened with James Cohen and eventually others.
After Donna McFarlane’s vocal statements about unethical editing by The Fifth Estate, some donors and former staff became so concerned about being misrepresented that they started to record their interviews with the CBC, and they later shared those recordings with WE Charity.
Once again, a pattern is evident. Harvey Cashore persistently kicks things off by presenting Reed Cowan as an example of donor fraud, elevating his credibility by explaining that Cowan testified in front of a parliamentary committee on this subject, then stating falsely that “no one knows where the money went.” He also fails to mention Cowan’s extortion attempt.
In these recordings, Cashore sounds less like an unbiased journalist and more like a prosecutor trying to persuade a jury to see a case his way. “I think about every village that’s part of the Free the Children system on my spreadsheets,” he told one interviewee, referring to a tracking system he’d cobbled together. “So on the left-hand column is everybody I could find on social media or Twitter or a blog or whatever that stated they funded a school, you know, or a well or whatever. And so, you know, what I can say factually right now is I’m getting way more groups and individuals saying they funded a school, for example, in Irkaat, let’s say, or Mwangaza than schools exist.” But this was hardly the smoking gun Cashore seemed to think it was. One donor emailed the CBC to explain that her friends had posted individually about a fundraising effort they undertook as a group. “All of us collectively donated to the same project,” she wrote. “The pictures can be the same school or project because we were part of the same fundraiser.”
In other words, ten individual Twitter posts about a donation was not proof that WE Charity had funded the same project ten times over. But that’s exactly what Cashore appeared to believe, and that’s the scenario he put to the people he was interviewing. This theory that donors had been duped became the cornerstone of the CBC’s efforts over the next few months and eventually was the basis of a second full episode of The Fifth Estate, “Finding School No. 4,” broadcast on November 18, 2021.27 (I’ll come back to this episode later in the chapter.) As they worked on this second story, Cashore and his team sent hundreds of emails to WE Charity donors, seeking anyone who might be confused about the organization’s model. In one introductory email to a donor, a CBC staffer named Matthew Pierce wrote, “Research we have done indicates that there is a discrepancy between how many schools were built and how many donors believe they funded a school. To that end, we’re hoping to speak with donors in an effort to help us understand the discrepancy.”
In this way, Cashore and his team were not simply suggesting that they believed there may be a discrepancy—they were starting outreach by telling donors there was a discrepancy and asking them to react to it as though it were established fact. For example, in another message shared with me, Pierce, copying Harvey Cashore, asked a donor for “any documents or emails which explain how WE came to choose the school in Esinoni as one of those that you fully funded?” Note that he didn’t ask the donor—Mark Quattrocchi, a motivational speaker who had cycled around the world to raise money for education—if he had fully funded a school. He just put those words in Quattrocchi’s mouth.
The claim that donors were told they alone had “fully funded” a school, a water project, or some other program was essential to the CBC’s narrative….
When the organization was trying to meet the education needs of a community overseas, the actual school building was only one small piece of the puzzle. Those schools also needed teachers and books and chalk and paper. They needed security and maintenance. At the high school level, the students were boarded, so they needed places to live and meals to eat. The teachers also needed living accommodations and professional development opportunities. Money donated to the education pillar supported health and environmental clubs, inter-school competitions, and initiatives to improve enrolment, attendance, and performance. In most cases, the cost of building and maintaining schools and then supporting the education pillar for five to seven years was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And as surrounding communities grew, it wasn’t unusual for the organization to go back to add additional educational infrastructure.
The financial commitment didn’t end when a single schoolroom was built—in fact, that was just the beginning. Also seemingly lost on the Fifth Estate team was the representative model of fundraising used by countless charities, including WE. Donors to plan International may receive a photo of a specific child, but their funds are “pooled with those from other generous Canadians” to help an entire village. World Vision explains that when someone donates for a schoolhouse, the charity “pools donations to provide schools in as many communities as possible.”
These charities encourage donations by highlighting concrete rather than abstract contributions. Similarly, WE Charity talked about what it costs to build a school or a borehole as a way of expressing the value of meeting specific fundraising targets. This also created a visual that people could relate to. On social media—which the cbc relied on as a primary source of information—things sometimes get fuzzy because people might use shorthand terms like “raising money for a school” as a way to talk about fundraising for education in a community. This did not mean that a donor “owned” a piece of infrastructure or had some exclusive claim to it. In my view, the cbc’s suggestion that people like Donna McFarlane should be offended to learn that others had contributed to the same project reflects a particularly cynical take on charitable giving—the idea that donors should be dissatisfied if they had no exclusive claim to a particular school or well in the developing world.
In August 2021, when WE Charity Foundation was relaunched as the entity that would manage projects in Kenya going forward, its website featured pictures and maps of the 852 schoolrooms—including support structures such as libraries and administrative offices—that the charity had built or repaired in the country over the years. Even today, anyone can look at the site and click on, say, Irkaat, a community featured prominently in The Fifth Estate’s second broadcast. Irkaat’s page shows photos of each of the village’s sixty-six schoolrooms, which include classrooms, a kitchen, teacher accommodations, and a laboratory for the high school students. There’s also detailed information about the community itself and the real-life impact of each of the five pillars. At the bottom of the page is a map showing the location of all sixty-six structures. This same information is available for the twenty-nine other Kenyan communities where WE is active.
Dalal Al-Waheidi provided all this information—including the complete list of 852 newly built and renovated schoolrooms—to Harvey Cashore on August 16, 2021. In her accompanying email, she implored him to stop misinforming donors by circulating lower figures that were “inconsistent with the data we have provided,” and to contact the organization if he believed the data was incorrect or incomplete.36 Cashore never replied to the message or gave the charity an opportunity to comment on his research and allegations. When he and Mark Kelley later went to Kenya to film footage for their broadcast, they visited Irkaat for themselves and declared that only twenty-eight “schools” had been built.
But they didn’t count many individual classrooms or any of the support buildings, and they visited only one of four spots around the village where classrooms could be found. “It was painful when they put up this screen of Irkaat and said, ‘We think that there’s been this many schools fully funded, and there’s this many schools that we saw there,’” Robin later told me. “And I was thinking, ‘We sent you a map that had sixty-six structures on it, and you chose to go to only one location within Irkaat and then presented that as though it was a whole.’”
On September 3, 2021, a year after he’d started reporting on WE Charity, Cashore wrote to Robin to tell her that he was making his first trip to Kenya to see the organization’s work for himself. He would be there the following week, he said, and wanted her help to set up interviews and arrange visits to schools. Robin welcomed the news and said she was happy to facilitate the trip, but she also had some advice for Cashore. “I sincerely hope that you are coming with an open mind,” she wrote, “and will truly take the time to consider and understand how our development model works, hear from the people whose lives have been directly affected by the changes in their communities, and appreciate that while you seem to be focused on counting buildings, the sustainable change that is at the heart of what we do is about a lot more than structures.”
But that’s not what happened.
Cashore told Robin that he had received an invitation to visit from the office of Narok County governor Samuel Tunai in August.39 (Narok County is home to WE College, Baraka Hospital, and many of WE’s partner communities.) The governor has since confirmed to WE Charity that as far as he is aware, no such invitation was issued. Also concerning was that when a self-described “local handler for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation” got in touch with Tunai to set up an interview for Kelley and Cashore, the overture was anything but transparent.
The handler, John Njiru, omitted any mention of WE and reframed the interview request as “an opportunity and platform to market the County of Narok.” He said the governor would be able to showcase the county “as an Investment Haven for the wealthy, and the go-to investment destination for those that want to be in the Tourism Sector.” Njiru then asked the governor to get in touch with him so he could help “swing the interview” in his favour.
It was an inauspicious start, and perhaps no surprise, then, that when Tunai eventually sat down with Kelley, the governor’s staff recorded the whole interaction. (His office later shared the recording with WE Charity.) The Fifth Estate, however, painted these actions as evidence that the governor was hostile to the journalists and wanted to thwart their investigation. Had Canadian viewers known how the governor was approached—he was essentially lied to in the context of a show about whether WE Charity told lies—they might have seen his actions in quite a different light.
As the interview began, Tunai spoke about the challenges faced by communities in his region. He talked specifically about female genital mutilation and explained how the charity had had a noticeable impact on that issue through its Kisaruni Girls Boarding High School, which not only gave girls a chance at an education but also helped many avoid becoming child brides. “This is why I can stand up and say WE Charity has done a good job,” he told Kelley, calling himself “a great promoter and supporter of WE.”
But most of this part of the conversation ended up on the cuttingroom floor. Kelley had other things he wanted to talk about. “What would you say—and I’m asking you just to think about this for a second—if more money was raised for Kenya and Narok County than was actually spent in Narok County?” He phrased this as a hypothetical—just an interesting question for the governor to ponder—but he was in fact levelling a very serious charge without a shred of evidence to support it. When Tunai did not take the bait the first time, Kelley repeated the question toward the end of the interview, in a moment that did make it to air. The governor promptly halted the conversation.
It was another in a long line of jaw-dropping developments for the people at WE. “Without ever [putting] this question [to the] charity and providing an opportunity for clarification,” Scott Baker said, “the cbc was raising a very serious allegation about a Canadian charity in front of a foreign government official who could shut down the charity’s humanitarian programs in the country.” Carol Moraa told me that the moment sadly didn’t surprise her. “I felt like they were not sincere in coming to Kenya. They already had a preconceived show. They already knew what they wanted on the show and coming to Kenya was just a smokescreen.”
Unfortunately, things would get worse from there, with the cbc crew almost provoking a diplomatic incident.
In the days leading up to Cashore and Kelley’s September 9 arrival, Robin had twice explained to them that because of the pandemic, access to government-run primary schools was severely restricted and Cashore would need to get written permission to enter any school grounds.
(Although WE Charity helps to fund primary schools, they are legally owned and operated by local governments.) Robin wanted to ensure that the cbc team had what they needed because her slight hope was that once they saw the projects in action, their perceptions of the charity’s work might finally begin to shift. Cashore assured her, in writing, that he had secured the necessary permission,43 so she began discussing plans for them to visit some schools a few days after their arrival.
But on September 10, Robin received another message from Cashore, who had already tried to go to a school and take photos of it, only to be turned away. “After getting permission a week ago to film the exterior of school rooms at Motony,” Cashore wrote, “we were told ‘calls were made’ and the permission was retracted.” Robin took this as a thinly veiled accusation that she or someone else at WE was trying to block the visit.
It didn’t make any sense. “This is what we wanted all along. Why would we ‘make calls’ to block his reporting?”
She offered to help him fix the problem but said she would need a copy of the written permission he told her he’d been given. She asked multiple times, but he never produced anything. In the meantime, Carol phoned local ministry of education officials and also sent an urgent letter asking them to reach out to the ministry’s headquarters in Nairobi to get the cbc journalists special permission to enter schools.
Robin told me that a few days later, she learned from staff at the Motony school that when the cbc crew had shown up, the local handler ( John Njiru again) claimed he, Kelley, and Cashore were representatives of WE Charity. The deputy head teacher didn’t believe him and wouldn’t let them onto school grounds. Imagine the outcry if reporters from another country had come to Canada at the height of the pandemic and tried to make their way onto school grounds with a film crew, all without permission. And Cashore and his crew didn’t
do this just once. Over the weekend of September 11–12, even though the ministry of education still had not given the permission needed, the Fifth Estate team went from community to community, trying to bluff their way into each location, just as they had at Motony. Locals told Robin that at some schools, the journalists claimed to be working with WE Charity. At others, they suggested they were guests of
Kenyan ministry of education officials. And in at least one instance, they brought a drone and flew it over schoolrooms to take aerial photos until they were asked to leave.
This was not simply a case of someone cutting through unnecessary red tape. “These government rules exist for a reason,” Carol explained.
“There was a dire shortage in Kenya of vaccines, ventilators, and medical supplies. The cbc journalists had travelled in multiple airports, on several international flights, were in hotels and taxis in the big cities. They arrived in Kenya and the next day were running around, going village to village in the rural regions, where people have not been vaccinated and have very limited healthcare if they got sick. All without following rules or taking precautions.” (In September 2021, only about 1 percent of rural Kenyans had been vaccinated, according to publicly available information.)
Herickson Ngeno, a representative from the ministry of interior and a prominent local leader, told the WE team that the authorities were flooded with complaints from the schools and surrounding communities.
The ministry of education also confirmed that the cbc crew had never secured the needed authorization to begin with. “They say they have permission from the government. They say they are donors to WE,” complained Ngeno. “They do not respect us. They lied to us to gain entry to our schools . . . We have never felt more insulted.”
The government wouldn’t let the matter go without sanction. On September 13, a regional representative of the office of the president of Kenya issued a harsh reprimand to Canada’s national broadcaster, citing its employees’ “misconduct and illegal actions,” which included the criminal offences of misrepresenting government officials, trespassing on government land, and flying a drone without a licence.
Governor Tunai similarly expressed his disappointment to the cbc. In a letter to Brodie Fenlon, editor-in-chief of cbc News, he wrote: “In view of the activities that ensued after the interview and in particular the unethical conduct of the said cbc reporters, I am of the reasonable view that Mr. Njiru’s request to me was in bad faith and entailed an ulterior motive and purpose.”
In time, The Fifth Estate’s November 2021 documentary would suggest that all this drama was part of an attempt by WE Charity to impede its investigation. This made no sense, of course, because the charity had been begging the cbc to visit and wanted Kelley and Cashore to see it all.
Carol even pleaded with them to visit the purportedly fake kitchen! But to be sure that I was not missing any subtle form of heavy-handedness or some working of Kenyan connections, I asked each of Marc, Craig, Robin, and Carol a point-blank question: “Did you do anything or learn of anyone doing anything to interfere with Mark Kelley and Harvey Cashore when they visited Kenya?” Each said no.
Despite this terrible start, Robin continued to try to ensure that the Fifth Estate crew would get an accurate picture of WE’s activities because she understood that they had the power to negatively influence the charity’s fundraising efforts and its programs in Kenya. Carol even took the team on tours of Baraka Hospital, WE College, and the Kisaruni and Nglot high schools. She told me she was disappointed, however, when the camera crews seemed primarily interested in shooting any plaques they happened to spot, indicating an ongoing obsession with donor recognition.
Following the tours, the CBC team did do a sit-down interview with Carol, but once again, things did not go the way the organization had hoped. Although she tried to describe the complexity of real development work, Mark Kelley kept repeating the same questions about money spent on bricks and mortar. The interview lasted just sixteen minutes and then Kelley thanked her for her time. But before they wrapped up, Cashore jumped in to ask about multiple donors for a schoolroom. The questions seemed more combative, and Carol told me she felt both defeated and deflated. “He flew all the way to Kenya and asked one question,” she said of Cashore. “I explained over and over, but it did not seem like the answer he wanted. I am not even sure if he wanted to talk to me at all . . . I told Mark [Kelley], ‘Can you please talk to beneficiaries around here? Talk to patients at Baraka. Let’s go to the high school. You can talk to some learners there. Pick any that you want to talk to.’ But of course, he wouldn’t . . . From what we understand, the journalists didn’t make any effort to speak to any students, any teachers, or any community members. I do not know how to make them understand something they do not want to understand.” Months later, she told me that the experience still rankled. “I felt like the interview of me was just a way of showing [they] talked to an African on the ground.” In the actual hour- long broadcast, Carol appears on screen for just under three minutes, with Kelley speaking over her for a good portion of this time. Her entire interview is boiled down to 246 words.
Given Carol’s experience and the negative reports coming from Kenya, the WE team back in Canada had few illusions about what The Fifth Estate would say when the show eventually aired. But they weren’t expecting what happened when producer Harvey Cashore finally reached out for comment. After explaining that the program had been “taking a look at the primary schoolhouses that the charity has con- structed over a period of more than 15 years and comparing that to the number of donations that were stated to have funded primary school- houses in Kenya,” Cashore said he had just two questions to put to the organization: Did WE Charity pay performers for their appearances on stage at WE Days? And were expenses related to Craig Kielburger’s wedding paid for by an entity called WE Education Inc.? (The answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second question is yes, except that WE Education Inc. Was the personal company of Craig and Marc Kielburger. Its name was changed when Free the Children became WE Charity to avoid any confusion.)
Marc, for one, told me he was dumbfounded. What did either of these questions have to do with Kenya, and how could Cashore still be asking about WE Days after all this time? But an even greater concern was that he appeared to be reneging on a promise to interview Robin and give her the opportunity to respond on camera to the CBC’s allegations as the person responsible for financial matters in Kenya. “You have concluded that you do not need to include WE Charity’s perspective on financial matters, budgets, WE Charity’s decision-making process or its allocation of funding,” Marc wrote in his reply, “given that you agreed (in writing) that . . . These topics would be raised in Robin’s interview.” He also pointed out that in failing to provide questions or spell out allegations, the show was, in his opinion, not adhering to the CBC’s own journalistic standards and practices. “You have not provided us the fair opportunity to respond and counter what appears to be the very flawed fundamental premise of your story.”
Marc also questioned why Cashore would rush to broadcast when he knew that forensic accountant Ken Froese—whom Cashore himself regularly used as a source—was in the middle of reviewing the charity’s Kenya financials, project allocations, and related expenses. The organization had retained Froese to conduct this review after hearing that the CBC’s reporters had suggested to Governor Tunai that millions of dollars earmarked for Kenya had never made it to that country. And the charity had kept the cbc informed about the timeline for Froese’s work—the review would be complete long before the conclusion of The Fifth Estate’s season.
“We are prepared and willing to share the results of his independent findings with you,” Marc wrote. “If you are going to suggest impropriety (as you have countless times to our donors who have, in turn, rejected the premise) you must share with us the details and basis for that assumption. If you are indeed seeking the truth . . . We assume you will consider [Froese’s] findings before you continue your reporting.” Cashore responded by repeating his two original questions and ignoring the rest of Marc’s concerns.
Meanwhile, Robin was flummoxed by the CBC’s decision not to Interview her on financial topics that she was expressly told she would be given a chance to address—especially since those topics were at the core of the planned coverage and were issues she (and not Carol) was best positioned to speak to. Instead, the CBC told her, after already airing promotions for the show that revealed its conclusions, she would be limited to correcting anything that Carol had said. “I had been waiting for weeks for Mr. Cashore to arrange a time for my interview so I could answer questions and ensure the truth came forward,” Robin said. “His earlier email was clear: ‘We would want to interview you as country director.’ He lied to me. How could I not be given the opportunity to respond to any allegations about our work in Kenya?” Later she told me that the whole experience was like a nightmare. “You have those dreams . . . Where you are shouting and shouting and nobody can hear you, and you don’t know why nobody can hear you because you’re shouting really hard with all your might. I felt like they had taken the microphone away . . . They tease you with the microphone, but then they take it away. I’m shouting, ‘I have things to say. This is my personal integrity. This is our life’s work. And who are you to silence me?’”
When the show finally aired, Robin was not the only one who felt like she was living in a nightmare. It took less than a minute for Reed Cowan’s face to appear—a clear signal to me, as well as the WE team, that the program was not going to be above board. In fact, before he’d even said his own name, Mark Kelley was asking, “Where did all that money go?” This was apparently the CBC’s new theory: that donations made to support WE’s projects in Kenya had never even got to the people they were intended to help.
Kelley’s case rested on a review of online posts and the stories of two donors: Watson Jordan and Rukshan de Silva. Jordan is a former North Carolina teacher who in 2015 raised money for WE Charity in memory of his infant son, William. De Silva was in his final year at Iroquois Ridge High School, in a suburb outside Toronto, when he raised money for the organization in 2008. He and his classmates, he told Kelley, wanted to build a schoolhouse as their grad-year fundraising initiative. Both men spoke on the broadcast of the deep personal connection they felt to the projects. “Man, how impactful would that be for those kids to go from having no school to a school?” Jordan remembered thinking when he first heard about WE’s Adopt-a- Village program. Kelley described the excitement Jordan felt when he got a package of materials telling him that his village would be Irkaat and, the show claimed, his school would be school no. 4—the one referenced in the episode’s title.
De Silva also remembers the excitement when his class reached its fundraising goal. “We went to actually donate the money in person at [WE Charity’s] office in Toronto,” he told The Fifth Estate. “We wanted it to be an ongoing partnership. We didn’t want it to be a one-time donation.” Five years later, when he was in Kenya on his own, he reached out to WE Charity and asked if he could visit Pimbiniet, the village his school had donated to. There were no available staff members from the Toronto headquarters or the Nairobi office, but the organization helped him hire a driver and arranged for locals in the village to show him around. “I met with the teacher,” de Silva recalled, “and he kind of gave me a tour of the old school. And then they showed me the new school as well that was constructed with the funds that we donated. And I was really proud to see everything that we had spent four years fundraising for. Just to see the fruits of that labour was incredible.”
For so many donors, Kelley told viewers, “it was that connection to the bricks-and-mortar schoolhouse . . . That mattered most.” And that got The Fifth Estate wondering what they would find if they went to visit these villages for themselves. “So we decided to go to Kenya and look for Watson Jordan’s schoolhouse and Rukshan de Silva’s and others.”
In Pimbiniet, Kelley said, the villagers flew a WE Charity flag, a sign of the gratitude they felt toward the organization. But Kelley was on a particular mission and apparently not focused on what the locals thought. He reported that “we counted twenty schoolhouses, [but] our spreadsheet shows WE Charity had received donations to fully fund forty-eight.” And with that spreadsheet in hand, he went looking for what he called “the classroom that was funded by Rukshan de Silva.” Did the young man know, Kelley wondered, that his schoolhouse was paid for by others? “Back in Nairobi, we called [him] to ask.”
In fact, he did a lot more than ask. He told de Silva that the letters “MPCF,” clearly visible on a photograph de Silva had taken when he was in Pimbiniet back in 2013, stood for the Michael Pinball Clemons Foundation, and that this was proof the former CFL star had “already funded that school.” A dejected-looking de Silva replied, “If what you’re saying is true, that’s really disappointing.”
But here’s the problem: the things Kelley said about both the number of schoolrooms in Pimbiniet and the school de Silva thought he had helped fund weren’t true. There were fifty-six schoolrooms in Pimbiniet—far more than the CBC’s own count showed. And Clemons and de Silva did not fund the same schoolroom—in fact, there was no evidence that the classroom de Silva took a picture of was associated in any way with his high school class.
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