Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for the invitation to appear before this committee.
By way of context, I'm a journalist and publisher of Canadaland, which is a small independent news organization and podcast network, which is funded directly by Canadians who support our reporting and want to make it available to everyone. I'm here today in that spirit.
I want to stress that as a journalist with no political affiliation, I take no position on the outcome of these proceedings. Five years ago, Canadaland news became aware of issues concerning the WE organization, and began reporting on them, eventually publishing a series of in-depth stories by reporter Jaren Kerr and a number of more recent articles.
WE is active in over 7,000 Canadian schools. It has received millions of dollars in public funding over the years. The WE organization engages directly with hundreds of thousands of Canadian children. For those reasons, Canadaland felt the public had a clear interest to know more about the WE organization.
I want to use my time here to share with you a summary of facts that Canadaland verified and reported through our years of investigation. I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have about our reporting.
Canadaland has reported on the misuse of charitable funds by WE Charity; fraud and embezzlement within WE Charity, as alleged by WE Charity itself; a culture of systemic racism, which the WE organization has acknowledged and apologized for; and a history of suppressing criticism from within and suppressing journalistic scrutiny from without through intimidation and legal threats that our news company experienced first-hand. Canadaland has also reported on WE's labour issues in terms of youth and youth volunteers. I'm going to describe those in some detail, because they might be relevant to matters before this committee.
Canadaland collected accounts from over two dozen former and current WE employees and obtained supporting documentation that confirmed the WE organization had a troubled history in terms of its treatment of young volunteers and workers, many of whom first encountered WE through their primary and secondary schools when they were children and teenagers.
According to the WE organization itself, employees joined for minimum wage and worked around the clock. Former employees told us that overtime was for many years unpaid, so with all hours counted, employees worked for less than the minimum wage. The excessive hours became a safety risk and health concern in several instances. Former employees described to Canadaland a high-pressure environment, where loyalty and commitment to the “Live WE” philosophy were paramount, and where criticism or failure to meet fundraising targets resulted in being frozen out socially, being shamed and eventually being fired. Fourteen former employees likened WE to a cult.
A former director-level employee told us that it is “incredibly toxic and inappropriate” the way that they treat young people. A former associate director, who left in 2014 said, “The culture of bullying and fear is very pervasive, and that comes directly from the founders”. Twelve former employees said they had been verbally abused, yelled at or bullied by Marc or Craig Kielburger directly. One former WE manager, Dan Mossip-Balkwill, said that he was made to feel guilty about doing expense reports, because he was told that the money would otherwise go to “educate starving students in Africa”.
Others told us similar things, saying they were told by superiors that if WE provided the resources these employees requested, it would mean less clean water, fewer vaccinations and less education for impoverished children in Africa. Other young employees expressed ethical concerns about what they were asked to do for WE, particularly with regard to aggressive fundraising campaigns in schoolrooms. One widely expressed concern from our sources was that they had signed up to do charity work for WE Charity, but ended up selling products, doing labour and generating revenue for a private for-profit company.
ME to WE, the company controlled by Marc and Craig Kielburger, was described to Canadaland by a former employee as “first and foremost about money, despite its noble beginnings”. While the WE organization insists publicly that the two entities are completely separate and distinct, internal WE organization documents obtained by Canadaland reveal that WE's mission is to create a “single brand experience” with one overarching brand.
The WE organization's claim that 90% of the profits earned by ME to WE are then returned to WE Charity was not something that Canadaland was able to independently verify. What is known is that money flows in the opposite direction, from WE Charity to the Kielburgers' private company. The amounts are significant, $11 million over the last 10 years.
The amount of money transferred out of the charity and into the private company has increased sharply in the last two years, a period of time in which WE Charity was in breach of its bank covenants, as revealed by WE's own audited financial statements.
As our reporting progressed, the revelations about WE became more serious. Canadaland obtained a recording of Marc Kielburger in conversation with a senior employee who talked openly about bribing government officials in Kenya. This employee made violent threats towards another WE employee.