What WE Lost: A Review

What WE Lost: A Review
by Mark Bourrie
May 22, 2024
What WE Lost: A Review

Tawfiq Rangwala has written a well-researched, solid account of the destruction of the WE movement in Canada. It’s remarkably clearly written. Rangwala is a lawyer who could have gone too deeply into the weeds of corporate and legal jargon, but What WE Lost is compelling and very readable.

People should read this book. It is the only complete analysis of what happened to WE and its founders. Some of it is heartbreaking: the vicious online threats, the creepy stalking of the Kielburger brothers and their young families, especially after Brian Lilley published the home address of one of them in the Toronto Sun, and, always looming, the ruin of the life’s work of two Canadian heroes. One was a sort of child star who had grown up sane, healthy and still enthusiastic, the other a Rhodes Scholar who could have made a lot of money on Bay Street but decided instead to develop sustaining fundraising systems for charities.
Craig Kielburger was the idealist. Marc was the brother who tried to ensure the fruits of that idealism had sustainable funding, not from donations pried from people through TV ads or by fundraisers on street corners, but from ethical businesses that turned a profit.

Canadian media insisted WE’s structure – a for-profit side feeding money to a charity – was somehow strange and sleazy, when the most basic research would have shown it wasn’t. The Salvation Army’s stores – a retail outlet that is likely familiar to Canadaland’s underpaid employees – raises money for the Salvation Army’s work with the homeless, prisoners, addicts and others in need. 10,000 Villages is the retail outlet of the Mennonite Central Committee, an organization that has rescued many farmers after natural disasters in Canada, and does good works overseas. Oxfam runs stores across Europe, just as Habitat for Humanity does in the U.S.

Ontario law prohibits charities from owning businesses, which was why ME to WE was set up as a separate company from We Charity, and 10,000 Villages is a separate entity from the Mennonite Central Committee and the Mennonite Church. Why does Ontario have such a law, while so many other places don’t? Journalists were so incurious on the WE story that they missed the fact that it was a media issue that generated this law. When Joseph Atkinson, owner of the Toronto Star, died in 1948, he wanted to leave the newspaper to a charity that would fund progressive causes. At the insistence of Globe and Mail publisher George McCullagh, the Ontario government passed a law to stop this from happening. The irony of this is rather sad, since the Star ended up being one of WE’s media critics, then made a lowball offer on their social enterprise headquarters, The Kielburgers became a victim of Canada’s tall poppy syndrome, which permeates Canadian politics and media. Jesse Brown, a self-styled media critic with no obvious training or talent for the job, decided to take WE down. He has tried to crush any defence of WE since 2019, when he ran his first series of podcasts attacking WE.

I now call Brown’s style of trophy hunting the Jackalope Syndrome. It is becoming the norm in Canada as journalists become more obsessed with trophies and less interested in facts.

Brown, looking for something, anything, to delegitimize this book and intimidate mainstream journalists from giving it the coverage it needs to make it onto bestseller lists, has gone after the author for being a member of WE Charity’s board. But Rangwala doesn’t hide his association with WE. It’s an important part of the story. He gives valuable insights to people like me who are on boards about what went right, what went wrong, and the challenges of board governance.
Rangwala works for an American law firm that did trademark work for WE and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing it. Brown suggests on social media that there is a conflict. There isn’t. It was trademark work – a half-bright journalist could easily parse out who was infringing on WE’s intellectual property – and that work is over. Rangwala says on social media that he didn’t work on the file. And the conflict would be exist if Rangwala took what he knew to the infringing company, not if Rangwala told his story to the public. Brown seems to think lawyers are owned by their clients, and board members are controlled by the organizations they oversee. It’s a very strange conclusion, the type of sloppy thinking Brown brings to much of his coverage.
By that logic, Jody Wilson-Raybould can’t talk about the government of Canada because she used to be in cabinet, and can’t be trusted to write about Parliament because she used to be paid to be an MP.)

Brown’s troll buddies can’t seem to be able to move past Rangwala’s appearance. I have never seen so many vicious anonymous Twitter accounts with fewer than 50 followers and an awful lot to say about WE and anyone who might want to argue there’s more than one side to this story.

I disagree quite strongly with Rangwala’s conclusions about the WE and the Canadian Student Services Grant. Yes, the program was rush. And yes, it would have been better if the program had been thrown open for requests for proposals (RFPs). But let’s take a walk down memory lane.

In early March, 2020, I visited Marc Kielburger at the WE headquarters on Queen Street in Toronto. I was in the city for events leading up to the RBC Charles Taylor Prize. Marc was just back from the London WE Day where Sophie Garneau-Trudeau had caught Covid. It was obvious that Covid was going to spread around the world. Big events like WE Days were about to be cancelled – schools and universities would close about ten days later – and, unknown to me, WE was about to lay off the staff that organized WE events and worked with schools.

Marc and I talked for a while about Covid. With Africa’s lack of medical infrastructure and clusters of high population regions, it seemed Africa and other southern countries would bear the brunt of Covid. The shift at WE was from domestic fundraising to protecting WE’s employees and students in Africa, and to do anything they could to help other Africans.

Within two weeks, federal government offices in Ottawa were empty. Streets that were normally jammed during the week looked the way they did on a typical Sunday. Almost all the federal public service was working from home, as afraid as the rest of us that they’d get Covid. We had all seen the mass grave pictures from Italy and New York, and the video from Wuhan, where some people were dropping dead on the street.
Yet Canada continued to have a government. Its policy-makers unveiled a string of innovative help for businesses and individuals that saved the economy while the stock market crashed and millions of people were laid off. With unemployment at 14% and rising, and millions of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, something had to be done.

And businesses had to be saved. Stores and offices were shut down, but overhead like rent and taxes had to be paid.
The Trudeau government came out with innovative national relief policies in an astoundingly short period of time. CERB. A moratorium on student loan payments. Help for many businesses to cover their rents. A program of loans and grants to keep businesses afloat. They did this while working from their homes. And, for a while, it seemed anything was possible, including a guaranteed national income based on CERB.

The Canadian Student Services Grant was one of these programs. To have held a competition for the contract would have taken many months, maybe years. WE was the only organization that had the reach into schools, the national infrastructure, the experience with managing projects, and could pivot to this work. I watched many of the later hearings into CSSG and saw nothing that changed my mind.

Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau and finance minister Bill Morneau should have sat out the discussions. But there was no scandal here, no benefit to Trudeau, no money laundering, kickbacks or anything else to justify the smears of Pierre Poilievre and Charlie Angus.

They tore WE apart in committee meetings months after the initial terror of Covid. Poilievre and Angus both see themselves as leadership material, and they were willing to tear down a kids’ charity to push their own political careers. The assault on WE was cheap and easy for reporters to cover. They could sit in the safety of their homes. Record the sensationalist quotes from political hacks who were playing to the gallery, and get play on the front page and TV newscasts without delving deeper into the story. Canadian journalists, already notorious for their groupthink and pack mentality, recklessly piled onto WE.

(BTW, how do you think a Pierre Poilievre or Charlie Angus government would have handled pandemic relief? My bet: PM Poilievre would have let people starve, while PM Angus would have dithered with the leaders of PSAC and other public sector unions until people starved.)
Anyway, back to the book.

It’s a solid piece of reporting. Any journalist who covered the “WE Charity Scandal” will, once they overcome their embarrassment, realize the great stories that were missed. Members of the public will finally have a full account of what really happened, and can decide who to blame for the destruction of the country’s largest home-grown charity. Politicians and public servants can read it to see how to do a better job with communications, and to remind themselves that the slightest bit of “gotcha” material can be used to destroy careers and reputations. This book should also be read by any who does corporate or government communications work, though it may induce nightmares.

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