White Savio(u)rs and Disgrunts: Gripers gotta gripe

A couple of years back, the women employees of Canadaland walked out in a huff. They said they were underpaid, under-respected, and just fed up. One went public about how she was so poorly-paid that, even with side work, she couldn’t afford new clothes or the equipment to do journalism.

A while back, Canadaland’s employees formed a union.

Maybe the women were right to leave. Or perhaps Canadaland, a news organization struggling to survive when so many start-ups weren’t surviving, was paying them as as much as it could. I don’t know. The women were angry, but newsrooms are notoriously unhappy workplaces.

You can find hundreds of former employees of the CBC, the Toronto Star, PostMedia and other outfits who would say bad things about their ex-employers, if anyone asked. Michael Bate at Frank Magazine built a media business by tapping into worker unhappiness.

You can’t please everyone. Which is why I think the second issue of Canadaland’s “White Saviors” is a big letdown. Thousands of people have gone through the WE Charity organization. It should be no surprise that some people were unhappy when they left.

Listening to the second Canadaland podcast on WE Charity, I was bothered by the sappy music, which rose to crescendos to give some heft to what seemed to me to be whining. Most of the allegations against WE and the Kielbros were vague. For instance, some of the handful of ex-employees saw the organization as being too focused on the Kielbros. But think about it for a second: whether you believe WE has got a raw deal or you think WE got what’s coming to it, you have to admit that WE was nothing without Craig and Marc Kielburger. They started it, they MC’d the WE Days, they wrote the WE books, they were interviewed on Oprah.

One ex-employee talks of her stay in a hotel in India, where she saw a child working. Was it WE’s hotel? The podcast doesn’t say. The woman didn’t know much about the place. She got sick and left, blaming food poison for her ailment and whining that neither Kielbro, who ran a multi-million charity on several continents, reached out to her while she was puking. Her accusations are based on what she thought she saw. Nothing of WE’s response, if Canadaland asked for one, was reported.

I don’t have much use for voluntourism. When I was teaching at Concordia and, later, a law student, I saw a lot of photos of people who’d made voluntourism trips. I thought trips where students could do real internships that were intellectually challenging were much more valuable, and that’s where I steered my students. But if rich white kids — and in this series, all well-off Canadians seem to be white — want to pay a fat buck for as voluntourism trip, and WE uses the money to build schools and waterworks, that’s fine by me. (University admissions offices should see this for whatever it is, and make decisions accordingly.)

Another disgruntled ex-employee (is there such thing as a “gruntled” employee, complained he took a WE training course and there was no guarantee of a job afterwards. Seems like any training program I’ve heard of. (From now on, I’m going to write about “disgrunts” to save time and space).

Some disgrunts were unhappy that WE supplemented their low pay with free housing in Toronto. The thought it was awful that these accommodations were within walking distance of WE headquarters. I wish WE’s attackers would get this straight. In one breath, they whip the charity for owning “prime downtown real estate”, then let disgrunts trash WE for housing them in a sketchy neighbourhood.

I am blown away at how one-sided these podcasts are. You’d have to work very hard to ignore all the young people who have come forward — including my own children — to say WE was one of the best things that ever happened to them. The podcast seems to use the same disgrunts over and over, as though five years of attacks on WE wouldn’t have flushed out entire regiments of disgrunts from among the thousands of people who worked there over the years.

There may be another possibility that White Saviors doesn’t seem interested in considering: WE was a good place to work, with a lot of job satisfaction, even if the wages sucked and you took up the Kielbros’ offer to stay near Queen and Parliament Streets.

The Kielbros do seem to have embraced modern management concepts. (A Harvard MBA will do that to you.) I find most management concepts, especially company-song-style Japanese team building to be tedious, but I think a “no gossip” clause in an employment contract is a great idea. I have seen workplaces become toxic due to gossip. And by “workplaces” I mean every newspaper I ever worked for, which was a lot.

Another disgrunt complained that prepping for a WE Day was long, hard work. That is not a surprise. WE Days were like rock concerts: big lighting, superb sound systems, flashy stages. Celebs had to be herded, gift baskets bought. Then the whole thing has to be torn down and moved to the next hall, reassembled, and stocked. It would be quite the shock if Canadaland reported anyone prepping a big event in major venues — say, a Taylor Swift tour — worked eight-hour days.

To take on the gist of this show: Canadaland doesn’t understand the difference between a “cult,” a “movement” and a “cause”. Anyone who has worked around political staffers — as I did for more than 20 years — knows that young people involved in ideological causes end up working very hard. Movements and causes are not ordinary workplaces. Job satisfaction comes from success in the field, not from a paycheque. (Or as Canadaland might say these days, a “check”.)

The last part of the second podcast is built on quotes of one disgrunt, someone we heard in the 2019 posdcasts. Here we see the blurring of the line between anecdote and evidence.

This disgrunt does not like Craig Kielburger. Not everyone does. He’s a larger-than-life person. He doesn’t swear. He doesn’t always connect. He is extremely earnest, in a way that is out of style. I have met both Kielburger brothers and I am not sure “Chris” and I met the same people. I see Craig as a child star who grew up to be halfway normal, and who has managed to keep his life on track despite an insane level of fame and huge work demands. He has been able to keep it together despite attempts by the Canadian media and Opposition parties to gratuitously humiliate him and destroy his life. Marc is more emotional, seems to be suffering more from the onslaught, and yet keeps going when many of us would have just said fuck it.

As for the disgrunt’s claim that employees had to be “culture carriers” for WE, it makes sense that employees of a cause actually believe in it. Belief in the cause has probably saved the Kielbros sanity. Employees were recruited to a movement, not just a job, and it’s clear that neither the disgrunts nor Canadaland can get their heads around that.

I have met some WE employees, and they were quite free to talk because they were no longer employed. They are not the kind of people to be governed by a non-disclosure agreement. And they seemed happy with their jobs. But that’s my anecdote. It’s not evidence, either.

Too bad Canadaland couldn’t find them.