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.
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.
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, and in opposition, he has been the finance critic and the jobs and industry critic. He views himself as a champion of the free market and an enemy of government handouts. To see him in action is to know that he relishes attack and is not shy about courting controversy. Back in 2008, for example, just hours after Harper offered a formal apology to residential school survivors, Poilievre told an Ottawa talk radio show that he wasn’t sure Canada was “getting value” for the compensation being paid to former students. “My view,” he said, “is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance.”
Although he’s found himself in hot water multiple times throughout his career, Poilievre has also been lauded by his peers for his effectiveness at pressing the party in power. In 2021, in the Hill Times newspaper’s annual Political Savvy Survey, he was voted the best public speaker, the most effective Conservative member during Question Period, and the best opposition MP in media scrums.
To the casual eye, Angus and Poilievre couldn’t be more different, but in many respects, they’re cut from the same cloth. Both men are ambitious and have their eyes on leadership roles in their respective parties. Angus even jockeyed to replace Thomas Mulcair as NDP leader in 2017, only to fall short in the final few weeks of the campaign. Both he and Poilievre are career politicians who seem to believe the old adage about there being no such thing as bad publicity. They both like to fight their battles in the court of public opinion, whether that’s through traditional media outlets like newspapers and TV or social media platforms like Twitter. And they both exhibit a willingness to abandon the party platform (and sometimes the truth) when it serves their purposes. Poilievre’s claim that the civil service should have delivered the CSSG on its own is at odds with the long-held Conservative belief in public-private partnerships.
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.”
In his role as Conservative finance critic, Poilievre took centre stage in what he would consistently refer to as the “WE scandal.” On June 28, 2020, three days after the launch of the CSSG, he and two other Conservative shadow ministers sent a letter to Karen Hogan, the auditor general, calling on her to include the CSSG in a review of government covid program spending that had been mandated by the FINA committee in June. Poilievre posted a copy of the letter to his Twitter account. It was the first of over seventy tweets he made about WE Charity between June and October 2020. In the days that followed, Poilievre became the Conservative point man on WE, asking questions in the House and serving as spokesperson to the media. He was quoted in hundreds of articles, and in time, it became clear that many of his public statements were false or misleading.
From Chapter 9: High and Dry
After the minister [Chagger] concluded her introductory remarks, Pierre Poilievre was given the floor, and he immediately assumed a combative and antagonistic stance that set the tone for almost everything that followed. In his very first question, he demanded curtly, “What is the name of the public servant who recommended that WE deliver the Canada Student Service Grant? Just the name, please.” Things went downhill from there, and within minutes, Chagger was asking the chair to admonish the Conservative MP for interrupting her answers and putting words in her mouth. At one point, when the chair asked him to move on, Poilievre sniped, “Okay, she does not want to answer that question.”
For the most part, though, he followed a predictable line of inquiry. Did anyone speak to the Prime Minister’s Office? Did the cabinet sign off on the agreement? Whose name was on the memorandum to cabinet? How much money did WE Charity stand to make? Aside from the tone of righteous indignation, it was a worn-out recitation of opposition party talking points. We had seen the movie, but it played on anyway.
From Chapter 11: Political Roadkill
Pierre Poilievre opened the questioning and then immediately interrupted whenever Marc and Craig attempted to respond. He was rude and abrasive, and made comments like “Answer the question, then” and “I’ll repeat it for the fifth time,” as if he himself wasn’t the reason they were unable to reply. Chair Wayne Easter tried to get hold of the hearing early on by imploring Poilievre to be reasonable. “They’re here for four hours, so we will allow them to answer,” he chided. “We will let the witness answer the question.” In Poilievre’s first round of questioning, Easter had to intervene five times.
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. At one point, the chair had to threaten to end the proceedings because of Poilievre’s behaviour. As Craig pleaded to be given the time to answer the question he’d been asked, Poilievre persistently interrupted to promote the false narrative that the Kielburgers stood to profit personally from the CSSG. Marc tried to explain that the program was governed by a contribution agreement that only allowed for WE to be reimbursed for expenses. But Poilievre sharply cut him off, saying, “Paid to yourself . . . you were going to pay the expenses to yourself.” It was a nonsensical turn of phrase. If you’ve ever been reimbursed for an expense, you’ve had money returned to you. But no one—including the Canada Revenue Agency—thinks that you’ve been paid money that should be treated as personal income. I assume Poilievre figured that logic would be lost on those watching clips on the evening news.
Finally, even the avuncular Wayne Easter got fed up. “Mr. Poilievre,” he snapped, “do I have to suspend this meeting? Now, there will be order or I’ll suspend the meeting, and that’s it. It’s your choice.”
It was clear that once again, the hearing wasn’t an attempt to get to the truth or present Canadians with a fuller picture of what happened. Instead, opposition MPs were more interested in sound bites and character assassination.
Pierre Poilievre, though, didn’t want to talk about the nuances of the charity’s structure or the finer points of the contribution agreement. He just carried on interrupting and then complaining that his questions weren’t being answered. “We’re going to have to invite you back if you don’t want to answer the question,” he said at one point. “Let’s bring him back for another four hours.” Again and again, he demanded answers that had already been supplied, until other members of the committee began to grow weary. “Mr. Chair, have the Conservatives run out of questions?” asked Toronto MP Julie Dzerowicz. “They’re starting to repeat multiple times.”
Sean Fraser made a similar observation. “I’ll start by just saying how frustrating it’s been to be a part of this committee meeting. I am glad that we have ample time, thankfully. The inability of members to remain silent when it’s not their turn to speak is deeply discouraging. I find it disrespectful. These are the kinds of things that we learned how to do in elementary school.”
I thought columnist Judith Timson, commenting on the state of civility and politeness in Canadian society in an article in the Toronto Star, captured the tenor of the moment well. “Moving on to that volatile political sphere,” she wrote, “it was painful in terms of civility to watch the elaborately, performatively polite Kielburger brothers, Marc and Craig—in the public eye since they were teens and who now run the largest youth-powered international charity in the world—be treated with aggressive disdain and rudeness during a televised parliamentary committee hearing.” Reflecting on what stood out most to her, she added, “But what struck me during the Kielburgers’ lengthy testimony was the savage and unnecessarily rude behaviour of lead questioner Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, who interrupted each Kielburger many times as they sought to explain their relationship with the government and who sounded as if he was prosecuting them for murder one.”
From my perspective, it was hard to see how the interests of the Canadian people were being served by the whole ridiculous display. There were important issues being raised, and they deserved a full and proper airing so Canadians could make up their own minds instead of trying to wade through the political spin.
From Chapter 13: Manufactured Outrage
For the next three hours, Canadians were treated to a rehash of the FINA committee testimony, with barely a new detail added. It was a political circus, and once again, Pierre Poilievre (who had inserted himself into the proceedings of a committee he did not even sit on) was the ringmaster. He demanded that Craig and Marc total up the fees and expenses paid to members of the Trudeau family. The figures had been made public almost a year before, but Poilievre insisted, for the sake of theatre, that the brothers calculate the sums live. “You’re going to get this number on the record,” he barked, “and you’re going to testify it into the record under oath because I want the total.” Since those numbers were already a matter of public record, I can only assume he wanted them to repeat them on camera as a sound bite for later use in Conservative political attack ads.
Throughout the session, Angus and Poilievre constantly peppered their remarks with snide and disrespectful asides. “Come on, guys!” and “Nobody is buying this,” said Angus. Poilievre persistently called Craig “my friend,” as though Craig were his opponent in an academic debate rather a citizen whose integrity was being challenged on national television. At one point, Poilievre even bluntly accused Craig of perjury. “You’re in a lot of trouble here, my friend,” he said. “You’re under oath. Perjury is a crime.” This clip was replayed constantly in the media, especially by Canadaland. Of course—leaving aside that in Canada, a false statement before a parliamentary committee is not prosecuted as criminal perjury—the Kielburgers had not lied about anything.
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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.