OTTAWA — Craig and Marc Kielburger accused a parliamentary committee of engaging in a political trial Monday as its members grilled the brothers over WE Charity’s operations, including its since-cancelled deal to run a federal program for student volunteers.
The heated exchange had the Kielburgers accusing political parties of trying to score points at the expense of children around the world, even as they faced pointed questions from members of the House of Commons ethics committee about their own activities.
Those included how the Liberal government and WE came to an agreement for the charity to run a multimillion-dollar program designed to cover the education costs of students who volunteer during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state of WE today.
The brothers were also asked to tally how much they paid Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his family to speak at different WE events over the years, and to respond to allegations that WE engaged in questionable lobbying and fundraising activities.
Marc Kielburger set the tone by strongly defending the various WE operations set up over the years, including a mix of philanthropic and for-profit entities that he suggested were a response to outdated restrictions on how Canadian charities can operate.
He said everything the organization did was to help children around the world, including agreeing last year to help the Liberal government run the now-abandoned Canada Student Services Grant program.
He said WE has since become a casualty — and those involved the recipients of death threats — as opposition parties try to undermine the government by attacking the deal with the charity, which has since been cancelled over questions about the Trudeau family’s links to the Toronto-based organization.
He blasted NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus in particular for having asked the RCMP and Canada Revenue Agency to look into the organization's operations and then publicly posting those requests on social media.
He also took aim at the Conservatives and the Liberal government, which he accused of having "hid behind a children's charity by letting it take the fall for their political decisions — and the opposition allowed them."
The arrangement would have paid WE up to $43.5 million to run the program, designed to cover up to $5,000 in education costs for students who volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government had budgeted $912 million for the program, but the sole-sourced contract with WE pegged the cost at $543 million and stipulated the organization would not make money on the deal.
WE Charity pulled out of the deal, and the program was eventually cancelled amid questions about the close ties between WE and Trudeau, as well as former finance minister Bill Morneau and members of both their families.
Ethics commissioner Mario Dion is now investigating Trudeau and Morneau for a potential conflict of interest. Both have apologized for not having recused themselves.
"We didn't advise the prime minister and Mr. Morneau not to recuse themselves,” Marc Kielburger said as he described how WE was not responsible for political choices.
“We never prorogued Parliament. We were not involved in the decision to filibuster this committee last fall. This is a political scandal for the government, not for WE Charity."
Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara in turn accused the Kielburgers of not taking responsibility for their own actions, saying: "You want to throw blame on everyone else and not take responsibility for things that have happened within your control."
Angus grilled the Kielburgers over why they never registered with the lobbying commissioner given their discussions with the government in the lead-up to the launch of the student grant program in June 2020. WE Charity registered as a lobbyist last August and did not list the Kielburgers among its 18 in-house lobbyists.
The Kielburgers, who said they have not been contacted by the RCMP or CRA about the program but have spoken to Dion, indicated they are technically volunteers to WE Charity and that volunteers cannot register with the commissioner.
“Craig, we're no dummies here," Angus responded. "You guys run this organization. You're a volunteer that has a chief of staff who's paid for by the charity. That's ridiculous.”
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, meanwhile, demanded a tally of how much WE had paid members of the Trudeau family for appearing at different events, as well as a total of expenses covered for those members. Craig Kielburger said it was around $425,000.
Poilievre also pressed Craig on why he sent an email to one of Trudeau’s senior advisers, Ben Chin, in which the younger Kielburger brother appears to thank Chin for helping to shape the program.
When Craig said Chin had no direct involvement and the message was one of dozens an assistant sent as Kielburger sought to expand his LinkedIn network, Poilievre responded: “You're in a lot of trouble here, my friend. You're under oath. Perjury is a crime.”
Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin later asked in French: "How often do you thank people for doing nothing?"
Craig said it was Rachel Wernick, a senior official at Employment and Social Development Canada with whom he had a working relationship since 2017, who first approached WE about the program.
Thousands of government documents released last summer supported the Liberals’ contention that public servants recommended WE run the program, but they also suggested bureaucrats may have been nudged in that direction by their political masters.
Craig Kielburger told the committee that he wished the contract to run the program had been put out to tender by the government, while his brother described the past year as “devastating” to both WE and students across Canada.
The brothers were also asked about allegations WE raised money by asking multiple donors to contribute to the same projects.
A former donor, U.S. television journalist Reed Cowan, alleged that the plaque on a school he had funded in Kenya in honour of his four-year-old son Wesley, who died in 2006, had been replaced with a plaque in the name of another donor.
The Kielburgers agreed the plaque should never have been removed, and that they were looking to the matter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press