The next chapter in the bizarre saga of Canadaland trying to take down a children’s charity is about to be written. I’m going to give you a sneak preview of the picture Jesse Brown will be trying to paint this time, based on answers to questions I sent to WE and Canadaland.
I have spent a lot of time on this that I could have been using to build my law practice and work on my next book. My dog is getting fat: she could use more walks. But I believe this is a moral issue that not only affects Canadaland and WE, but says something awful about the Canadian media. For decades, journalists have filled space with stories about the Kielburgers. Now, crickets.
And I’m not sure why so many on the left – people who think they’re “woke” and care about the developing world – are so hostile. I suspect they want WE to be more politically aggressive, like Oxfam and Amnesty International (organizations that have serious problems now). The Kielburger brothers have made a successful world-famous international development agency using the Corporate Social Responsibility model, and I know there is blowback from traditional charities that rely on mass fundraising campaigns and government grants.
There is so much that’s wrong with what’s happening to WE.
As I wrote in an earlier piece, I attended a panel session in early May in which Canadaland’s lead reporter on the WE Charity pieces, Jaren Kerr, outlined how Jesse Brown was determined to hire a journalist to investigate WE. He also stated he that he is working on a new WE-related piece.
WE Charity confirmed that they had been contacted again by Canadaland. They told me that Canadaland submitted 135 new questions, covering dozens of topics.
When I asked, WE Charity sent me the Canadaland questions and the answers/materials they sent to Canadaland. I’ve reviewed the Canadaland questions, WE responses and supporting documents and this serves as the basis of this analysis.
I believe that WE Charity largely answered every question. I don’t know what material Canadaland is working from, but I would be glad to look at it and make any corrections to this post that are needed.
In a frank exchange between us, Brown criticized me for what he perceives as my biased coverage. I said the same thing to him: Canadaland is a media criticism podcast and analysis site. It does articles – many of them quite good – on issues like the media bailout. It’s done more controversial work, such as the Jian Ghomeshi investigation. But it only reports on one charity: WE.
And it does it a lot. The next story will be the eighth Canadaland piece on the charity and fundraising organizations that grew out of Craig Kielburger’s childhood campaign to end the exploitation of kids in the developing world. I have promised Brown I would be fair on this, and I hope he’ll reciprocate. I also stand by my earlier analyses, though I regret some of the harsh things I said about Jaren Kerr. I would invite Jesse Brown to consider holding himself to the same level of transparency as I am showing here, and provide footnotes, along with supporting documents, for his coverage.
Brown, once he latches onto what he thinks is a story, goes all-in and doesn’t retract or correct. Canadaland gets some stories right, but blows its credibility with false accusations about Amanda Lang taking money to influence CBC coverage[i], Essex County’s school board doctoring documents[ii], women ‘fleeing” the Globe, and more. Fair journalists promptly admit to their mistakes and learn from them.
Back to the conference where Kerr was on a panel talking about this story: Given that I am one of the few lawyers in this country who’s worked as a journalist (about 40 years writing for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, most other major newspapers and a lot of magazines), I found WE’s strategy of hiring a retired judge to review their materials to be an interesting tactic. Respected investigative reporter Robb Cribb of the Toronto Star also commented on it, saying it was something new in Canadian journalism.
Goudge sat on the Ontario Court of Appeal for nearly 20 years. He analyzed the main questions from Canadaland (posed within the new 135 questions) and WE Charity’s responses and accompanied sourcing information. Goudge confirmed the accuracy of the charity’s responses.
The binder of responses reviewed by Goudge is a sad symbol of the waste of a charity’s resources and time. This could end up as a court case, an ugly fight that would, like most legal disputes, leave both sides bruised. Canadaland has already produced seven articles or podcasts attacking[iii] WE Charity – five since October 2018. WE Charity issued two Notices of Libel[iv] against Canadaland. Before they were issued, Goudge conducted a detailed review of the 2018 allegations and found Canadaland’s claims were “without merit”.[v]
Steve Faguy of the Montreal Gazette, a respected analyst of broadcast regulation, said on Twitter that Goudge has an obvious conflict of interest. My take: yes, WE is his client, but Goudge won’t sell his good name to WE or anyone else. (Faguy might want to take up my challenge to do his own fact-check of the Canadaland WE coverage.)
In an email to me, Brown accused me of not acting in good faith and refused to answer questions I sent him. But on this story, it is Canadaland that is not acting in good faith. Brown (and Kerr) came into this with pre-determined conclusions, and WE’s answers are simply called denials. It’s an old trick.
Hunter Thompson summed up the strategy in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail:
“Every hack in the business has used it in times of trouble, and it has even been elevated to the level of political mythology in a story about one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns in Texas. The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumor campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows.
“Christ, we can’t get away calling him a pig-fucker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”
“I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”
What to expect next
There is a clear pattern to Canadaland’s reporting:
- Write a Gawker-type tawdry headline that does isn’t backed up by the substance of the article but generates clicks”. Readers see at a glance that WE is terrible without reading the piece.
- Say its facts come from many mysterious “unnamed sources”. Unnamed sources are Canadaland’s stock in trade because no one can check their real numbers, accuracy, conflicts of interest, sanity, or whether Canadaland misrepresents their claims. In Canadaland’s major stories, named sources are almost unheard of.
- Argue that they had to protect the anonymity of the sources because they live in fear of retribution” from a children’s charity. In fact, the common law’s joint-and-several liability rule protects the sources from being on the hook financially, as does Jesse Brown’s libel insurance. Even without insurance, Brown has ample financial resources to back them. If they are former WE employees, they are not going to lose their jobs. The only reason to give anonymity to these sources is to protect them from scrutiny: how many there are, what their motives might be, why they left WE. (The only other reason to give them anonymity might be a misplaced fear that the Kielburger brothers will show up to their houses with baseball bats).
- Start the podcast by saying: “I am going to start speaking slowly, and very, very carefully, because of the threat of a lawsuit.” It would be more convincing if WE had sued anyone in this century. (The Kielburgers filed one libel suit in 1996 that was settled out of court, and sent two notices to Brown.). It’ll sound very serious and ominous anyway, as if he is Canada’s Julian Assange.
- Say Canadaland’s reporting is in the “public interest” and “needs to be told.” I’d argue that the real public interest is that WE Charity helps thousands of children and impoverished people in the developing world by building hospitals, schools, and water projects.
- Talk about how Jaren Kerr has been working on this “bombshell” report “for almost a year”, as though it has been a full-time job. The sloppy questions, little more than a fishing expedition, and the thinness of the other source material, belie that claim. And once this is all done, Jaren Kerr’s name will be on the article. Even though Jesse Brown is the driving force behind this attempted takedown of a children’s charity, it will be Jaren who will be forced to have this blotch on his resume and reputation moving forward.
- Be very dramatic. He’ll say: “WE Charity does not want the story to be told” and that the charity is trying to “intimidate” Canadaland with legal notices and multiple lawyers but he will “not be intimidated”. But libel notices should not be intimidating if the people threatening to sue have no case. They are only frightening to cowards, and Brown isn’t one. But they should be a wake-up call when the lawyers dismantle your journalism, and they’re backed by analyses by people like Goudge.
- Say WE Charity has “overwhelmed” him and Jaren with its responses by sending reams of paper, even though the charity responded to 135 questions with 21 pages of answers. (They backed the answers with an indexed binder of source documents.) Lawyers review this much of material before lunch. (The last Supreme Court of Canada decision, released May 31, was 137 pages long, with 44,520 words.)
- Have one or two ex-WE Charity staff gripe about the office floors being slippery (yes, this is a complaint in the questions posed by Canadaland). WE says these people generally worked for WE Charity five to fifteen years ago. Their frame of reference was from when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister.
- Attack the credibility of anyone (including me) who disagrees with Canadaland’s reporting on WE as being biased or bought by the charity. (Let me state again, I’ve never been paid by WE.) In Jesse Brown’s world, anyone who would dispute his narrative must be in conspiring with, or being paid by, the person or organization he’s attacking. Jesse Brown thinks the sinister Kielburger Bros are at the helm of a massive conspiracy[vi] with the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and many others. The same goes for all the people whose job it is to audit, verify and otherwise scrutinize[vii] WE’s operations, and all the organizations that have bestowed the charity with its numerous awards[viii]. This simply makes no sense.
Kerr stated that Jesse Brown pushed the idea. (Brown told me one reporter “came to me with it themselves and another began working on it of their own volition while working here. A 3rd was glad to take on some specific technical research for us. A 4th approached us about it on their own but then became concerned about legal repercussions. Not one of them turned down any kind of solicitation from me to report the story.” Again, the legal repercussions argument is ridiculous, as I noted above.)
Kerr essentially confirmed during the panel that the first piece he did on the charity was pre-drafted well before he got the main responses back from WE. This is poor journalism, and it isn’t fair or done in good faith. You don’t pre-draft a story and load it with salacious allegations and innuendo, sprinkle in a few denials from WE, and then wait for the Patreon dollars to come pouring in.
This leads to outcomes such as the digitally-created Kellogg’s cereal box with the ME to WE logo[ix]. WE Charity said that it wasn’t real. Canadaland apparently believed their unnamed source, and an unnamed expert who “felt” it was real. Canadaland published the image and circulated it via social media[x]. I’m still offering $10,000 to anyone who can send me an actual product box.
With the next Canadaland piece a few days or weeks away, I decided to fact check for them, in advance. I did it for free, though a Canadaland book would be nice.
Firstly, let’s pause on the number: 135 new questions. There are dozens of random topics covered in the questions. Analogies of walls and flung sticky things come to mind, but I’ve already dropped one F-bomb in this piece.
I’ll give a summary here because I doubt Canadaland will accurately convey WE’s responses that deviate from Jesse’s narrative.
Canadaland will likely describe working at WE Charity as being on par with working in a Dickensian coal mine with low pay, long hours, and a toxic culture. (Kind of like Canadaland. Jesse Brown’s own employees have called him out for terrible work conditions[xi], low pay[xii], and gender[xiii]/race[xiv] inequality, as pointed out by multiple former Canadaland employees, on the record. At one point, almost all his staff quit en masse.)
WE in their answers acknowledge they’re not perfect. Ten years ago they were transitioning from a charity run by kids and recent grads into a professional organization, and today they offer a pay and benefits package starting at $40,000, along with an on-site physiotherapists free to staff, on-site barista making free lattes for employees, and free Goodlife fitness membership. (I suspect Canadaland employees don’t get at least two out of three of those perks, and I make my own coffee.)
Other benefits offered by WE Charity include expanded health care coverage; time off in lieu for any extra hours worked, and birthdays off.
WE has twice been awarded Canada’s “Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award” and other HR awards[xv] from third-party experts who interview current and former staff. I read testimonials from current stuff who are surveyed every year[xvi], anonymously by the consulting firm Tembo Status. The surveys show to 78% of these they employees said they “love their job”, with 96% saying their work is helping to make a difference in the world.
And the charity’s answers show WE has an anonymous reporting system where staff can raise sensitive issues, all of which are fully investigated, regardless if the complainant self-identifies or prefers to remain anonymous.
WE Charity publishes all of its Audited Financials[xviii][xix], HR Reports[xx], Staff Wellness & Safety Report[xxi] and overall Transparency Report[xxii] with dozens of third-party reviews dating back a decade. This is a well-managed organization.
Here’s my summary: WE was struggling a decade ago when it was in start-up mode, pinching pennies to pay for projects in the developing world. Now, they’re a Canadian success story with 2200 current and former staff, and likely a few ex-staff have gripes. I’m not happy with some of my former employers, including one that tried to get me to spy for the Chinese.
And, frankly, I never worked for a newspaper that gave much of a damn about its employees, let alone sprung for dozens of expert reports and collected hundreds of staff testimonials. You can read about all of this in WE’s HR Case Study here, or read the Coles notes version, here, all of which is on their website.
Audits & Systems
On the financial and transparency front, WE Charity is heavily vetted, audited, reviewed, and monitored. In comparison to Canadaland’s hilariously deficient Transparency Report[xxiii] (Jesse Brown won’t answer any of my questions about corporate funding for Canadaland or his own private financial gain), WE’s Transparency Report[xxiv] and dozens of third-party reviews date back a decade.
If you believe the innuendo embedded in Canadaland’s questions, then you also believe dozens of third-party experts, who are staking their professional reputations on their analysis of governance, financials, and systems, are somehow manipulated by this children’s charity or are crooked. Third-party reviews come from government agencies, auditors, award-granting organizations, law firms, Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada and Ontario Court of Appeals, school boards, foundations, and professional data and impact measurement agencies. Again, for further review, this can be found on a link[xxv] from the front page of their web site.
WE Charity mentions that over 40,000 people have visited their projects in the field, where donors can see exactly what their money bought in schoolhouses, water boreholes, and other development projects. That is transparency.
Kerr and Brown seem unable to grasp the straightforward idea of a social enterprise earning money for charity. Canadaland will likely again allege ME to WE is a “private business” started by the Kielburgers. This is in contrast to the auditor’s statement that, in the last five years, over 90% of ME to WE’s revenues have gone to WE Charity[xxvi], with the remaining 10% covering its own operating expenses. Canadaland still has on their podcast the false claim that the “ME to WE Foundation” is not actually a foundation, even after Canadaland acknowledged in print that Canadaland’s claim is wrong[xxvii].
Strangely, (based on its questions), Canadaland will likely allege WE Charity should have known about the alleged behavior of Jacob Hoggard from the band Hedley, who used to perform at WE Day shows, before he was accused of crimes against some of his young female fans. Hoggard was one of hundreds of celebrities who have performed at WE Days. WE’s answers say none of its staff have ever come forward with any reason for concern, and WE immediately cut all ties[xxviii] with Hoggard as soon as the allegations came to light.
Based on their question, this attempt to discredit WE Charity by portraying it as an unsafe place for women is simply unfair, and the claim is really grasping at straws. It’s like going after concert halls that booked Bill Cosby or Michael Jackson back in the day.
I suppose this is as close as Canadaland could get to a “me too” accusation. Unlike Canadaland’s workplace, women lead WE with 84% of the senior leadership roles, 42 of the top 50 salaries, and hold the roles of Chair of the Board, Executive Director, and Chief People Officer[xxix]. I also assume Canadaland likely did not read all of the independent reports about WE’s workplace safety policies and reviews[xxx], from experts in HR, law firms etc. Third-party experts report their policies are “the gold standard” [xxxi]and they have implemented their policies “in a fair and transparent manner”. Tagging them with the Hedley mess is just wrong.
WE Charity co-founders Craig & Marc Kielburger
Jesse Brown seems especially dead-set on tearing down the Kielburger brothers by continuing his regular tirade accusing them of somehow unduly gaining from their good works.
WE Charity states that Marc and Craig have never drawn a salary or received any form of payment from WE Charity, for which they’ve served as volunteers for 24 years. Anything that they earn by their writing, speaking etc. is always donated to the charity.
Their answers to Canadaland disclose Marc and Craig Kielburger each received a salary from the fundraising arm ME to WE (not the charity) and other compensation in 2018 that amounted to about $125,000. These are high-profile entrepreneurs with a world-wide following. Marc Kielburger graduated from Harvard before earning a law degree at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Craig Kielburger had the Order of Canada, a stack of honorary degrees and a high school named after him before the was 30. He has an Executive MBA from Kellogg-Schulich etc. Both brothers could make a lot more, with a lot less work, in the private sector.
And, frankly, Canadaland’s questions about the nearly 80-year-old Kielburger parents are just gross. But if Canadaland is going there, then I’ll say it is clear from WE’s responses that the Kielburger parents sold the family house to buy WE Charity (then Free the Children) its first professional office space, which they then provided to the charity – rent free – for a decade. The parents never even asked for an income tax receipt and are among the charity’s most significant donors.
They started flipping houses in Toronto in 1975. It was a smart move. They’re entitled to enjoy their profits,
Once the Canadaland podcast and article are posted, Brown will have his friends take to Twitter to share it widely, trying to make points with his audience, but most importantly, trying to generate clicks and Patreon money. It will be good for his bank account and his ego.
Brown maintains a small circle of friends and colleagues (current and former) who seem to line up to promote Brown and Canadaland online. Whether it is tearing down Amanda Lang, the people of a Canadian province, his former employer CBC, or a children’s charity, they nod their heads and say “this is why we need independent journalism” without holding Jesse Brown to basic professional journalism standards. This simply degrades trust in journalism, especially in new media.
This fan club seems to consist of three distinct groups:
- Those who have a financial interest in the success of Canadaland. Either they are employed by Brown (Jonathan Goldsbie[xxxii]), have their podcasts on the Canadaland platform (Justin Ling and Ryan McMahon[xxxiii]) or have been hosts/guests on a Canadaland podcast (Alheli Picazo[xxxiv] or Jan Wong[xxxv]).
- Those who, like Jesse, used to work for Saturday Night Magazine such as Ken Whyte and Paul Wells (who’s now off twitter but cheered Brown’s fall 2018 WE stories. I’m surprised Wells didn’t realize how thin they were. Jon Kay called them “nothing-burgers smothered in Jesse Brown hype sauce,” which was accurate.) The Saturday Night angle is interesting because it may be the ultimate source (see my last piece for an explanation) of why Brown despises and wants to ruin the Kielburgers.
- Those who tweet and re-tweet Jesse and vice-versa.
Jesse Brown has made a living trying to tear people down. In some cases, it was deserved, but I’ve found in other instances, his subjects were ordinary people, with simple foibles like anyone else, which Brown blew out of proportion. That lack of proportion is Jesse’s biggest flaw and may well be his undoing.
Canada needs solid media criticism. Jesse Brown (and Jaren Kerr) may be the people to deliver it someday. But, for now, there needs to be a grown-up in the room, someone saying, “there may be a great story in there, but you haven’t got it.”
[i] “Amanda Lang Archives.” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/tag/amanda-lang/.
[ii] “Journalist Jesse Brown Is Quick to Expose the Failures of Canadian Media. But What about His Own?” The Globe and Mail. May 12, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/journalist-jesse-brown-is-quick-to-expose-the-failures-of-canadian-media-but-what-about-his-own/article22488107/.
[iii] “Search for Kielburger” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/?s=kielburger.
[iv] “WE Corrects Canadaland: Notice of Libel.” WE. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.we.org/formal-notice/.
[vi] “How The Kielburgers Handle The Press.” CANADALAND. January 18, 2019. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/how-the-kielburgers-handle-the-press/.
[vii] “Financial FAQ.” WE Charity. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.wecharity.org/about-we-charity/financials-and-governance/financial-faq/.
[viii] “Awards.” WE Charity. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.wecharity.org/about-we-charity/awards/.
[ix] “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children.” CANADALAND. October 15, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/craig-kielburger-founded-we-to-fight-child-labour-now-the-we-brand-promotes-products-made-by-children/.
[x] Canadaland. “WE Denies That Their Company Has a Partnership with Kellogg’s. Pic.twitter.com/YNOgQ4Y3CJ.” Twitter. October 15, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://twitter.com/CANADALAND/status/1051838140380536833.
[xi] Story Board. Accessed May 30, 2019. http://www.thestoryboard.ca/freelancer-katie-jensen-talks-importance-income-transparency-canadian-media/.
[xiii] Jane Lytvynenko. Twitter. March 08, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://twitter.com/JaneLytv/status/971799687710887936.
[xiv] Mochama, Vicky. Twitter. March 08, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://twitter.com/vmochama/status/971803686220550144.
[xv] “Recognition.” WE. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.we.org/careers/recognition/.
[xvi] “FAQs.” WE. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.we.org/careers/working-at-we/faqs/.
[xvii] “Meet WE Alumni.” WE. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.we.org/careers/alumni/.
[xix] “Annual Reports.” WE Charity. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.wecharity.org/about-we-charity/financials-and-governance/annual-reports/.
[xx] “Why WE Works-FEB09 2019.” FlippingBook. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://online.flippingbook.com/view/553394/.
[xxi] “Putting Our People First-MAY23.” FlippingBook. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://online.flippingbook.com/view/113882/.
[xxii] “WE Transparency Report 2019.” FlippingBook. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://online.flippingbook.com/view/652461/.
[xxiii] “Canadaland 2018 Transparency Report.” CANADALAND. April 04, 2019. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/2018-transparency-report/.
[xxiv] “WE Transparency Report 2019.” FlippingBook. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://online.flippingbook.com/view/652461/.
[xxv] “Transparency Reports.” WE. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.we.org/we-movement/transparency-reporting/.
[xxvi] “ME to WE Partnership.” WE Charity. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.wecharity.org/about-we-charity/financials-and-governance/me-to-we-partnership/.
[xxvii] “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement.” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/the-canadaland-investigation-of-the-kielburgers-we-movement/.
[xxviii] Fraser, Ashley, and Tony Caldwell. “Embattled Band Hedley ‘no Longer Working With’ WE Day, Organization Says.” Ottawa Citizen. February 26, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/embattled-band-hedley-no-longer-working-with-we-day-organization-says.
[xxix] “Putting Our People First-MAY23.” FlippingBook. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://online.flippingbook.com/view/113882/.
[xxxii] “About & Contact.” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/about-canadaland/.
[xxxiv] “#211 Your Body Is A Newfoundland.” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/211-your-body-is-a-newfoundland/.
[xxxv] “Jan Wong Isn’t over It.” CANADALAND. Accessed May 30, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/jan-wong-isnt-over-it/.