Skip to content

From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

As We Know It

For charity’s an argument

Ian Smillie

What WE Lost: Inside the Attack on Canada’s Largest Children’s Charity

Tawfiq S. Rangwala

Optimum Publishing International

448 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

In September 2021, Craig and Marc Kielburger, the brothers who created a tiny NGO called Free the Children and turned it into an international network of charities, companies, and foundations, announced that their $65-million centrepiece, WE Charity Canada, would fold. It had taken twenty-five years to build but only seventy-nine days to bring it down, during which time there were hundreds of radio and television reports and, by Tawfiq S. Rangwala’s estimation, 129,000 references in the press. WE’s alleged failings were legion: unbridled Trudeau family cronyism resulting in a sole-source $543-million government contract for WE Charity, an unfathomable tangle of non-profit and for-profit entities, conflicts of interest, corruption, financial mismanagement, a hidden real estate empire worth tens of millions of dollars, extensive donor fraud, even racism. As Rangwala writes, “Everything the organization had ever done became fodder for scrutiny, and eventually, suspicion and scorn.”

Rangwala is not an objective bystander. He is a Canadian lawyer based in New York who served on the WE Charity board of directors for several years, stepping down in 2021 to put together this account. He, like other insiders and supporters, was stunned at the speed and the ugliness of what happened two years ago, and in What WE Lost, he makes a credible witness for the defence. There is a gap in the story, however: one that might be called What WE Never Had.

In 1995, when he was twelve, Craig Kielburger read an article about a young human rights activist in Pakistan who had been murdered for his condemnation of child labour in the carpet industry. Helped by his parents and his older brother, Marc, Craig began travelling, raising funds, and speaking out against child labour. With a new charitable organization, Free the Children, and with a book of the same name under his belt, he was soon being lionized by politicians, celebrities, and the media — including 60 Minutes and Oprah Winfrey. Money followed, and the organization grew. By 2020, it was renamed WE Charity and working in nine countries throughout Asia, South America, and Africa, with projects in Kenya as its flagship. It had major endeavours in Canada as well, partnering with schools — eventually thousands of them — to promote volunteerism and service learning about social issues, mental health, and Indigenous youth leadership.

To help popularize their efforts, the Kielburgers organized a jamboree in Toronto that brought together thousands of participating high school students in 2007. They called it WE Day, a combination of celebratory reinforcement, motivational speeches, and entertainment — part revival meeting, part rock concert. The format soon became a signature of the organization, and dozens of huge WE Days were held over the years across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. These were star-studded, strobe-lit events where cheering teenagers heard speeches from the likes of Kofi Annan, Ban Ki‑moon, Justin Trudeau, Prince Harry, Lewis Hamilton, Idris Elba, and Gord Downie. WE Days — free to students who earned tickets through their school volunteerism — were supported by generous donations from large corporate sponsors, among them RBC, Telus, CTV, and Virgin Atlantic. There was nothing quite like it. No charity touched as many Canadian youth as WE; none of the large established international development NGOs — World Vision, CARE, Oxfam, Plan — could muster a crowd a tenth the size of a WE Day turnout.

Suddenly, it all fell apart.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928; Everett Collection; Alamy

Rangwala describes WE Charity as “Canada’s largest children’s charity.” Regarding its overseas work, he says it had devised “a development model that was unlike those of many of its peers in the sector. Instead of appealing to donors to support programs that address just one or two specific needs — providing water, for example, or schoolbooks — the charity evolved to embrace a holistic community-based approach.” Together or singly, the brothers wrote books — a dozen of them — and they regularly contributed uplifting columns to newspapers across the country. WE Charities were registered in the U.K. and in the U.S., where their revenues topped $31 million (U.S.) in 2019.

A decade earlier, Craig and Marc had set up a separate structure, a “social enterprise” called ME to WE, which would be a profit-making company to create jobs in developing countries through the sale of fair trade and artisanal products. It also provided travel services for what ME to WE described on its website as a “unique opportunity to volunteer on a WE Charity international development project.” This, it explained, might take the form of “assisting with local harvests, collecting water or even building a school.” The for-profit’s second purpose was to support WE Charity as a donor. In other words, the overall WE family would earn some of its own income.

On April 19, 2020, a month into the pandemic, WE Charity was approached by Employment and Social Development Canada about a possible youth service program that would be part of the government’s COVID‑19 response. The idea was that teenagers unable to find summer jobs could instead volunteer with non-profits and be paid a stipend under a program called the Canada Student Service Grant, or CSSG. Could WE Charity organize something like this?

With thousands of schools already involved in WE’s service learning programs, the undertaking didn’t seem like a stretch, even when it ballooned to a target of 100,000 participants and a budget of half a billion dollars. WE would act as a bridge, connecting young people with other non-profit groups across the country. Of the $543.5 million, just under $35 million, or 6.4 percent, would be allocated for administrative costs. Because both the government and WE Charity wanted indemnification against claims that might result from possible injuries to students, it was decided that the agreement would be signed with a separate entity, the WE Charity Foundation. This body — created years earlier as a “potential future repository for the organization’s real estate assets” but never put to use — would allow for the kind of liability insurance both parties wanted and for a complete separation of funds and accounts. The agreement was signed on June 23.

Then the trouble began.

Over the years, Justin Trudeau had appeared on multiple WE Day stages, and WE Charity paid for his wife, Sophie, to travel to eight of its events. The prime minister’s mother, Margaret, and his brother Alexandre were also paid speakers on multiple occasions. So upon hearing of the CSSG agreement, opposition parties cried foul. Within a week, the ethics commissioner had opened an investigation. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance and then the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics also went into high gear. There had been no tendering process. Trudeau had not recused himself from the cabinet decision, nor had the finance minister, Bill Morneau, who, it turned out, had taken a ME to WE trip to Ecuador with his family and had never been billed for it. The optics were terrible, and soon Morneau was gone from government. The RCMP got involved.

In the parliamentary hearings, the Kielburger brothers, Morneau, the prime minister, and five dozen other witnesses were grilled over a ten-month period. Long before any of that, however, the government announced, on July 3, that WE was out and that Ottawa would take over management of the CSSG. It never did: the program was dead.

But the attacks on WE and the Kielburgers were just getting started. The most strident came from the Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre, who hammered angrily away, frequently demanding yes or no answers (“Did you take notes on your phone call, yes or no, for the fourth time?”) and often interrupting with his own interpretation (“We’ll just assume you’re hiding that”). He also expressed amazement that WE’s management costs for running the CSSG would be covered by the agreement (“You were going to pay the expenses to yourself”). Poilievre was relentless, as was the NDP’s Charlie Angus. While they directed their outrage at the Kielburgers, their obvious target was Justin Trudeau.

In dozens of interviews, Kate Bahen, the founder of Charity Intelligence, a watchdog with fleas of its own, said variously of WE Charity that it didn’t understand Canadian charity law, that it was broke, and that it actually had no board of directors. Jesse Brown, of the news site and podcast network Canadaland, posted ten negative stories and two podcasts about WE in July 2020 alone. The mainstream media fed off such commentary, and the CBC’s Fifth Estate got into the act, sending a team to Kenya to investigate charges of false advertising and “double pledging.” The show ran two episodes about WE in 2021. “Where did all that money go?” asked the CBC reporter Mark Kelley.

Rangwala goes through these events in detail and refutes most of the charges convincingly. It isn’t all that difficult; there have been numerous independent studies and inquiries, most of them readily available online. The ethics commissioner Mario Dion’s report, for example, found that “the creation and eventual ratification of the CSSG was not done improperly,” and, despite the optics, he found no evidence of improper behaviour in the awarding of the program by either Morneau or Trudeau.

Using the WE Charity Foundation as a vehicle for the CSSG — such a shocker for opposition politicians and reporters — can be easily explained, Rangwala maintains. And that bogeyman for many commentators, ME to WE, can actually be seen as a clever innovation, one used successfully by charities elsewhere. Such a possibility was never seriously considered by the Kielburgers’ critics, however. They simply wrote the social enterprise off as a cover for the brothers’ grift. Yet credible independent reports, available online, show that ME to WE contributed 90 percent of its net earnings — just under $7 million between 2014 and 2018 — to WE Charity and that the brothers’ annual salary and benefits, paid entirely by ME to WE, topped out at $125,000 apiece. Nothing much to see here, folks.

The Kielburgers were and still are respected and admired by a great many people around the world, and that may be why this book has been so heavily promoted, including with transit posters and full-page ads in the Globe and Mail and several other publications (including this one). But the opposite view of them — held by many long before the events of 2020 — is also a fact. And so the question arises: What is it about the brothers and the WE enterprise that provoked so much mistrust and visceral dislike?

Rangwala asks this question himself. Might it be the tall poppy syndrome — the Canadian penchant for tearing down anything successful? Might it be the public’s gullibility in accepting a careless, not to say malicious media frenzy? Was it the Americanization of Canadian politics and unprincipled politicians who turned parliamentary inquiries into gong shows of McCarthyism? Possibly it had to do with what the Toronto Star columnist Judith Timson called the Kielburgers’ “elaborately, performatively polite” behaviour. (During the worst of the attacks by Poilievre and Angus, the two brothers looked like startled game show hosts suddenly finding themselves in a police lineup.)

While Rangwala details with good evidence that many of the charges were exaggerated or false, he does not offer a great deal about the actual substance of WE Charity’s work. The value of its efforts in Canadian schools is praised with a few testimonials and statistics, but a more substantive discussion would have been welcome. Rangwala explains that WE hired a consulting firm called Mission Measurement, which “uses data to determine if an organization is being as efficient and effective as possible.” The results on the Canadian side were uniformly positive, although Mission Measurement’s findings — including, for example, that WE Schools alumni are one and a half times more likely “to be looked at by their peers as creative problem-solvers”— could do with some elaboration.

As for the international work, the book deals mostly with Kenya, a playground for hundreds of amateurish NGOs, drawn in part by the country’s natural attractions and its tourist infrastructure. Rangwala has little to say about WE’s efforts in less salubrious climes. In Sierra Leone, for instance, its work was done almost entirely in partnership with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, a tiny religious operation that dates back to 1866. The WE Charity website describes its WE Villages program as though it supported distinct communities in Sierra Leone, as in Kenya. Looking at the Sisters’ website, however, one might infer that WE simply complemented work in the six villages where the sisters already had activities. Once again, nothing to see here.

Nowhere does Rangwala define what he means by “Canada’s largest children’s charity,” but when you actually crunch the numbers, WE Charity simply doesn’t make the grade. In financial terms, for instance, World Vision, Plan, and UNICEF were bigger, and where the issuance of tax receipts for charitable donations is concerned, WE Charity was minuscule in comparison. Rangwala’s suggestion that WE Charity was doing something new and different in its community engagement is also wrong. Community development is as old as the Ngong Hills; the challenge is how to do it well. The much-advertised Millennium Villages Project, championed by the American economist Jeffrey Sachs and also inaugurated in Kenya, was all about taking a comprehensive approach to development. What it demonstrated was that with enough investment, any village can become a model — but of what? The Millennium Villages cost a fortune and the results — enclave operations disconnected from reality — were neither sustainable nor in any sense replicable

WE may have figured all that out. But if so, Rangwala doesn’t go into it. Instead, he rejects the charge that WE Charity was engaged in “voluntourism” and what some have called “white saviourism,” without apparently appreciating what these terms mean. ME to WE was in fact a huge promoter and beneficiary of voluntourism: brief holiday visits to Africa by high school students and others to work for a week or so building a school or digging a well, something locals are more than capable of doing, before heading off to a game park. In fact, WE Charity welcomed over 40,000 visitors to its projects, primarily in Kenya, a truly staggering number. You have to wonder what villagers made of such a parade.

Ending poverty is not child’s play. If it were, it would have happened long ago. While the excitement of raising money for Africa through WE Days and school activities may have sprung from the very best of intentions, the infantilization of the development challenge and the idea that WE had all the answers was if not “white saviourism” then certainly hubristic.

It might have been Craig’s early experiences with Oprah Winfrey and 60 Minutes that led to WE’s overweening fascination with fame and celebrity and the idea that the brothers could do anything they set their minds to. After all, they seemed to have the Midas touch. They were both inducted into the Order of Canada, given countless honorary degrees, and awarded numerous medals and prizes. In 2015, they were jointly named Canada’s Most Admired CEO by Waterstone Human Capital. But CEO of what? Certainly not WE Charity. Even as Rangwala discusses failings in WE Charity’s governance, the Kielburgers’ role remains opaque. They were intimately involved in WE Charity programming in Canada and overseas, and they took centre stage at WE Days. But they seemed to have no formal management responsibility; they were not even on the board of directors. Yet it was Craig and Marc who concluded in August 2020 that WE Charity would have to be closed. They informed the executive director; they told the board. Rangwala was there: “It was like a grenade went off.”

In the Greek legend, Icarus attempts to escape from Crete using wings constructed from feathers and wax. He is warned against complacency and hubris and is told not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt. Overcome by the thrill of flight, he ignores the warnings. The wax melts, the feathers fall away, and he plunges to his death in the sea.

The tall poppy syndrome may have contributed to the problems of WE Charity, but the organization’s almost evangelical confidence in its own brilliance and the overwhelming self-confidence of Craig and Marc Kielburger were unmatched in the world of organizations that “just want to help.”

Some things have been salvaged. WE’s valuable Toronto real estate was or is being sold to fund the continuing Kenya operation, including WE Charity’s thirty-seven-bed Baraka Hospital and WE College, which offers post-secondary certificates in nursing and tourism services. Following all the hearings, investigations, and audits, some corporate and foundation donors have returned, and WE Charity US, which didn’t take the same bruising as its Canadian home base, continues. This past February, it launched a lawsuit against the CBC; the 230-page claim alleges “the CBC defamed WE Charity by publishing coverage falsely claiming that the charity defrauded its donors and deprived Kenyan children of funds donated to help them.” And the umbrella for the Kenya operations now is the WE Charity Foundation, which has been reimagined with a significantly localized management and governance structure. If Craig and Marc Kielburger are involved, the website doesn’t say.

Ian Smillie is working on his memoir, Under Development. He lives in Ottawa.

Related Letters and Responses

Rohinton Medhora Toronto