On its face, the scandal currently embroiling Canada’s Liberal government looks like a fairly pedestrian conflict-of-interest story.
In brief: back in April, the government unveiled a new, $912-million student grant program which would pay students up to $5,000 for volunteer work. On June 26, prime minister Justin Trudeau announced that the program would be administered by WE Charity, an organization fronted by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger. The federal government’s contract with WE was cancelled early in July amid questions about the program’s design and a potential conflict-of-interest related to connections between the charity and members of the Trudeau family. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife, is an official ambassador for WE, and Trudeau himself has enjoyed close ties to the organization (and its frontmen) since the beginning of his political career — addressing a 16,000-person gathering connected to WE in his first public speech after becoming prime minister.
The scandal’s scope has continued to widen thanks to further revelations that the prime minister’s mother and brother had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees by WE — a fact which contradicts Trudeau’s June 26 statement that he had worked for the organization “voluntarily, of course … and I will continue to do so, as will my family.” It soon emerged that Trudeau’s finance minister Bill Morneau had received $41,000 in paid travel and hospitality from WE Charity — funds Morneau, who is personally wealthy, claims he forgot to reimburse (one of Morneau’s daughters, in addition, has a job with the organization and another’s 2016 book got an effusive blurb from Marc Kielburger). Other figures close to the prime minister, including his chief of staff and natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan, also have well-established ties to WE and both Kielburger brothers have made political contributions to the Liberal Party (Marc to the party and Craig to Trudeau’s ultimately successful 2012 leadership campaign).
Before being awarded the contract for the Canada Student Service Grant program, WE was reportedly suffering from a dearth of donations amid the coronavirus pandemic — leading some to speculate that the government may have even designed the program with the intention of throwing the organization “a financial lifeline.” Whatever the facts surrounding the contract and program turn out to be, the basic ethical issues at hand vis-à-vis officials awarding a potentially lucrative contract to an organization with close personal and financial ties to members of the sitting government are all too obvious.
But the scandal ultimately has a wider dimension, given the emerging details about WE and the intersection of elite politics, celebrity, sponsorship, and corporate charity surrounding what appears to be a fairly conventional conflict of interest case.
WE’s undisputed figurehead is Craig Kielburger, who rose to international prominence in the 1990s as a crusader against child labor featured on 60 Minutes and Oprah. Kielburger’s much mythologized origin story revolves around the case of Iqbal Masih, a former child laborer involved in Pakistan’s carpet trade and allegedly murdered by the “carpet mafia.” According to WE’s website: “Craig was 12. Iqbal was 12. In that moment, he was struck by a single and profound connection – except for the happenstance of birth, he could have been Iqbal – and he needed to do something.”
As the independent media organization Canadaland reported in a lengthy 2019 investigation into WE, the actual details surrounding Masih’s death (and his age) appear to be quite different, and the account favored (and repeated with evangelical conviction by Kielburger) is contradicted by both local police and the NGO Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The organization’s internal labor practices have also been called into question, the same investigation citing two dozen former employees — some of whom described its workplace culture as being akin to a cult’s. A separate Canadaland investigation established connections between WE and “no fewer than three companies known to use child and slave labour in their supply chain.”
WE’s business structure has also come under scrutiny thanks to the porous lines separating its charitable and for-profit arms. Officially, the latter (which is called “ME to WE”) exists to generate revenue for the former, its various enterprises including shops that sell sustainably-made goods, stadium-scale motivational speaking tours involving celebrities (who are paid handsomely to appear), and pricey voluntourism trips that offer paying customers in North America the opportunity to “step into the shoes of Maasai warriors” in Kenya or “experience a shamanic ceremony and get hands-on weapons training” in Ecuador. As the scandal has evolved, the institutional dichotomy separating the charitable and profit-generating sections of the WE enterprise has come to look less than clear cut — the two sharing the same CFO and money apparently flowing from the charity to the private company.
WE’s corporate partnerships are massive. Internal PowerPoint presentations provided to Vice News by a former employee, for example, show that by summer 2017, ME to WE “boasted some 206 active partnerships with an annual revenue of $47.5 million.” As the same Vice report detailed, among hundreds of corporate sponsors, just twenty large companies account for nearly 90 percent of ME to WE’s revenue, with sponsors including “insurance vendor Allstate, RBC bank, movie chain Cineplex, Microsoft, accounting firm KPMG” and mining company Teck Resources. WE’s sponsorship is heavily concerned with offering corporate partners the opportunity for a piece of its coveted social justice brand. As the same report details:
A page of WE’s website, advertising Marc Kielburger as a paid speaker, touts his insights into “purposeful and profitable business strategies.” The page, which has since been updated to remove that language, boasts that Marc can help teach strategies to “inspire brand fanatics to stay loyal to you, your company, and your cause (and) add a halo effect to your product.” That halo effect is core to WE’s strategy. WE lets its partners co-brand international development projects, grace the stage at the ebullient WE Day celebrations, and even help craft school curricula. All for a fee … WE insists WE Day and WE Schools are empowering and educational. To potential sponsors, however, WE is pretty blunt that it offers a big branding opportunity.
In one internal pitch, the organization has even touted its youth programs as opportunities for partners to “improve [their] brand reputation particularly by increasing consumer perception of partners’ investment in their local community” further suggesting that partnerships “can drive consumer exploration, consideration, and purchase of products and services.”
Though much about the inner workings of the organization remain opaque, there is a marked contrast between its hungry embrace of corporate partnerships and the social justice brand on which it has built its reputation. Far from being a simple conflict of interest case, Canada’s WE controversy increasingly looks like the perfect metaphor for the Trudeau-era: the meticulously-crafted public image of a smiling, reform-minded, celebrity prime minister working to obscure injustice and garnish Canada’s neoliberal order with a patina of social compassion.
Its details may be personal, but its politics are structural: born of a political culture whose official MO of progressive benevolence typically comes with a generous dollop of insularity, corporate patronage, and elitism. Liberal government scandals, of course, are as Canadian as oil pipelines or maple syrup, but they tend to be processed on the level of personality rather than politics: ethical breaches by individuals within the confines of an otherwise harmonious political order.
By all appearances, the WE scandal speaks to something deeper about the model Canada’s ruling faction has embraced as the guiding principle of its political project, wherein corporatism, resource extraction, and patronage go hand in hand with progress and an ersatz version of social justice is the secret sauce that lubricates it all. Spend billions bailing out big oil while posturing as a global leader on climate change. Say nice things about refugees while collaborating with American border agencies. Give speeches about inequality while maintaining tax advantages for the exorbitantly rich. Evangelize about reconciliation while heavily-armed police are deployed to break indigenous blockades.
In Canada, neoliberalism comes with a mawkish smile, a famous face, and a symbolic nod toward inclusion — all right next to the logo of your favorite bank or oil company.