From me, to we, to what next? How the Kielburgers went from charity rock stars to embroiled in a political scandal

Over the years, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger have described themselves as “accidental activists.”

While their early steps into advocacy may have been unplanned, they built their lives around inspiring young people to be good citizens and helping deliver international aid to rural villages.

They became rock stars of the charity world in the process.

Now, they’ve moved into damage control as they find themselves embroiled in a still-evolving political and ethical scandal.

The federal government’s now-cancelled decision to have WE Charity administer a $ 900-million student volunteer program this summer has not only triggered investigations by the ethics commissioner over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s family ties to the organization, but also sharpened attention on the activities of the charity itself, raising questions about its transparency and business model.

So how did we get here?

The first story about Craig Kielburger’s mission to end child labour appeared in the Toronto Star in June 1995. The 12-year-old from Thornhill had been so affected by the story of Iqbal Masih, a boy who was sold into slavery in a carpet factory in Pakistan and was later killed, that Kielburger started a children’s crusade to end child labour.

He called the group, then made up of a “few dozen youngsters,” Free the Children. They spoke at schools, gave presentations on child labour and collected petitions demanding Canada ban the import of goods made by children.

As the Kielburger brothers would later describe in their book, their philosophy asked people to consider a way of living that “feeds the positive in the world” and has the potential to “revolutionize kindness.”

The movement grew quickly. In November 1995, Craig Kielburger gave a speech before the Ontario Federation of Labour to rapturous applause, and when the new year dawned, he was on a fact-finding mission in India, where he met with Mother Teresa, took part in a raid on a carpet factory, and met with then Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, who was on a trade mission.

A few months later, Kielburger was in Washington, talking to the Democratic party’s policy committee. The TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” profiled him. He met with foreign affairs ministers and with U.S. vice-president Al Gore.

There were a few speed bumps.

In November 1996, an article in Saturday Night magazine, titled “The Most Powerful Kid in the World,” alleged that donations to Free the Children went directly to the Kielburger family.

Kielburger served a notice of libel. “For the record, I have not taken any money,” he said at a press conference.

Court documents stated that Kielburger was also disturbed by the article’s reference to journalists nicknaming him Damien, the same name as the Antichrist character in the movie “The Omen.”

In 2000, the magazine paid then 17-year-old Kielburger $ 319,000 to settle the suit.

Two years later, while pursuing peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, he became one of 156 candidates nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Former U.S president Jimmy Carter won.) By then, his movement counted 100,000 members in 35 countries; the group had built hundreds of schools, and shipped tens of thousands of health and medical supplies to developing countries.

While Craig was the public face of the group, his older brother Marc, then in his mid-20s, was the administrator behind the scenes.

Ask anyone at Free the Children, the Star reported at the time, “and you’ll hear that Marc is the one behind the steering wheel.”

In 2005, the brothers released their book “Me to We,” which aimed to inspire a “revolution in giving and community building.”

The brothers also wrote a joint column for the Toronto Star from 2006 through 2008, covering a range of topics, from calling for a federal ombudsman for children to pushing for fairer food global distribution.

It was during this time that the pair launched WE Days, youth empowerment rallies that would feature speakers, athletes and celebrity performers.

In 2012, the younger Kielburger was immortalized when the Halton District School Board voted to name a new Milton high school after him: Craig Kielburger Secondary School.

“Having a role model whose hand you can shake, whose voice will act beyond the auditorium, is powerful beyond the name,” said a student at the board meeting where the matter was decided.

The momentum led to changes within the WE movement, too, with WE Days expanding across the world. Free the Children restyled itself as WE Charity in 2016, bringing the branding of the charity under the WE umbrella.

Observers say that as the organization has grown, the brothers have kept a tight rein on operations.

The fact that all these years later, the brothers continue to be the face of the organization is unique, exemplifying “founder’s syndrome,” when the founder of an organization continues to exert enormous influence, says Susan Phillips, a professor in Carleton University’s school of public policy and administration who specializes in philanthropy and non-profits.

“That’s why I call it a celebrity charity; it’s hard to separate WE Charity the organization from the founders,” she said.

“The effect of founders can be very positive on organizations. They’ve got the enthusiasm and drive; it isn’t all negative. But I can’t think of another major charity in the country that has that kind of celebrity-founder ongoing connection.”

According to Charity Intelligence, an independent charity watchdog, the WE movement’s growth has created confusion among donors between WE Charity and ME to WE, a for-profit social enterprise corporation controlled by the Kielburgers and founded in 2004.

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The Kielburgers have maintained that the enterprise and the charity are separate, but complementary. But following the revelation that Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother had been paid more than $ 280,000 for appearing at WE-hosted events — some of that money coming from the charity side, not the for-profit side — the brothers were forced to apologize.

“No charitable funds were intended to pay their honorarium, as costs were sponsored by ME to WE Social Enterprise,” they wrote in full-page newspaper ads. “Once we learned that the charity did pay for some of their speeches, the error was identified, and the charity was reimbursed. Yet, the error should not have happened, and we apologize.”

Amid the damage control, WE Charity announced this week that it is restructuring its operations and cancelling its flagship WE Day events.

“After much reflection and with great care and concern for all our stakeholders, we have made some important decisions to refocus on our mission, simplify our program offering, and undertake a series of governance and structural changes,” the charity’s statement read.

“WE Charity will return to its roots, prioritizing our international development work. Our global partner villages have already been significantly impacted by COVID-19, and we must not let them be further adversely affected by unrelated issues halfway around the globe.”

Charity Intelligence, which recently downgraded WE Charity’s rating, reported that over the last year the organization had almost completely replaced its board of directors. The watchdog said six of the charity’s directors from last year were replaced by four new directors, with one new director resigning in June 2020.

Nicolas Moyer, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said he hopes that, as WE Charity restructures, it will consider joining the council, which is the only national umbrella group for civil society organizations involved in international development. Its members include World Vision and the Red Cross.

“Within our membership at CCIC, our members are committed to a code of ethics which outlines a range of best practices,” he said.

“The international development sector in Canada is larger than many people think. There are over 2,000 organizations that work in international development in Canada. They employ over 14,000 people. We collectively mobilize more than $ 5 billion in investments for international development. It’s a sector that has learned a lot over the years about proper ways of programming, sharing best practices with one another.”

Without referring to any charity specifically, Moyer noted: “In our history, there are collectively a lot of unfortunate stories in our sector of smaller organizations sometimes that have done things that are inappropriate. There have been scandals over the years. It’s been very important for leading organizations in this field to always push the bar towards better performance.”

Moyer said he’s only ever been able to view WE Charity from a distance because of its reluctance to join the council.

“WE has specifically made a point of staying completely independent,” said Moyer, choosing to “not collaborate, not join in conversation, not engage the rest of the international development sector in Canada.

“WE Charity and Free the Children has done an outstanding job of engaging young Canadians. But there are a lot of questions that we have … around the business model itself, and the impact of the programs they have.”

In a statement on Friday, WE Charity said it is “certainly open” to being a member of the CCIC and any suggestion that it is reluctant to do so is wrong.

“There are many associations that bring value to charities,” it said, noting that, for now, it has chosen to associate primarily with the Ontario Council for International Cooperation.

“WE Charity works hard to increase the level of awareness and understanding with respect to international development,” the statement said.

Both Moyer and Phillips say they are worried about the effects the current scandal will have on the collective reputation of the international development sector.

“We’re going to see undoubtedly a dampening of giving for some time by economic circumstance alone,” Phillips said.

Added Moyer: “When any single organization in the international development sector is in the spotlight, especially for things that can be controversial, it does hurt collective reputation. And so we have a shared interest in them doing right and learning from this moment.”

With files from Alex Boutilier and Alex McKeen

Katie Daubs
Katie Daubs is a Star reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

TORONTO STAR