This afternoon we saw something we rarely see in Canadian politics; a blockbuster round of testimony before a House of Commons committee during the Summer months. In this case, it was the first of two this week, as we’ll also see the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff also testify before the House of Commons Finance Committee on Thursday. Add this event to the strangeness that has been 2020, yet that’s exactly what the WE Scandal has brought us.
Today we saw two distinct panels: the first with former WE Board Chair Michelle Douglas, who resigned back in the spring over what she told the Globe and Mail were ‘concerning developments’ at the organization. But the second panel brought forward Craig and Marc Kielburger, the Co-Founders of WE who find themselves at the centre of this entire scandal. Needless to say this is one of those days poligeeks like myself look forward to, as they are rare but also make watching the full five hours of testimony worthwhile.
The testimony from Ms. Douglas was pretty straight forward and was not unexpected. She spoke to her concerns that lead to her resigning and pushed back against public statements from WE itself, that said these board resignations were all planned. She told her side of the story, which included an odd exchange with one of the brothers that ended with that brother hanging up on them, and Ms. Douglas getting asked to resign the next day. According to her testimony, that request came weeks after she had been asked by them to stay on the board for another year. That doesn’t sound like great planning to me. But when it comes to the issue around the contribution agreement that WE was tapped to run, she couldn’t speak to that as she was gone before that happened.
While the testimony from Ms. Douglas was helpful and what you’d generally expect from a House of Commons committee, the testimony involving the Kielburger Brothers was something quite different. Honestly, it was something the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the Harper minority governments, and that’s not a compliment. Here are some of my take aways from their four hours before the Finance Committee:
- Listening to their opening statement, a few things became very clear, very fast about how they viewed the World and how they could approach their testimony. It was clear that:
- They really don’t get what was so wrong with this whole situation
- They seemed to think that they could B.S. their way through this appearance and
- They were trying to play the victim, trying to paint themselves as innocent actors wedged into a political firestorm through no actions of their own, which given everything that has been reported in the media, was something
- During their replies, they went to great pains to try to say that pretty much every piece of media reporting on this matter was false and only they spoke the real truth. Instead of going before this committee with contrition, they honestly came off as smarmy to my eye.
- The answers they gave regarding their motives in running this program really stuck out to me. They tried to suggest that they weren’t making any profit from this program, therefore they had no monetary motive to want to run this program. In my view that line totally missed the point. WE Charity was laying off hundreds of people, seeing good people go out the door, to the point that according to Ms. Douglas, she and her board members were quite concerned about these layoffs, how they were happening and the lack of transparency around them. What did running this program do to help with that? To run a massive program like that you need to hire people. You need staff to run them. Getting tens of millions to administer such a program would allow WE to hire people, keep the organization running and help keep the lights on. So would it have made WE rich? No. But would it help to keep it alive to get beyond this period? Yes. That’s not nothing and that’s not doing something out of the good of one’s heart.
- Through out their testimony, I was really taken aback by the Kielburgers attempts to completely ignore everything that had been said on the record about this case. They tried to do that time and again with the media, which ran very hollow. They attacked Charity Intelligence head on, saying they shared “false information” about WE, which was stunning. They also tried to do that with Ms. Douglas herself, completely ignoring everything that she said just an hour before them. They acted as if she didn’t even testify and that her words were never said. Heck one of the brothers even attacked Conservative MP James Cummings saying that by asking questions he was “repeating misinformation”, was “hurting a Canadian charity” and as a result was “hurting Canadian youth”. It was hard to ignore the alternate reality that they seemed to be occupying.
- During the whole session we saw the Kielburgers and Liberal MPs try to put out lines of questions about “Who else has been seen with WE?”, which totally missed the point. It was an attempt of whataboutism that was not only ugly, but completely glossed over what the problem in this story actually is. Is volunteering with WE a problem? No! Is going to WE events wrong? No! But is there an issue if you don’t recuse yourself from government funding decisions involving them? Is it wrong to not disclose such things like payments to family members from WE & step away from those decisions involving them? Yes! The Kielburgers pointed to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe being in hot water over his recent WE trip, as if being seen with or linked to WE was the scandal. Moe is getting in trouble because his government gave WE a large non-competitive contract to run some school programs in his province and there are questions if he recused himself or not. That’s the problem here, not the trip. Bill Morneau is in trouble because he signed off on a massive government program to be run by WE & didn’t disclose his trips or recuse himself. Same with the PM. The problem is not volunteering with WE, going to their events or being seen with them. The problem was not factoring all those things into the decisions they made (which is why other elected people who don’t get to make those decisions don’t have that extra worry). So no, this is not a partisan pile on or everyone out to “get” WE. This is about elected government officials not recognizing their conflicts of interest and then acting to deal with them appropriately. That is the problem here & to see the Kielburgers & Liberal MP’s try to turn this into “well they were seen with WE too” shows they don’t get it.
- At times the meeting got a bit chippy, which some may not have liked (which is a fair sentiment). But having prepped MPs for those kinds of meetings, the Opposition members were operating within the rules, trying to guide their time, as was their right. It looked uglier, but it was necessary as one exchange between NDP MP Charlie Angus and the brothers on the lobby registry showed. The fact that they never registered to lobby has always been a red flag in this story, especially when so many other charities who have received far less money from government have consistently been registered to lobby. Angus pointed out that was hard to believe that WE received so much government funding over the years without triggering the requirements to register. For the record, you need to register as a lobbyist if anyone in your organization spends 20% of their time in a given period doing lobbying activities and trying to get funding. The Kielburgers tried to say they didn’t need to register because they received so little money from the government, which is legally incorrect. It’s not about the money to receive, but the time you spent trying to get the money. If you get $40 million or zero doesn’t matter; what matters is how much time was spent trying to get it. 20% is 7.5 hours of work in a week. Are we to believe that WE staff spent less time than that, yet got more money than most charities? Charlie was onto something there & the brothers needed to be pushed on that.
- At one point in the testimony, the Kielburgers tried to deflect questions about if members of the Prime Ministers family should have been paid to appear at WE events with a tactic that really showed how disconnected their testimony was. When asked about the qualifications of Margaret Trudeau to testify, they said that she had great personal experience, but she was more than being the mother of the Prime Minister. They made a similar argument about Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, saying that she was more than the wife of the Prime Minister and had qualifications of her own. It’s true that both of them and other family members of the Prime Minister do have qualifications, either through life experience or professional, that have some value. But here is the thing, the fact that someone is qualified in their own right does not undo the fact that they are family members of office holders and absolve them of any relevant conflict of interest rules, ethics rules or alike. The Kielburgers acted as if somehow by pointing to these relations that somehow people were diminishing these people as simply a relation of the PM, that it was insulting and somehow that should excuse what’s been exposed in the media so far and what’s being investigated by the Ethics Commissioner. That again is a prime example of the alternate reality that these witnesses tried to live in during this testimony and showed how they seriously don’t get it. Just because you have valuable experience in a field and are qualified to speak to something in your own right doesn’t exempt you from those ethical rules. Sorry, they just don’t, and you don’t get to get around that. Does it suck for those family members? Sure, but that’s part of the decision a family makes by getting into political life and I’d hope that if any family in this country understood that it would be the Trudeau family above all.
All in all, I come away from this meeting with my mind blown and not by surprise. It’s blown because of how true to form some of the witnesses stayed to form and past behaviours. I’m not surprised to see the Kielburgers try to play the victim and give the impression that everyone is out to get them. The media, opposition parties, former board chairs, Charity Intelligence; they are all making things up, being “incorrect” and for some unknown reason are just out to get them. None of that surprised me to hear them say, because they’ve said similar things before in press releases, statements, and other public forums.
The Kielburgers acted like they were doing some kind of massive service to the country, like they were conscripted by government to do greater things. They acted like the Government of Canada never had a body or organization that’s entire role was to deliver services & take on the liabilities for those programs. To hear their testimony you’d think that no such thing ever existed & Canada would be totally up the creek without WE. It’s a kind of tale that may make for a great, shmaltzy biopic, but it’s far from reality.
What surprised me was that they actually went before a House of Commons committee for four hours and thought that would be a good idea. I’m surprised that they actually did it instead of going before that committee, admitting how this all looks, how there are legitimate questions here and that Canadians deserve answers. Instead we got… well…. that. I couldn’t picture a more disconnected & out of touch piece of testimony that I’ve seen in ages and if that was their attempt at damage control, they failed as they flailed. Today may not have been the cleanest most polite Parliamentary meeting that we’ve ever seen, but it told us a lot about this whole scandal. We’ll see how today plays into Thursdays testimony but for the time being this testimony surely didn’t put this to bed. If anything, it set the bed on fire and brought out more questions that will need answering.