Jordan: Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that it was probably a dumb deal from the beginning.
News Clip- Trudeau: Today, we’re launching the new Canada Student Service grant, which will allow post-secondary students and recent grads to gain valuable experience while also contributing to their communities.
News Clip- Reporter: The decision to award the, WE charity the sole-source contract to manage the $900 million Canada Student Service grant program that we’re going to get into that–
Jordan: The backlash to the federal Liberal government’s decision to have the WE charity distribute almost a billion dollars in student grant money was immediate and intense. For starters, the fact that Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and his wife had repeatedly appeared at WE events gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. But that was just the tip of it. Beneath that there are other questions about WE, an organization that had mostly avoided mainstream media scrutiny. Mostly, but not entirely. And there is new information that came to light almost immediately after the deal was announced. That deal is off now. There will be an ethics investigation and WE has walked away from it. But why did it happen in the first place? What should the Liberals have known before agreeing to it? And what’s happening right now at the one media organization that has a long history of asking questions about this massive charity? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Jesse Brown is the host of Canadaland. He’s also the publisher of Canadaland media, and that’s the outlet that I mentioned that has been investigating the WE charity for quite some time. Hi Jesse.
Jesse: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you start just by telling me that, when you heard that the federal government was giving this money to WE to distribute, what’s the first thought that went through your head?
Jesse: I can’t pretend that I was shocked by that news, the connections between Justin Trudeau and his family and the Kielburgers go back to the beginning of his political career. It goes back and forth at any juncture. You know, when Justin Trudeau was first running for office, he appeared live at a WE Day event. When he was running for Leader of the Liberal party he appeared at one of these massive WE Day stadium shows. He’s had many, many events. And that’s not something that every politician gets. A lot of politicians would love to be on that stage where, you know, Malala and Justin Bieber and you know, all the most wonderful people in the world are on that stage. Some politicians I know have asked WE can I give a speech, cause we’re working on the same issue, and WE has said, no, we don’t want to politicize this event. It’s, you know, these events are for young people. But Justin Trudeau has had access to that stage throughout his political career, his wife, Sophie hosts a podcast for them. His mom did a speech for them. His brother did a speech for them. And it goes the other way as well. Craig Kielburger was on the debate commission, which was appointed by, I believe, Justin Trudeau in the last election campaign. So, there are just numerous, you know, this is not the first dispersal of government money to WE under the Trudeau government. Nora Loreto and others have documented that there’s been numerous grants and transfers for programming from this federal government to this organization. So they’re deeply intertwined.
Jordan: For those people who kind of just know them through WE Day, can you just explain in broad strokes how big this charity is? What they do?
Jesse: I mean, I don’t think that there’s a bigger philanthropic organization that’s come out of Canada. It’s a bit of a misnomer to just call them a charity, because part of what they have always been upfront about is that they are the sort of new hybrid of charity and business. They call it social enterprise. They have for-profit wings– multiple– where the profits go back into the charity. But by their telling, this is a model that allows them to kind of, you know, utilize all of the power of capitalism and of private corporations to generate funds all for the purpose of charity. But it also means that they’re under different types of scrutiny. You know, charities are under tight regulations and their books are kind of open, whereas private companies have a lot more discretion. But to kind of go broad as to what they are, they’re just massive. They’re in 18,000 schools doing fundraising and volunteering. They have voluntourism trips that go all over the world where kids pay to go and do a little bit of development work, but also tour around and have a vacation. They are involved in school curriculum. They have partnerships with some of the biggest companies in the world, like, you know, companies like Dow chemical and Hershey’s, who work with them on their corporate social responsibility programs, often troubled companies that have bad reputations for how they behave in the developing world will partner with WE and do some good together. Notably Hershey’s, which by their own admission is trying to get child labour and child slavery out of their supply chain, which means that it’s still in their supply chain, they have worked with WE and that’s relevant because WE was started in opposition to child labour and child slavery. I could go on and on, you know, the WE Day events or how they’re, you know, very well known. That’s on network television in America. Biggest celebrities in the world are a part of that. They have a lot of relationships with corporations that give money and then they have, you know, accommodations where the CEOs will come to Kenya and kind of go on Safari and tour around. So they’re, you know, they are deeply involved in our society, in our public schools, and receiving a lot of public money outside of this close to a billion dollar deal that we’re going to be talking about.
Jordan: All of that sounds really positive. Now tell me about your reporting on WE at Canadaland. First of all, just how did it start? How did you start investigating?
Jesse: So this is back in 2015 and you know, Canadaland has sort of expanded its mandate since, but back then, we were really focused on just looking at the media. Criticizing the media, reporting on the Canadian media. And one thing that we are always really interested in is when a broadcaster unpublishes or removes something or sensors something or something happens to a report. And it came to our attention that there was this documentary that the CBC was planning to broadcast and they were hyping it up, they were promoting it, they had tweets about it, they had ads for it, and it was a documentary called Volunteers Unleashed, and it was a critique of the voluntourism industry. Is this really a good thing or not? What sort of the question posed by this documentary. And what we learned was that this was removed from the broadcast schedule at a very late moment because the WE organization got in touch with the CBC and complained. They said that there was footage in this documentary that CBC did not have a right to use. Now I know as a journalist that there are exceptions to copyright for the purpose of news reporting, we’re allowed to show little clips. We don’t have to pay somebody’s licensing fees or get the permission. It turned out that there was a clip or two, really innocuous stuff, of a WE Day event, and then a little bit of footage of a MEtoWE trip, a voluntourism trip. And there was also a young woman who was critical of MEtoWE specifically. When the CBC finally did broadcast that documentary, all of that footage was removed.
Jesse: So that was a Canadaland story, you know, that’s the kind of thing– I didn’t really know much about we, but I cover the CBC. And so we covered this removal, like, it seemed to me a transgression against their journalistic integrity. And, you know, WE denied that they had tried to censor anything. They said they were just sort of standing up for the rights of their intellectual property. But we covered that story. And after we covered that story, we started to get inundated with tips and sources wanting to go on the record or wanting to slip us documents or wanting to just tell us off the record about all kinds of things that they had experienced working for the various WE organization entities over the years. And we started to just listen to them and talk to them and to collect information. And that led to, you know, over the course of years really, ultimately our Deputy Editor at the time Jaren Kerr, he wrote and published a series of in depth investigations, looking into different problems with the reorganization.
Jordan: Can you tell me a little bit about what was in those investigations and what happened immediately after they were published?
Jesse: I mean, it happened even before they were published. We were locked in a struggle with the WE organization, as soon as we started asking them questions. The legal threats were like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. And we have been reporting on some people who don’t want us to report on them, and some people with a lot of resources. We’ve been threatened by a lot of people in this country. But they hired six different lawyers. I’ll back up. The reports– there were three different things. The first report was about those corporate relationships. It was about how we was partnered with companies that were participating in child labour, and that that was not something that anyone really knew about. And we were talking about how their corporate relationships and their corporate partnerships, in the view of a lot of people who used to work for WE, contradict some of the core values of WE. So that was the first report, was looking into the corporate partnerships. We did another report looking into their relationship with the press over the years. The WE organization has had kind of a dual role with the press. On the one hand, they are partnered with the press, up and down. They have columns throughout Post Media, the biggest newspaper chain in Canada, just publishes Craig Kielburger talking about whatever he wants to talk about that week. The Globe and Mail for a long time had a section of The Globe and Mail, you know, Sports, Living, Business, WE. A full section, dedicated to WE. The editor in chief of The Globe and Mail has spoken on stage at a stadium for a WE Day event. The CBC, you know, Craig Kielburger was a panelist on Canada Reads and has been involved with the CBC on a number of other things. Like, there really isn’t a national news organization in Canada that hasn’t had some kind of relationship with them and sometimes they’re explicit business partnerships. So that’s one half of what we looked at with our relationship with the media. The other half was that over the years, various journalists have tried to look into critical takes and critical information about WE, and they’ve met with a lot of resistance. And WE has a reputation for being litigious. And one thing we reported is that that is not an accurate reputation. They haven’t earned that reputation. They actually haven’t sued media in over 20 years. They famously sued Saturday Night Magazine over 20 years ago. WE was the Victor in that lawsuit. And since then, they haven’t sued anybody, but what they have done and what Jaren Kerr reported, is in fact what I would argue, my point of view, is an aggressive posture towards the media. Jaren told the story of one reporter for the Chronicle Herald, who went to cover a WE Day event. And she just had a few tweets that were a little bit snarky about how she was, you know– their communications person was following her around, even when she went to the bathroom. You know, they had a very tight watch on journalists there. And she had a couple of tweets that were kind of critical of that. Well, she tells us that she later got a call from the publisher of the Chronicle Herald with relation to her tweets. And we actually came into possession of internal emails from WE where WE’s communications people were aware that she had been tweeting and suggesting to Marc Kielburger, maybe you better call her editor. So that’s the kind of thing that the second story was about, of how they kind of act to limit criticism. And the third story was about what it’s like to work for WE over the years, and we talked to many, many people who had volunteered. A lot of them were like kids who started to volunteer for WE or fundraise for WE when they were still like school kids. And then they went on a voluntourism trip or they went to work as a volunteer, then they went to work as a, you know, they went to live at a WE house. WE had at the time had homes where young people would cohabitate and then they would go to work. And they told us stories of gruelling hours. They told us stories of really hostile treatment. And they actually did say that Marc and Craig Kielburger themselves were often livid and filled with rage towards employees. This came, you know, we had employees on the record talking about the working conditions and sometimes unsafe conditions. And we got copious feedback from WE about that, where they conceded that at times, they were not the greatest employer and they have improved over the years. So those were the three focuses of our stories. To answer your other question of what the response was, you know, in addition to those legal threats, I have since found out that they launched an investigation of me and Jaren Kerr. They hired a private security firm through their lawyer, Peter Downard, who went and tried to– and successfully found out– what my kid’s name is and what school my kids go to and what my home address is. So in addition to threatening us legally with lawsuits, they were running that investigation of us. They accused us of malice, of libel, of hostility. They served us with libel notices. The interesting thing, Jordan, is they never sued us. We went ahead and published anyhow, and they didn’t sue us. Or they haven’t yet.
Jordan: At the time that all this was published, what happened to WE in terms of the climate in the broader Canadian media, or even just the broader Canadian public? You know, did any of this stick? Did people sort of comment on it? Cause I remember it surfacing. And to be honest with you, Jesse, I then kind of remember it going away.
Jesse: Yeah, I’m loathe to admit when our reporting doesn’t have a much impact. I think those stories were worth reporting and they certainly put things on the record that were widely read by our audience. They were some of the most read stories that we put out there, but no, they were not picked up by anyone. You would think that those stories were never reported. And WE is a big organization, that’s really active in our public life in this country, but nobody picked them up. Nobody touched those stories. And really WE’s reputation just continue to ascend and WE’s relationship with the federal government continued to improve and get closer and closer. So, you know, looking back on it, I can see that there was a point to that. And, you know, as a journalist, just getting true things on the record is why we do what we do. But you do want to see positive change. I think we had a bit of positive change within WE, they had town hall meetings where they discussed those Canadaland articles. Are they true? Does anyone want to share any information? We want to improve this workplace. Their stance on child labour, they went from having no public statements about Hershey’s use of child labour to talking about how they see this as the path to ending child labour, working with the companies that have child labour in their supply chains. So at least people could talk about whether that’s like a rational strategy. So I think it was effective in that sense. But no, I mean, you want to see your stories pick up. You want to see companies reform in I would say more drastic ways. And that really didn’t happen. And we even had people in our own listenership saying, what is this focus on WE? You know, why pick on a charity? This seems to be a bit much. You know, nobody–
Jordan: I had that question at the time too, to be honest with you.
Jesse: Yeah. I think that that’s a perfectly legitimate question. And my answer was, I think that at the time, you know, Canadaland had done some really excruciating investigative reporting that resulted in, you know, things like the Jian Gomeshi story or other media figures who, you know, didn’t have jobs anymore when we were done reporting on them. But that’s not the point of investigative reporting every time. An organization that does good things, but that has things wrong with it that no one’s talking about, that organization needs journalism as well. So our feeling was, part of why we’re here, and as our mandate expanded was to talk about the organizations that nobody else was willing to talk about. But we definitely did, you know, we were met with that attitude by some people. And, you know, we also had different kinds of opposition. You know, there was a journalist out there who dedicated an enormous amount of time to trying to discredit and disprove our journalism. And he even launched a paid Twitter campaign, trying to disprove. And we asked him, like, why are you doing this? Do you happen to be working for them? And he denied that he was working for them. Later the Committee to Protect Journalists, did a story about WE’s arguably intimidating tactics against us. And they called we and they were asking about the story. WE referred the Committee to Protect Journalists to that journalist Mark Bourrie, and said he can speak on our behalf in this matter. So there was, it was a very– I’ve never seen anything like that before. Cause he swore up and down that he was just an independent journalist debunking our work, and then there was this greater association between the two of them. So this was the hardest story that we have ever reported. We’ve never met opposition like this for anything. They threatened to sue us and Manitoba, which is notable because it’s a province that doesn’t have anti slap laws. Ontario and BC have laws to protect journalists against strategic lawsuits that are intended just to suppress journalism. Manitoba doesn’t have any laws against those lawsuits. That’s where they said they were going to sue us. They might still sue us there. But, you know, it was an incredibly difficult story to report. And when we ultimately reported, I think people said, okay, duly noted, we got the picture. We’ve heard what you have to say about them. Let’s move on to other matters.
Jordan: So fast forward to 2020, and this deal is announced for WE to distribute $900 million in student grants. What was the immediate reaction in politics, in Ottawa, and in the general public, and also, I guess, then what did you guys do?
Jesse: Well, the immediate reaction was simply to report the existence of the deal. And, you know, I was watching this, I happened to be on vacation during, you know, last week it was, it was my birthday and I was happy to take some time off. And I saw the deal was announced and I wondered, huh? I wonder if they’re just going to announce– if the press is just going to report the fact of this deal, or if anyone’s going to start asking questions about it. Slowly, but surely, people started to ask questions and find out kind of concerning things about the deal. You know, one of the main things was, okay, well, what did Justin Trudeau have to do with this friendly organization that he’s so entwined with getting almost a billion dollars of government money to disperse? And there was even confusion where, you know, whether or not Justin Trudeau– Marc Kielburger was found on videotape saying that the Prime Minister’s office contacted him directly. Later he said he misspoke, that’s not how it happened. Because Trudeau’s story was that it was the public service. It was their idea. He had nothing to do with it. They just determined that WE was the best organization. The only organization that could do something like this. And, you know, the press started to pick away at that. Well, was there a request for proposals? No, there wasn’t. There was a no bid contract of a massive size. They started to ask questions about how these volunteers were going to be found by WE, and they found that teachers were going to be paid $12,000 if they could get 75 of student volunteers to sign up for this. Now that’s a bit of a problem because now you’ve got teachers kind of monetizing their class lists, you know, it’s sort of arguably an improper use of teacher’s data on students. The data itself was a concern. They’re going to have thousands of teenagers in their database. What are the, you know, this is a private organization, it’s not the government. That was another issue that the Conservatives had. You know, if it was the public service spending this money, then there would be some level of transparency and you could question how it’s getting spent, but if WE is dispersing this money, that goes away. It went on and on. You know, there were questions about how summer camps were being utilized. And then it slowly became okay to start asking tough questions of WE. And the Canadian press, one thing they are good at is investigating government contracts. And you know, finding out stuff about that. And so, my attitude was like, great. This is fantastic to finally see the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, even the CBC, daring to question this organization. And one thing that they found out is that WE, who they said was, you know, uniquely well situated to do this job, it’s a great organization, it’s a fantastic network, well, the organization’s actually in a lot of trouble. CBC reported that the board of directors for their Canadian charity, and the board of directors for their American charity, both resigned in March and almost all of the rest of the board of directors in both countries, either resigned or were replaced. And they were, the boards were shrunken and they were replaced with people who’d been working for WE for many years, arguably less autonomy than the previous boards. The new chair of the board in Canada is a guy who worked for WE for many years, who’s Marc Kielburger’s old high school teacher. They also reported that there were hundreds of layoffs at WE in March. And then other stories have yet to be reported widely, but are public. You know, there was this reckoning that was occurring in organizations recently where People of Colour and Black people specifically were calling out their employers for systemic racism. Well, that happened to WE as well. Some of the former employees who work there went public on Instagram and elsewhere. There was a petition for anti-racist action at WE, and it was tied to Canadaland’s reporting, actually, because the town halls they had way back when we first published our stories led to one of these allegedly– well, not even allegedly, cause WE has now apologized and acknowledged it, that it was at one of those town halls that Marc Kielburger kind of overpowered, not physically, but when a Black woman was talking about racism, she experienced at WE, he kind of shut it down and stopped the conversation. He’s since apologized for that. So all of these things all, you know, it was just like it is not overstating it to say that a month or two ago, if you had Googled the WE organization, you would have had trouble finding any negative media coverage outside of Canadaland’s. That changed pretty much overnight. And it became the biggest political story in Canada, a critical story, it became a scandal. And it ultimately led to that contract, WE charity themselves walking away from that contract. And now there’s an ethics commissioner investigation and inquiry into Justin Trudeau.
Jordan: Do you feel vindicated watching that happen?
Jesse: Of course. You know, I feel that we were pretty sure that tough questions had to be asked of this organization. We were pretty sure that there was grounds for some criticism, and we fought really hard. And it’s not easy for anybody here to try to just do their jobs as journalists and report on a big organization in the face of that kind of pressure. So to see that get acknowledged, and to see other people pick up that work, and to see, frankly, like change, and the public demanding more accountability, and the organization acknowledging that there are problems, that does feel vindicating. Yes.
Jordan: What do you think happens now? Both I guess, to the Liberal government, that seems to have stepped in it again, but also to WE? You mentioned the incredible shift in, you know, Google results and popular opinion.
Jesse: Well, I think that Justin Trudeau is going to walk away from this just fine. This is his third inquiry from the ethics commissioner. You know, he can get found to have transgressed ethics and it’s no big deal. He’s riding high in the polls. And I think, you know, it’s legitimate that he’ll be able to say whatever is learned about WE, he’ll be able to say he didn’t know about it. And so I think it will be a slap on the wrist for not recusing himself and for handing his friend’s organization all this money to disperse. As for WE, I do think that it’s pretty hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think that what happens is, everybody who has been afraid to talk or suppressing some information, sees that, okay, now it’s okay. Maybe it’s safe now to talk. And so I am afraid that the Canadian press is backing away from this, because now that there’s no big billion dollar government contract, they feel like, okay, we’ve done our thing. But they’re still in thousands of schools. They’re still getting tons of money from the government. And the revelations that are getting shaken out of the trees right now are actually more surprising and more serious than anything that has been reported yet.
Jordan: Can you give me an example?
Jesse: What I can do is tell you where we’re at here at Canadaland, because it’s sensitive stuff. What happened was, a very senior member of their team in Kenya, where they have a really vast operation, went public with a whistleblower website, making tons of very serious, some even criminal allegations about the organization and about Marc Kielburger. And they all require a lot of journalistic investigation and verification, especially because he has, since recanted everything, he had this website, he had documents, he had an account, dates and he said he was afraid for his safety. And as I speak to you, it’s just hours after he said, I apologize. I take it all back. This was all misrepresented. And he’s recanted. So I’m not going to repeat any of the things that were alleged on his website. However, through the process of digging into that, I came into possession of an audio recording of Marc Kielburger in conversation with an even more senior member, the guy who ran their Kenyan operation, a guy named Peter Ruhiu. And that is a conversation that we have put out our own podcast about and our own written report, if people want to go on Canadaland’s website and have a look. It is a conversation where this very senior employee of the Kielburgers, of WE charity, is talking about paying off government investigators, who at the time were investigating WE’s charity in Kenya. He makes several death threats of a colleague as Marc Kielburger listens on. He says, “I’m serious, if he were here, I would kill this guy.” He talks about how, if the authorities were to come and do a serious investigation and audit of WE, there are criminal offences and they would be shut down. So that’s a recording that, that we came into possession of and we sent it to Marc Kielburger. And his response verified that this was in fact, Marc Kielburger talking to his country director, and Marc Kielburger’s explanation for this was that he himself was investigating his country director in Kenya, and that that phone call had been conducted at the request of the Kenyan police, who asked Mark to basically call up and lead on his own employee, so his own employee would sort of incriminate himself. Which, you know, based on Marc Kielburger’s account alone, that is an explosive news story.
Jesse: You know, you would think that that would be all over the press. Like this is the, you know, the founder of WE saying, yeah, my own senior employee was a criminal. I was investigating him with the Kenyan police. He was guilty, that’s Marc Kielburger’s account, is that this guy was guilty of all kinds of fraud is facing criminal charges. No one’s touching that story. But that’s Marc Kielburger’s account, and then we’re digging into that. We asked Marc Kielburger if he has any evidence that he was working with a Kenyan police. He sent us documents that do not demonstrate that he was working with the Kenyan police. So this is an ongoing investigation where we’re trying to get to the bottom of it. And again, we’re alone in try– I mean, and I want to ask you this, Jordan. Can you imagine if that was a recording of Marc Kielburger, having that same conversation with the board of directors here in Canada, and he went on the record saying, yeah, you know, I was working with the Toronto police because we found out that the person who was running our board of directors was crooked, and I was trying to get him to admit it, and they did, I think, at a minimum, that would be a news story that you would see in Canadian papers and Canadian news websites.
Jordan: I mean, you would imagine. Watching your reporting on this has taught me that I don’t know, like, I don’t know what to expect, in terms of both reporting and verification of stories about this organization. I just don’t know.
Jesse: No. I think that we need to have– there’s multiple institutions that need to be demanding answers about this. The Canadian press is one of them, of course. My colleagues at other organizations should be looking into this. I hope they are. I don’t know that they are. I think that our government should be looking into this. I know that the Kenyan authorities are looking into this. But I don’t know where it’s going to go or who’s going to find out what or whether we’ll ever learn about it. You know, we’re doing our part. I hope others join in.
Jordan: We’ll keep following it. And we’ll talk to you later. Thanks so much, Jesse.
Jesse: Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan: Jesse Brown of Canadaland. That was The Big Story. You can find more big stories as always thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can email us whenever you like. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find us in your podcast player of choice. Please listen, rate, review, subscribe, tell your friends, all that good stuff. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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