White Savio(u)rs and Shame Wizards

Last October I wrote a piece called ““The Attempted Murder of the Kielburgers”. Now, ten months later, Canadaland has a new-five part podcast called “The White Saviors”, listed under True Crime in the Apple podcast catalogue. The Kielbros may still be alive, but if this is an attempt to portray criminality, then I would argue they’ve been framed.

I was one of the Canadians who saw the promo news release for the new series and noticed  “Saviors” is spelled without the Canadian “u” (“Saviours”). It appears  Canadaland is taking its dead-dog-flogging act to the American market for an audience that, unlike Canada’s, hasn’t seen this non-story beaten to death.

It’s tempting to make this about Jesse Brown. He is the owner, publisher, editor and face of Canadaland. He took the  rare step of testifying about his WE Charity coverage to the House of Commons Ethics Committee, where Pierre Poilievre and Charlie Angus were working to crush the charity as a way to draw political blood from the Liberal government. But I believe Jesse Brown believes he is doing some public good. Brown and I used to be friends. I was an early Canadaland supporter. I believe he acts in good faith. But I have looked over the same data that Brown has, and I believe his take on WE Charity is wrong.

As an early donor — giving Canadaland $45 US a month while supporting my wife through a professional program, and with three kids at home — I hoped it would do good journalism. I’m disappointed. Canadaland has been flogging its WE Charity campaign and doing very boring work when it has the resources and possibly the talent to do stories like The Walrus’s jaw-dropping investigation of the foreign student racket in Canada that exploits hundreds of thousands of young people from the developing world.

Canada is a rich country. We get by  even if we think our government is wrong on an issue or our media makes a mistake. But in Kenya, it’s different. The destruction of WE Charity for no good reason means schools and water projects don’t get built, and Kenyans working on development projects in their own country see their money cut off, just as Covid ravages the continent.

Carolyn Moraa is one of those development workers. She’s angry, and she’s written a blog post that everyone with an opinion on WE Charity should read.

The focus of the new Canadland podcast series seems to be money, with the thesis that the Kielburger family made a lot of money from the charity. The first podcast repeats the libel published in Saturday Night magazine when Craig Kielburger was a boy that money raised for his Free the Children campaign was held on a family bank account until Free the Children finally got charitable status from the federal government. The insinuation was that the family was benefiting from Free the Children’s fundraising. Saturday Night paid $316,000 to settle that lawsuit. That was a huge sum in a Canadian defamation case at that time.

But the claim is repeated, and the original reporter, who now works for the sketchy New York Post, is portrayed as a victim.

In this series of podcasts, the villains appear to be Craig and Marc Kielburger’s elderly parents, Theresa and Fred. Now in their 80s, they had careers as teachers. They started buying Toronto real estate — houses — in the 1970s, spent their summers working on them, and then flipped them, Anyone who follows the Toronto real estate market can do the math and see that they made a good investing-hobby choice.

On the weekend, I asked Canadaland  about Nigerian-Canadian Olusola Adeogun, who narrates the podcast. Did he have anything to do with the reporting? I am still waiting to hear back.  WE Charity says they don’t know Adeogun. He’s never visited any of WE’s project sites nor interviewed anyone that works at WE Charity. I just wonder why he is there.

The problem for Canadaland is that all of the claims and accusations in its five years of on again-off again campaigning/reporting on WE Charity and the Kielbros have been thoroughly and completely refuted by experts and by people on the scene. Speculation by Canadaland that the Kenyan government would throw WE Charity out of Kenya turned out to be wrong. Claims that police were investigating the charity with a view to laying charges were also wrong. So were claims that Prime Minister Trudeau had a conflict of interest. None was found. And that the organization did illegal lobbying. That went nowhere, too.

WE is scaling down its operation in Canada. It seems Canadaland is quite enraged that WE and the Kielburgers arer not utterly destroyed. You can see the anger and disappointment in this piece.

When Canadaland targeted WE in 2019 — in yet another election year — WE Charity opened the kimono to a retired justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal, Justice Stephen Goudge, and to the former Deputy Solicitor General of Ontario, Peter Froese. Hic company, Froese Forensics, examined all the finances related to WE Charity, ME to WE, and the Kielburger family (including Marc, Craig, and their parents) and found nothing out of line or exceptional about the organization’s finances. Nor did they find malfeasance by any member of the Kielburger family Their report stated “We found no evidence of improper financial benefits to the Kielburgers from WE Charity, M2WSE (ME to WE Social Enterprises) or any WE Canada entity.”

I think, unless Canadaland has solid figures and real proof, this assessment should stand.

There are over 50 stories/podcasts on the Canadaland site about WE, and none of them come close to undermining that expert analysis.

The new series says the Kielburger family  has a net worth of $30 million (a number Canadaland released in a press release). It will be interesting to see how Canadaland came up with this number, and whether it means anything. Even if it’s solid — and I have seen no evidence that it is — I can see that kind of profit being made in the Toronto real estate market by determined investors working for fifty years,

And, frankly, if Canadaland is going to take on the 80-odd year-old parents of Marc and Craig Kielburger, I hope it, and listeners, set a very high bar for proof of wrongdoing. These are people who worked hard, did well, and would be ordinary elderly private citizens if their sons hadn’t built one of the most successful charities in the world. WE Charity has claimed, with data to back them up, that Fred and Theresa Kielburger have donated their time and use of their property to the charity at a substantial cost in both money and time.

The parent bought two small buildings on Carleton St. which they provided the charity rent-free (only asking to have property taxes and maintenance fees covered)  for over a decade, making an estimated in-kind donation of $5.3 M. This estimate came from Sotheby’s Realty. The parents even declined a tax receipt to avoid the appearance of an undue benefit. As for Craig and Marc, they never received a salary from WE Charity and only started taking one when ME to WE was formed. Justice Goudge wrote: “Based on the above, I conclude that Marc and Craig Kielburgers’ global salaries from all WE entities were $125,173.02 for 2018, and $113,461.54 for 2017, respectively.”

Canadaland also claims WE Charity set up companies to reduce the Kielburgers’ person liability. In fact, all companies, including Canadaland, are set up to reduce personal liability. That’s with “Ltd.” means. Or “Limited Liability Partnership (LLP)”. What’s more important is an organization’s transparency. Does it publish detailed annual reports? Does it make accurate filings to regulators?

This is especially important in an organization like WE Charity. It has two arms: a fundraising arm that donates to a charity arm. This is termed a social enterprise charity.

They are not new. In the early years of the last century, John Ross Robertson left the Toronto Telegram to a trust that used the profits from the newspaper to build and operate Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Joseph Atkinson wanted to do the same thing with the Toronto Star in the 1940s — the beneficiaries being a wide range of social justice charities — but the Ontario Tory government killed the plan for political reasons.

From what I have seen — and WE Charity gave me binders full of financials and material about its operations — WE has only two entities: WE Charity and ME to WE Social Enterprise. It has sub-entities for its various countries. 

ME to WE is a social enterprise that has given 100% of its profits every year to the charity or reinvested to grow the social enterprise. This is a good thing. That’s why WE Charity fundraisers aren’t on street corners pestering people  and WE Charity ads aren’t on TV. WE doesn’t ask you and me for money. It raises its own, mostly through retail sales, corporate sponsorship.  ME to WE does this through programs like Fairtrade chocolate, coffee, and hand-made artisan programs helping women. WE’s critics have laid a smokescreen over that fact, and just keep saying its operation is too complicated for politicians and journalists to understand. 

Auditors confirm that over the past five years that ME to WE Social Enterprise has given, on average, over 90% of its profits to WE Charity. Over the years, ME to WE Social Enterprise has donated in excess of $20 million in cash and cost-offsetting in-kind services. Auditors also confirmed that no dividends have ever been paid by ME to WE Social Enterprise. Meaning, since founding, 100% profit have either been donated to WE or reinvested into ME to WE Social Enterprise.

When ME to WE was started (in 1999) a charity based in Ontario couldn’t own a business. The Kielburgers set it up this way because it was the only legal way to do so at the time. (This is actually the result of the legislation passed by the Leslie Frost government to thwart the will of Joe Atkinson of The Star. Journalists don’t know their own history.)

Michelle Douglas, the former Chair of the Board for over a decade, has never said there was anything improper about the organizations finances. She left WE Charity upset about the pandemic layoffs. This is a person who was testified before parliament and was grilled by opposition MPs including Charlie Angus and Pierre Poilievre. She was not happy with the Kielburgers, who she thought acted precipitously to mothball most of the Canadian operation – WEE Day organizing, for example — when Covid hit. What did she tell the parliamentary committee?

“I’d like to affirm my belief in the very good work done by WE Charity. I’ve always believed in the organization’s empowerment of young people to change our world. I’ve always believed in WE Charity’s international development work and life-changing impacts. I’ve always been grateful for the incredible commitment of the organization’s supporters and volunteers. Finally, I’ve always been inspired by the amazing and selfless professionals, the employees, who work so hard to implement the mission of WE. Those people have my respect and deep thanks.”

Later in her testimony, MP Peter Fragistakokas asked Douglas, “Obviously, 15 years is a very long time with the organization. During that time, did you find or see any irregularities, financial or otherwise, that were of concern to you, or have any other sort of lingering questions about WE Charity?

Douglas responded, “I never saw anything about the integrity of the organization that caused me deep concern.”

I will analyze these podcasts as they come out. I’ll also be writing about the coverage of the election. Then, when the vote’s over, I’ll decide whether to put much more effort into this blog.