From Chapter 5: The Storm After the Calm
Certain members of Parliament played an outsized role in fuelling misperceptions about the charity and its operations—chief among them Conservative Pierre Poilievre and the NDP’s Charlie Angus.
Charlie Angus Misled Canadians about WE Charity
Charlie Angus attacked WE Charity in a politicized hostile manner usually reserved for government ministers and party officials. Will Charlie Angus ever be held accountable for false statements about WE Charity?
They are widely viewed as two of the fiercest partisan voices in their respective parties, and they set about attacking the charity in a highly politicized, hostile manner usually reserved for government ministers and party officials.
As the soon-to-be-called WE Charity Scandal unfolded, Angus and Poilievre led parliamentary committee hearings, appeared at press conferences, and booked time on political shows to make their case. And they took to social media with a flurry of tweets; over the next few months, they would each post about WE Charity seventy to eighty times. They did not act in concert, but they certainly fed off each other— strange bedfellows in relentless pursuit of a shared enemy.
What seems clear is that both Poilievre and Angus saw the CSSG scandal as an opportunity to get at Justin Trudeau. WE Charity became a proxy for the prime minister. Over time, they would even jockey for who could devote the most energy attacking the program and the organization, with Angus tweeting things like “Parliament doesn’t sit at this time of the year. But thanks to the NDP we have [CSSG] hearings next week with the finance committee. The Conservatives never pushed for this.” Poilievre later returned fire: “Charlie Angus loves to talk tough. But it’s all an act. He and the NDP back down and cover up for their Liberal masters.”
Angus’s crusade against WE Charity, like Poilievre’s, was marked by mischaracterizations and false statements that served to create an aura of wrongdoing on the part of the charity. His goal seemed to be to throw lots of mud and see what stuck, and it worked.
On reflection, it was a clever strategy to focus on WE Charity and the CSSG because it allowed the Conservatives and the NDP—still nervous that a full-throated attack in the middle of a pandemic could backfire—to assail the prime minister in an indirect way. Also, Trudeau did have a long history with the organization that could be misrepresented by people trying to score political points. And he was vulnerable to ethics charges because he had run afoul of the Conflict of Interest Act in the past.
From Chapter 11: political roadkill
Charlie Angus was even worse. At times, he condescendingly referred to the Kielburgers as “boys,” seemingly unable to muster even a sliver of respect for two accomplished men—recipients of the Order of Canada, no less. It felt as though Angus still viewed them as teenagers working out of their parents’ basement and thought they deserved a scolding. Easter called him out seventeen times in his first round for being disruptive and disorderly. “Things will go a lot smoother if we allow an answer in detail, and we’ll all save time,” the chair patiently explained. “I want to give the witnesses an opportunity for a thorough answer. We have four hours with these witnesses. We should be able to allow them full answers.”
It was embarrassing to see sitting members of Parliament behave like toddlers in the throes of a temper tantrum, and yet they carried on like this all afternoon.
From Chapter 13: manufactured outrage
You might think people would have been shamed into better behaviour by this whole embarrassing episode, but of course that wasn’t the case. In fact, the same day that Martin Perelmuter appeared, the committee had also asked to hear from Victor Li, WE Charity’s CFO. This set off another series of events that demeaned everyone concerned.
Victor grew up in China and studied economics at one of the country’s most prestigious universities before immigrating to Canada in 1999. Once he’d qualified as a chartered professional accountant, he wanted to give back to the country that had welcomed him. He found his perfect fit at WE, where he became cfo of both WE Charity and ME to WE. He’d been with the organization for more than twenty years.
Unfortunately, Victor went on medical leave early in 2020, when he was diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm—a bulging artery in the brain that, if it ruptured, could cause paralysis or death. When he was called to testify, his legal counsel, Megan Savard, wrote to the committee to make it clear that the stress of live testimony would put his health at risk. Savard offered two options: Victor could provide written responses to questions, or the committee could reschedule his appearance when his condition was stable.
This was the first in a series of escalating exchanges between the committee and Savard as hostile MPs ignored her repeated warnings about Victor’s health and tried to frame him as a shady character evading their questions. “Seven months in, we have had obstruction, refusals and denials to participate,” complained Charlie Angus in one committee meeting. He was one of the most vicious in his attacks on Victor, downplaying his condition as “feeling sick” and accusing the whole organization of having “a sense of entitlement.” Not surprisingly, pundits like Charity Intelligence’s Kate Bahen jumped on the bandwagon, tweeting, “WE CFO declines invitation to answer Ethics Committee questions. This is outrageous unaccountability and shames Canada’s charity sector. Enough. Parliament should revoke all charities that Victor Li oversees.”
Marc and Craig couldn’t believe it. Marc remembers thinking that the demands for Victor to testify could literally kill him. “The committee members knew that,” he told me. “And they simply didn’t care.” Craig had a similar reaction. “There was no thought to him as a person, to his wife or his daughter,” he said. “Watching the committee meetings and seeing the media and social media attack his reputation—the lack of human decency and compassion made me furious.”
Even when the committee finally agreed to make some accommodations, MPs handed over almost two hundred highly detailed and involved questions and gave Victor just one week to answer them. Many of the questions fell entirely outside his knowledge and responsibilities as CFO. He was asked, for instance, to provide data showing that 79 percent of young people involved with the charity voted in the 2011 Canadian election. Even legitimate questions sought a volume of material impossible to compile in a week’s time. Victor was asked to provide a list of all schools the charity had built, “along with the country, addresses/location, and what donor funds went into its construction.” There were literally tens of thousands of donors who had supported programs around the world over the twenty-five years the charity had been in existence. Committee members even demanded that Victor provide information on the personal finances and holdings of WE staff members (not only the Kielburgers).
Scott Baker had endured his own interrogation before FINA. But that was nothing compared to what he saw with his long-time colleague and friend. “When Victor said he needed help answering some of the questions, I expected that he was looking for access to files he didn’t have at home. He had been off for months by this point,” Scott recalled. “When I saw the questions, it was so overwhelming, the sheer volume. There was nothing logical or fair about them. I can only imagine the stress this caused Victor.”
On March 15, just a few days after the initial deadline, Victor delivered his answers to one hundred questions, while continuing to work on the rest. But this was deemed unsatisfactory. At the March 22 meeting, Angus ranted that Victor had undermined “the trust” of the committee by not responding to the entire list within the given time frame. That evening, Canadaland posted Victor’s written answers to the committee, including the cover letter from his lawyer, and reported that he risked a contempt charge if he didn’t respond to the remaining questions within five days. Canadaland’s scoop meant that a member of the government committee charged with addressing privacy issues had decided to violate Victor’s privacy by leaking confidential correspondence to the media. I can’t tell you for certain which MP was responsible, but Charlie Angus was the only one quoted in the Canadaland article, and a posted list of thirteen questions that Victor allegedly failed to answer was identical to a list Angus read out in the committee meeting. (In 2018, Angus had also been sanctioned by the ethics commissioner for violating confidentiality requirements in connection with calls for other parliamentarians to be investigated.)
With her client facing a barrage of false statements by MPs and resulting negative media coverage, Megan Savard felt she had no choice but to disclose Victor’s medical condition to the public. “According to his doctor,” she wrote in a letter she sent to the committee and also posted to social media, “a return to full-time work, or other exposure to stress, could cause a rupture of the brain aneurysm, permanent disability or death.” Committee members had known about the aneurysm for more than a month, but they could no longer pretend that wasn’t the case. The feigned outrage had to end before ordinary Canadians became offended at the treatment of an ill man. At their next meeting, Angus said he was “hopeful” for Victor’s health and not interested in “creating undue stress,” but he also said he was “surprised” by Savard’s letter (despite her four earlier communications about Victor’s medical condition) and suggested he still could not take Victor and his lawyer at their word.
I could only interview Victor briefly—fifteen minutes, and only in the morning, was all the energy he could muster. The effect of all this on both his health and his belief in Canada was distressing to see. “One of the reasons I gave up Chinese citizenship is because of my faith in democracy,” he told me. But now, he told me, he felt betrayed. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t sleep because this seemed like a nightmare. I thought it was not real. It was not the Canada I came to know. My trust and dreams have been broken.”
Although the year-long affair had already been marked by plenty of low points, the treatment of both Perelmuter and Li underscored for me just how low some politicians were willing to go. ETHI committee members damaged a small business, subjected innocent people to threats and abuse, and compromised the health of a well-meaning WE employee who had absolutely nothing to offer on the topic of whether the Liberal government had violated ethics laws. All to create the impression that there were unanswered questions, although there were none. Elected representatives have more influence and bigger platforms than ordinary citizens, and in my view, they also have a corresponding obligation to think about the impact of their words and actions on private citizens. Making a game of scoring political points at all costs, as happened here, debases us all.
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It would be hard to imagine a more extreme foil for Poilievre than Charlie Angus. A punk rock musician and activist turned politician, Angus was first elected to Parliament for the Northern Ontario riding of Timmins–James Bay in 2004, the same year Poilievre became an MP.
Poilievre was first elected to Parliament for the Ottawa riding of Nepean-Carleton in 2004, when he was just twenty-five. A prominent and outspoken figure during the Stephen Harper years, he was minister for democratic reform and minister of employment and social development
The media’s favourite commentators throughout the CSSG controversy—apart from Charlie Angus and Pierre Poilievre—were charity analyst Kate Bahen and lawyer Mark Blumberg. Both eagerly accepted their roles as the chief critics of the WE organization
Having finished his testimony and offered expressions of regret, Justin Trudeau promptly went on vacation. Removing himself from the centre of the storm was a clever strategy. In his absence, the feeding frenzy continued and journalists focused their attention back on WE.
WE and Brown first collided in March 2015, when he published an article alleging that the CBC had pulled a documentary about voluntourism at the last minute because it was critical of ME to WE. In fact, the documentary was simply rescheduled because it included WE Day footage
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.
The Kielburgers are different too. The brothers built their charity from a cottage industry into a global movement with millions of followers by working non-stop and doing little else.