Top News

Kelly McParland: Looking through the eyes of the Kielburgers

Marc, left, and Craig Kielburger appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Marc, left, and Craig Kielburger appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday.

I’m not sure I’m up to it, but I’m going to take a stab at seeing the world as Marc and Craig Kielburger see it. I can’t guarantee 100 per cent accuracy, because all I have to go on is their voluminous public testimony and a month worth of reports pouring forth from publications across the land.

Unfortunately, as the Kielburger brothers made clear in their feisty appearance before a House of Commons committee this week, a lot are the work of bad people in the media (BPM), who have taken it upon themselves to ruin the brothers’ thriving charitable organization, which has more arms than an octopus and a real estate portfolio that would choke a horse.

It’s not clear why BPM want to do this, especially given that prominent BPMers include the Globe and Mail, which is one of WE Charity’s many sponsors (at least until their contract expires at the end of August), the Toronto Star, which lives by a set of social do-gooder principles that pretty much define the Kielburgers’ view of their world, and the CBC, which gets over $1 billion every year from the Liberals and is appropriately appreciative in its coverage. The Kielburgers also wrote a regular column for Postmedia papers, which is now on hiatus. But there’s no accounting for BPMs.

Anyway, things at the WE empire were going swimmingly until COVID-19 came along and forced them to begin hurling hundreds of employees out the door. WE days had to be postponed, voluntourism junkets cancelled and loan covenants deferred.

Things got so testy that Michelle Douglas, the chair of the charity’s board of directors, demanded the brothers supply financial details to explain all the layoffs, which really annoyed Marc Kielburger, forcing him to hang up on her.

“It was our view that you cannot fire hundreds of people without very strong, demonstrable evidence, and even then should explore mitigation evidence to save jobs,” said Douglas.

Craig Kielburger subsequently called Douglas to ask her to resign, which she did.

Despite this, it would be totally wrong to suggest that WE was in “dire financial straits,” as Craig Kielburger testified. The organization boasts about $50 million in real estate holdings , mainly commercial property in Toronto’s east end. There are a lot of questions about why a charity needs $50 million in real estate, especially when it’s letting go of staff, but that’s just more BPM sniping.

In any case, soon after Douglas (and much of the rest of the board ) left, things started to brighten when someone from the government contacted the charity to ask if it would take on a big program to hand out money to volunteers. It’s not like the Kielburgers needed the money, of course, but, being great patriots, they agreed to the deal as “a favour we were doing to be helpful to Canada.”

Nice favour, too! They got $30 million up front, potentially $43.5 million in total, didn’t have to deal with any competitors, could hire back some staff and deepen the close ties they’d had with members of the Trudeau family, making it that much easier to hit up rich people and corporate donors for big donations down the road.

It is absolutely wrong, however, to suggest there was any financial gain to be had, as Craig Kielburger emphasized. WE “would only be reimbursed its costs to build and administer the program,” he said. Which may sound to some people like a benefit, but they would, of course, be completely mistaken.

The trouble started when BPMs began stumbling over all sorts of oddities in the relationship WE had with prominent Liberals. This included members of the Trudeau family getting paid big bucks to make speeches, while people not named Trudeau did it for free.

Douglas said the payments were a surprise to the board, again annoying Craig Kielburger, who insisted the money was not for speaking, but for showing up later to shake hands and mingle. Which I guess must be a whole lot harder than standing on a stage, alone, to address adoring crowds of WE-ites.

There were also some communications issues, like Marc Kielburger claiming that WE was asked directly by the Prime Minister’s Office to please, please take on the project, only to discover later that he’d somehow confused the prime minister with someone from the office of Employment and Social Development Canada.

Then there’s the assertion that WE doesn’t lobby politicians, though it seems to be in near-constant contact with them. There were also the weird freebies given Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who is so rich he can forget he has a French chateau and is married to someone even richer, but was nonetheless comped on trips to Kenya and Ecuador, which somehow managed to add up to $93,000, a figure I still can’t sort out (did they take their own hotel with them?)

And there were all those odd contradictions: the program was supposed to total $900 million but only $500 million was set aside for actual payments. The aim was to pay students to volunteer, though volunteering usually means working voluntarily. There was the promise to pay teachers to recruit “volunteers,” though teachers aren’t supposed to do that.

And the curious parsing of events as the Kielburgers see them: the Trudeaus not being paid to speak, despite an invoice identifying a payment to Margaret Trudeau as a “speaking fee”; the insistence that money going to teachers wasn’t a payment, even though the arrangement was clearly spelled out in documents; and Craig Kielburger’s assertion that his relationship with the Trudeaus “depends on what your definition of close is,” which sounds a lot like former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s testimony during the Lewinsky scandal that “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Clinton, too, was undoubtedly troubled by bad people in the media while just trying to do good things. So is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And U.S. President Donald Trump, come to think of it. BPMs seem to have no parameters. They just keep asking questions. Which is really, really annoying when you’re just trying to help the children.

National Post
Twitter.com/kellymcparland

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories