The real scandal? Canadians unwittingly allowed WE Charity to be assailed
In their 1989 folk classic “Closer to Fine” the Indigo Girls crooned, “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable. Lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”
That poetic truth was on full display this past summer after the Canada Student Service Grant political fiasco engulfed WE Charity as well as the many charities WE has helped support for 25 years.
The resulting senseless destruction of WE’s brand in Canada was recently manifest in the organization’s announcement that it will cease operations in Canada, and sell its Global Learning Centre in Toronto and other assets to create an endowment to help sustain WE’s international humanitarian work.
While WE co-founder Craig Kielburger graciously conceded “no one is to blame” it is worth reflecting on how various actors played their roles in WE’s stunning and rapid fall from grace.
Consider, for example, the politicians whose attacks strayed from a focus on the federal government’s handling of the CSSG contract award and instead directed scorn at WE and its founders; consider the vapid and hurtful comments propagated on social media; and think as well about how mainstream media newsrooms piled on by dubbing the CSSG controversy the “WE scandal” and widely sharing unproven allegations rather than bringing forward balanced journalism that Canadians should rightfully expect in order to make informed decisions.
On the latter front, while newsrooms repeatedly cited questionable, stale-dated stories from Canadaland about purported workplace malpractices at WE, alleged profiteering by WE’s founders, and even announced in shady terms that WE hired U.S. lobbyists to engage members of the Republican Party (a completely unrelated and unremarkable matter), CSSG media coverage lacked any evidence or proof of legal transgression or malintent on WE’s part.
As a long-time WE supporter I personally appealed to news outlets including the CBC, the Tyee, the National Post and others to consider publishing opinion editorials to help bring perspective to the dialogue. Sadly, my submissions were rejected. To its credit only The Globe and Mail responded favourably by publishing a brief letter to the editor, sadly this in the aftermath of the CSSG scandal’s tragic outcome.
Behind the scenes, WE had already been devastated by COVID-19 fallout, with WE Day events, international service trips and youth camps sidelined — all crucial sources of funding for the organization. In the scorching light of a conjecture-fuelled public inquiry into the CSSG affair, many of WE’s brand partners and some school boards naturally stepped aside.
While most Canadians blithely watched from the sidelines, detractors aggressively took down this homegrown charity and its ME to WE social enterprise, much to public detriment.
Despite WE’s decades of celebrated, positive impact and growth, many Canadians were likely unaware that its core purpose is to encourage civic engagement; for the past 25 years WE and its founders inspired Canadians to support thousands of causes.
For starters, the CSSG, which the public service had chosen WE to administer, is most certainly lost. Were it not for the hyped up controversy, an estimated 100,000 students could have participated in this national volunteer initiative, earned a modest stipend while supporting charities of their choice, and equally important, experienced the vast personal growth that comes from service.
I speak from experience.
Our family was introduced to WE in 2012 by our youngest daughter Nayah, then a Grade 7 student. For Nayah in particular, WE inspired charitable giving and social activism through high school and now into university. Among her early pursuits, she participated in Girl Guides, ultimately serving on that organization’s National Youth Council. She is now an elected director on the UBC Student Council.
WE also influenced the way my wife Louise and I look at our role in the world, and how we can make it a better place.
In 2017, for example, in the run up to a ME to WE service trip to Rajasthan, India, we led a grassroots fundraising campaign. Friends, family and other supporters stepped up too, donating $10,000 — enough to build a classroom in India.
Overseas, we met community partners and local staff who helped us understand the unique economic, education, food security and health challenges that can lead to systemic poverty.
While WE is best known for its international development work and inspirational WE Day events, WE also offered fundraising support for Canadian schools, families and anyone who wanted to raise money or awareness for causes they care about. In 2018 alone, students involved in WE supported more than 5,000 causes.
For the record, my wife and I are not particularly influential or wealthy. Louise is a Canada Post letter carrier. I run a small creative agency that serves various clients, including The Globe and Mail. We started out with nothing, raised six kids, and are still saving for retirement.
WE inspired our family to give what we can, whenever we can. Between our family and my company, we now donate annually to the Canadian Cancer Society, the Victoria-based Canadian College of Performing Arts, Montreal-based Charlie’s Foundation, Vancouver’s Coast Mental Health, The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, the BCSPCA and WE. I also now serve on two charity boards, one in the role of vice president.
Now, consider that we are just one family. It’s almost unfathomable to imagine WE’s positive impact on Canada’s charitable sector as a whole (not to mention internationally).
WE was unquestionably one of Canada’s most entrepreneurial and innovative charities, one that had duly earned worldwide praise and respect, including that garnered from leading brands, as well as celebrities and public figures internationally. Perhaps that made it a target? But the injuries it unfairly sustained from being innocently swept up in a political scandal will undoubtedly be felt by the entire charitable sector, now caught in the blast radius.
Sadly, darkness prevailed. COVID or not, for the foreseeable future there will be no more WE Day celebrations, no more WE service trips abroad, no more WE youth camps. Who will inspire tomorrow’s youth to become active, engaged citizens on such a mass scale?
I hope Canadians reflect on this sad turn of events and what has been lost, and extend due compassion and care to WE, its founders and to all the Canadian charities it has helped support.
— — Randall Mang