Kielburgers blame 'political crossfire' for destroying WE Charity
OTTAWA -- WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger say they are taking a stand against the "political crossfire" that has "destroyed" their organization over the last nine months.
In his opening remarks to the House of Commons ethics committee, Marc Kielburger said the brothers are also "disappointed" with all political parties for their conduct and said it is the most vulnerable – those the organization seeks to help – who have paid the price.
"Partisan politicians can use their powers irresponsibly and they can do it to any organization or business," said Kielburger on Monday.
"This is a political scandal for the government, not WE Charity. The government hid behind a children’s charity, by letting it take the fall for their political decisions and the opposition allowed them."
A week ago the committee voted to formally summon the pair after they declined an initial invite. It’s part of MPs ongoing study into "Questions of conflict of interest and lobbying in relation to pandemic spending."
The WE Charity saga began last spring when it was revealed that the Liberals had awarded the organization a contract worth more than $900 million to run a federal student grant program amid the pandemic, without a proper tendering process. Also unearthed were the close ties between WE and the prime minister’s family, sparking allegations of conflict of interest.
Former finance minister Bill Morneau was also implicated when he disclosed that he had accepted travel from the charity while in cabinet and only recently repaid the amount. One of his daughters also worked at the charity during the time the contract was awarded.
On July 3, 2020, the government announced that WE Charity would no longer administer the program, a decision they said was mutually agreed upon.
This is the second time the brothers have provided testimony to a House of Commons committee about the controversy. Their first appearance was in July before the finance committee.
On Monday they were joined by their legal counsel William McDowell, after proposing his presence because of NDP MP Charlie Angus’ call for the RCMP and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to investigate the charity’s financial dealings.
"We wrote to you on March 3rd to raise the unfairness facing our clients should they appear before the committee and be questioned concerning the very matters which Mr. Angus has placed in the hands of the RCMP. We continue to have those concerns; indeed, a lawyer would be negligent simply to allow his clients to appear before the committee in these circumstances," McDowell wrote in a letter to the clerk of the committee last week.
However, Craig Kielburger confirmed neither the RCMP nor the CRA have reached out about a possible investigation related to Angus’ comments.
The two painted a picture of what their organization looks like today after announcing in September that they would be closing their Canadian operations due to COVID-19 and the student grant scandal.
"It is a tragedy what is happening. September was the hardest choice we’ve ever had to make to announce the wind-down of 25 years of work in this country. People lost their jobs who had been with us from the beginning just trying to help youth," said Craig. "The impact is devastating."
They say their work at 7,000 schools in Canada has ended.
"We’ve lost sight of what this should have been all about. It should have been about Canadian kids being helped during a pandemic," said Marc.
They also stressed the emotional toll this has taken on them.
"On a personal note, my youngest isn’t even one year old, and he’s already received death threats directed at him," Craig said. "We’ve had police come multiple times to our home. My three and a half year old can’t play outside anymore."
Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara said the brothers appeared to be attaching a lot of blame to others but not themselves.
"I was really rather disappointed, but at the same time, you want to throw blame on everyone else and not take responsibility for things within your control, so be it, that’s your right," he said.
Angus questioned why the Charity only registered lobbyists in August, following months of direct communications with government staff, and why they didn't include themselves on the list, to which they responded they are "volunteers."
"As a volunteer for the charity, and as you’re aware, volunteers do not require to register for lobbying," said Craig. "I invite you to change the law should you as a member of Parliament choose."
Under rules laid out by the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, lobbyists don’t include volunteers but the Kielburgers do draw an annual salary from the for-profit unit of the organization ME to WE.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre also fired off a line of questioning around the Kielburgers’ communication with one of Trudeau’s top advisers, Ben Chin, which was detailed in a document dump in August at the request of the finance committee.
A few months after the program was approved, Craig Kielburger sent Chin a LinkedIn message, thanking him for his "kindness" for helping to shape the Canada Student Service Grant.
When asked about what Chin’s role was in setting up the program, both brothers responded "no role." Craig later clarified that his assistant sent 100 messages to different people to connect on the platform.
"[My EA] wrote a few lines to 100 different LinkedIn requests that went that same day to different people to join my LinkedIn page," he said.
Poilievre reminded Kielburger he was under oath.
"Your story is shifting here, my friend. This is important, because you’ve until now claimed the prime minister’s office wasn’t involved in shaping the program," said Poilievre.
In a subsequent interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Monday, Angus said it’s time to move on from witness testimony and start drafting the committee’s findings.