From Chapter 5: Storm After the Calm
On June 26, Trudeau’s efforts to address his family connections to WE only exacerbated the situation. “This is one of the reasons why we leaned heavily on the public service to try and find different ways of delivering this,” he told reporters, “and they came back and demonstrated that the WE organization is the only organization in Canada that has the scale and the ability to deliver volunteer opportunities for young people right across the country at all level of organizations.”
What We Lost: The Attack on Canada’s Largest Charity
His insistence that WE Charity was “the only organization in Canada” capable of delivering the program became one of his talking points about the CSSG. But once again, this harmed rather than helped the situation from WE’s perspective. His statement shifted the spotlight from the government procurement process—which opposition politicians and the media had every right to scrutinize—to the charity.
To disprove Trudeau, it became necessary for anyone with an anti-Liberal viewpoint to malign WE Charity and find a basis to claim it was an unworthy steward of taxpayer dollars. As Scott Baker told me, “With this one line, it was as though Trudeau put a target on WE’s back. All eyes were suddenly on the organization, and I felt as though we became helpless observers to our own dismantling.”
On Canada Day, WE Charity held multiple closed-door meetings with officials from ESDC to decide the best course of action. Everyone was concerned that other non-profits might drop out of the program because of the negative brand association, or that students would choose not to apply because of all the damaging media coverage. The charity wanted assurances from the civil servants that the program would continue even if WE wasn’t involved, and it got that. So on July 3, 2020, it was officially announced that the government itself would administer the program. In a statement to the media, Chagger stated that it was a “mutually agreed upon decision,” and that the government wanted to ensure that those who had already applied were not “adversely affected.” “Our government’s objective remains to connect the skills and abilities of young people with service opportunities to help heal their communities.”
WE Charity also released its own statement: “Even as CSSG take-up has been very strong, the program has also been enmeshed in controversy from the moment of its announcement. Our concern is that to continue in this way, the program itself will begin to suffer—and as a consequence, opportunities for students might be negatively affected. Not only would that be unwelcome, but it is also unnecessary. The program has now been launched with a level of operational functionality and a critical mass of engagement that permits it to be otherwise administered . . . WE Charity and ESDC have mutually agreed that the operational responsibility will be passed to the Government of Canada.”
In the hope that a clean slate would be in the best interests of the CSSG, the organization also waived all fees already incurred—a not insubstantial amount of money. The charity had spent approximately $5 million on hiring and training hundreds of staff to administer this program and had made payments to vendors who provided technology services and backend support. I always found the decision to waive fees particularly frustrating because the negative spin was that WE Charity had sought the CSSG for financial gain or as some type of bailout. And then WE Charity actually took a loss and bailed out the government. WE covered these costs using a small endowment—a rainy day fund—and with help from ME to WE. No outside donations to specific projects were used.
As soon as the announcement was made, Trudeau was peppered with questions about next steps for the CSSG. Unfortunately, his efforts to provide clarity once again only worsened the situation. He mistakenly said it was WE Charity’s decision to pull out instead of one mutually agreed to. When asked by a reporter from the CBC if he would continue his work with WE, he avoided the question and made a statement that seemed to place blame upon the charity: “I think the organization is going to take some time to reflect on its next steps and how exactly it responds to this situation.”
But the prime minister’s attempts to distance himself from the organization that he had once championed did not go as planned, and in the days ahead, new information came to light that changed the game for everyone involved.
HOUSE OF CARDS
At a press briefing on July 8, 2020, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked by Marieke Walsh of the Globe and Mail if he had recused himself from cabinet discussions about WE Charity and the CSSG. He said no. Then he dodged the question when asked why. “I have long worked on youth issues, both before I got into politics and since I’ve been in politics as a youth critic,” he said. “Getting young people involved in serving their country, recognizing their desire to build a better Canada, particularly through this time of crisis, is something that I believe in deeply.”
Just two days later, the CBC ran a story revealing that Bill Morneau had also failed to recuse himself from conversations about the organization. After some initial defiance, the finance minister backtracked and posted a written apology to Twitter.
The fact that Trudeau and Morneau did not recuse themselves from the cabinet decision to appoint WE as the administrator of the CSSG came as a complete shock to the organization. This bears repeating because it is so misunderstood: WE Charity and the Kielburgers had no idea whether politicians had recused themselves or what steps they did or did not take to comply with their own ethics rules on government process. After all, from WE’s perspective, nothing about the organization’s involvement with the Trudeaus or Morneau was a secret. In fact, WE advertised Trudeau’s involvement to the world by putting him and his wife on stage and having his mother and brother speak at dozens of public events. Similarly, WE Charity was proud that the Morneau-McCains were donors and had visited international projects. The hope was that they would tell everyone who would listen about their experiences—that was the point.
For everyone at WE, the assumption was that all government rules were followed and those who should have recused themselves did. No one asked anyone at WE for an opinion about whether Trudeau and Morneau should recuse themselves, and no one at WE offered one. And that is precisely as it should be.
From Chapter 11: Political Roadkill
Two days later, it was Justin Trudeau’s turn to testify. But while WE’s employees and co-founders had together spent more than five hours fielding questions, the prime minister himself appeared for only one hour—barely longer than a regular daily session of Question Period. He offered no defence of WE Charity and mostly sought to deflect responsibility for the CSSG debacle, other than admitting that he should have recused himself from the cabinet discussions given his family’s ties to WE. But he stressed that he had not put his thumb on the scale for the charity. “I did not intervene to make this recommendation happen,” he asserted. “When the recommendation came forward from the public service, I sent it back . . . to say that they really needed to make sure that this is indeed the only organization that can deliver this program, and that this is done exactly the right way, because there is going to be careful scrutiny on this. At that point, I should have recused myself, but I didn’t. I decided to push back instead, and that I regret.”
For the first time, Trudeau also addressed the future of the CSSG, acknowledging that it was essentially dead, which meant that up to a hundred thousand Canadian students who could have looked to the program for support were on their own. “It’s now July 30. Our government is delivering an up-to-$9 billion aid package for students,” he said. “Unfortunately, the grant for volunteer service is unlikely to be part of the package this summer, and that is something that I regret.”
The next day, July 31, Trudeau attended an event with the Public Health Agency of Canada to launch the government’s covid Alert app. Afterward, he faced questions from reporters about his FINA appearance. When asked by a CBC journalist if the CSSG was in fact no more, Trudeau replied, “That is the element that’s not happening so far. We are still looking at ways that we can coordinate, oversee, and deliver grants like that to students. We’re still looking for it, but at the same time, just because the grants aren’t flowing doesn’t mean that young people are not stepping up in a myriad of ways across the country to contribute to their communities and to support Canadians.” (As I write this, we’ve seen the end of our second covid summer, and there has still been no government-run program to provide grants to students for serving their communities.)
At the close of the press conference, Trudeau did make one small attempt to loosely defend WE Charity. “The challenges that have followed for the WE organization and indeed the questions that have been asked of this government have been disappointing,” he said, “because it gets in the way of the help that we focused on doing for young people . . . The WE organization . . . has been extremely effective in empowering young people and getting them to volunteer. Obviously, the situation that has flowed from this is deeply regrettable, and I am deeply sorry that I didn’t recuse myself from the beginning. It possibly could have avoided much of this challenge. Instead, I chose to push back and ask for extra due diligence. But that wasn’t the right choice, obviously.”
From Chapter 12: Closing Doors
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. The charity’s already beleaguered PR team was now overwhelmed with media questions. Between August 5, the day the prime minister left, and August 18, the day he reappeared publicly, there were more than twelve thousand mentions of WE in the media, focusing on everything from lobbying issues to staff reductions to real estate sales. As usual, columnist Brian Lilley at the Toronto Sun was in high dudgeon. “Like Icarus getting too close to the sun,” he wrote, “WE and the Kielburger brothers got too close to Trudeau and it burned them bad.” In the Washington Post, David Moscrop complained that the whole affair “reeks of a culture of the insider.” It reminded him of the Family Compact, he said—of the bad old days of “tight-knit groups of power-wielding courtiers captured and constrained by groupthink and a self-assuredness and sense of purpose that no mere mortal ought to own.”
If Trudeau had imagined he could come back from his holiday and simply turn the page, he was in for a rude surprise. He must have barely had his suitcase unpacked when he and Bill Morneau sat down for a heart-to-heart on August 17. That evening, Morneau held a news conference to announce that he was resigning as both finance minister and an MP because he wanted to run for the vacant position of secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd). Most people weren’t buying it. Then Conservative leader Andrew Scheer immediately tweeted, “Bill Morneau’s ‘resignation’ is further proof of a government in chaos. At a time when Canadians are worried about their health and their finances, Justin Trudeau’s government is so consumed by scandal that Trudeau has amputated his right hand to try and save himself.” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh had much the same take. “In the middle of a financial crisis, Justin Trudeau has lost his Finance Minister,” he tweeted. “Every time he gets caught breaking ethics laws, he makes someone else take the heat. That’s not leadership.”
This whole WE Charity thing just didn’t seem to want to go away. But if people were going to keep on asking questions, the prime minister at least had a way of preventing them from getting answers.
“Today, I have asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, which must happen before any government can present a Throne speech,” Trudeau told Canadians at a hastily convened press announcement, during which he also confirmed Morneau’s resignation. Prorogation was necessary, Trudeau explained, because his government needed to “reset” its priorities, which had changed due to the pandemic. Once Parliament is prorogued, or suspended, members are released from their duties, unfinished business is dropped, and committees can no longer sit or carry on with their work. In other words, Parliament closes.
Trudeau shut things down the day before an agency called Speakers’ Spotlight was to deliver to the ETHI committee the records of all speaking fees various organizations had paid to members of the Trudeau family over the years. The prime minister’s timing was highly suspect, and it fuelled the perception that he had something to hide. By extension, some thought, so must WE Charity.
The political and media narrative hinged on the idea that there was something improper in an organization doing business with the government and also paying members of the prime minister’s family to speak at events. But anyone could use a speaking bureau to book Margaret Trudeau or Alexandre Trudeau. And in fact, both had been hired by a long list of Canadian charities and businesses, many of which also did a considerable amount of work with the government or accepted funding from various federal departments and agencies. The speaking bureau records would have shown the many companies and non-profits that had engaged the prime minister’s family members, and Canadians would have seen that there was nothing unusual about this. Perhaps the opposition and the media, so eager to knock Trudeau down, would even have shifted their attention to some of those other organizations and businesses. Instead, it was tidier and more newsworthy to portray the actions of WE as unique and questionable. The charity was hung out to dry once again, and Canadians were left with the impression that it had done something wrong, even though there was no evidence of that at all.
Marc and Craig took in the unexpected prorogation announcement in the basement of Marc’s Toronto home. As they watched Trudeau shift effortlessly from English to French and back again, the words “WE Charity Scandal” scrolled by on the chyron below. They were alone, a rare occurrence, and they absorbed the news in silence. They later told me that this was the first time they’d both realized it could all be over for WE Charity in Canada. Neither one said it aloud, but they both knew that the organization they had built over twenty-five years might not survive.
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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.