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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The demise of a charity

BY Will Nicholls Sep 25, 2020

I was saddened when I learned that the WE Charity was closing its Canadian operations. Then I was upset. 

The WE scandal is based on two premises: that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Moreau had family ties to the charity; and that the WE Charity was awarded a $912 million government contract without proper review. At first, I was on board with the opposition parties and their accusations. Even though the Nation has often covered WE events involving Cree students over the years I was concerned and disappointed in the organization. 

However, after thoroughly researching the issue I understand better what really happened. It is the usual political feeding frenzy reminiscent of when sharks scent blood in the water.

First, this is an organization that started 25 years ago when brothers Craig, a teenager at the time, and Marc Kielburger started Free the Children (re-branded WE Charity in 2016). Its aim was to fundraise for organizations that helped to end forced children labour. It expanded its focus to include education, food, water, health and economic growth in Latin America, Africa and Asia. As well, it has programs to “educate and empower young people” in Canada, the US and Britain. With the WE Charity now closing its doors in Canada, 7,000 schools will be affected.

So, let us deal with the first premise of the political family connections. Margaret Trudeau spoke at 28 events in five years and received $312,000. Her gross was $11,143 per appearance, though the Speakers Bureau took a $2,229 cut, leaving Trudeau with $8,914 per event. She would share personal stories of her life dealing with bipolar disorder, being the young wife of a prime minster and the loss of a son. She talked of nurturing body, mind and spirit for a healthy life. 

Her regular fees are in the $15,000-20,000 range. They are fees, not an honorarium, as the politicians claimed. Most of this was paid for by ME, not WE. The PM’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau, spoke at eight events and received approximately $40,000. 

Other political figures are also on the speaking circuit. The Washington Speakers Bureau manages former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s engagements to the tune of over $1 million a year. Another former Conservative PM, Stephen Harper, charges $70,000-150,000 per event. In fact, Harper’s wife Laureen even hosted a WE reception at Sussex Drive. Former Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has been a WE speaker. 

So basically, politicians of all stripes and their family members can charge for their appearances. The only real problem is that Trudeau didn’t recuse himself from voting to award WE the proposed Canada Student Service Grant program contract.

Since this was such a crime, perhaps we should also look at those people attending a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser for politicians. How many of them have gotten unsolicited contracts or have political family members working for them?

In any case, this is a warning for politicians and their families not to have anything to do with charitable work.

As for awarding the WE Charity the proposed youth-employment program, the organization does have the required expertise. They created programs for the Ontario government and created a services program for youth across the US for the College Board, a coalition of universities and colleges. 

In addition, the proposed contract had references to 13 audits and would have involved 83 not-for-profit coalition partners. They were not alone in trying to help Canada’s youth. In WE’s first week they received 35,000 applications from youth under the program.

When the political storm became too much, they supplied the feds information on all the work they had done to date and refused re-imbursement.

So, what was the outcome that was upsetting? No students received any money during this Covid-19 crisis when summer jobs mean so much but were not available. Over 7,000 Canadian schools are no longer getting services from WE. After selling off the Canadian assets and funding the remaining projects around the world there will be no more of the needed resources for those who so desperately need them.

But the scandal-driven politicians have certainly taught us that trying to help people is not something we should work for when it comes to slinging mud at each other.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.