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Talking the Prime Ministers WE Testimony with Kristy Cameron

Yesterday I joined Kristy Cameron on CFRA’s “Ottawa Now” along with Lindsay Maskell & Jason Lietaer on the “Political Heat” panel. We talked about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s testimony before the House of Commons Finance Committee on the WE Scandal, the new questions his testimony raised, the lack of actions offered to ensure this doesn’t happen again and where this goes from here. You can listen to the audio below starting at the beginning.

A Thursday with Justin

Tuesday we saw a big day in Ottawa when the Co-Founders of WE, the Kielburger brothers, testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. It was testimony the likes of which we hadn’t seen in this town in a while and that really didn’t do them, nor the government, any favours. It was a performance that has many people talking for the past couple of days since.

But that appearance was but a mere hors d’oeuvre for the main course that came this afternoon. Today we saw an even rarer sight; a sitting Prime Minister testifying before a House of Commons committee. That was then followed by testimony from his Chief of Staff, for a long afternoon into the evening of political viewing. And heck, if the NHL and NBA are playing games on the last week of July thanks to COVID-19, I guess it figures we’d see the kind of political drama we’d usually see in the winter here in the middle of the summer too. It was quite the meeting and similar to what I did with the Kielburgers testimony on Tuesday, here are my observations and take aways from what we saw:

  • My main impression from the Prime Minister’s opening statement could be summed up thusly: the details he said he knew are ones that he could have told us months & the details he said he didn’t know are ones he should have answers to going into this testimony. That odd dynamic left me with far more questions than answers coming out of the meeting. It makes me wonder why he didn’t tell us the things he said he knew way back when this all started over a month ago, or even back when he apologized weeks ago? It makes me wonder why you would keep that to yourself because assuming it’s all true, it would help explain some things. Yet at the same time, while he had those answers down pat, he didn’t have simple answers to key details, to questions he had to know were coming. It made him look unprepared at best, or at worst, evasive.
  • Under the Prime Ministers own timeline, he said that he learned about this program on May 8th when he learned it was coming to Cabinet for approval. He said that once he learned about the recommendation of WE, he says he recognized the potential issues around how it could be perceived, and he says that he sent it back for more scrutiny. In saying that, the PM admitted what everyone else has seen, that there was a problem here. He also implied that while he his dedicated to youth and has made a career of working this youth, he hadn’t heard anything about this until May 8th and had “no intervention” with it at all. For context, he announced the  Canada Student Service Grant on April 22nd, which was a big announcement for him at that time. I understand that a Prime Minister is very busy and may not know every in and out of everything all the time, but is he expecting us to believe that a no point between April 22nd and May 8th did he ask about this grant or it’s progress? Are we being asked to believe that the PM who made his career being all about the youth and has told us the youth are his passion wasn’t the least bit curious about what was going on with this massive investment for youth?
  • Also during his testimony the Prime Minister had moments of amazing circular logic that was making me dizzy trying to keep up, all while undercutting his own version of events. For example, while the PM said that he recognized the potential issues that could come with WE, so much so that he puts the brakes on it for a bit, yet then said that he had regretted asking questions to getting to the bottom of those issues. So he says he saw a problem, asked questions because he recognized a problem, but then suggests that he regrets that and in the process implies that he should have buried his head in the sand instead, all so that WE could have continued with that program? Seriously, in one breath you had the PM saying “we did our due diligence and we dealt with problems when we saw them” and in the next one he was saying “I shouldn’t have done that due diligence because it lead to WE not doing the program”. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t get to say you’re ethical and diligent while at the same time saying “damn, I should have ignored the ethics and just kept my eyes closed”. Yet that’s what the PM tried to do.
  • The Prime Minister said some things specific to the Canada Student Service Grant itself which lead me to more questions about his story about what he knew. In regard to the grant, he said that it will not go forward now because “only WE could run it”, a position that has been laughable from the very start. But that made me think about the PMs announcement on April 22nd and what he says he didn’t know then. Are we to believe that this Prime Minister, who is so dedicated to youth as he tells us, would have made such a big deal about such a large amount of funding for youth if he knew that the ability to deliver it was going to be so impossible? Nowhere in the announcement of that funding does it say “funding conditional on the ability to find someone able to provide the funding”. You would never say that in an announcement because governments don’t create programs out of the blue that are so narrow that you would end up in such a position. Working under that assumption, and given the importance of this program to the Prime Minister, politically and personally, you’d think he would be moving heaven and earth to ensure that this program was run, period, regardless who ran it. You’d think they would change program details, funding conditions and all of that to ensure that it got done because, as he has told us, it’s all supposed to be about the youth, right? Yet instead of doing all that, the PM just told everyone today that it’s “WE or Bust” when it comes to this funding and that without WE, the kids are out of luck. Again, are we to believe that back on April 22nd this Prime Minister made a huge funding announcement whose delivery was completely contingent of the ability of a third party to deliver, and didn’t know more than the nothing he says he knew about it?
  • In response to a question from Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the PM managed to bring more doubt onto the sincerity of his testimony. When Barrett asked Trudeau if he felt if WE should be running this program today, the PM dodged the question saying that “we’ll never know”, which jumped out at me. Remember the PM had just finished telling everyone earlier that he regretted asking questions of this agreement that lead us to the point where we are now, where the PM has decided to not go ahead with the program because WE won’t deliver it. With that being the case, you’d think that the PM would still have faith in WE and their ability to run this because heck, he just said that he regretted “asking questions” that he tries to suggest set the wheels in motion to end up where we are now. You’d think that if he were lamenting that fact that meant he felt that WE should still be the one and only ones to run this grant. Yet he refused to say so, which was another flip. So in the span of a half hour the PM told Canadians that he regrets having spoken up on WE, said this grant won’t go ahead because WE won’t run it, yet refused to say if he still felt WE was the right organization to deliver it. To put it politely, that’s all very contradictory
  • In response to a question from Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin regarding conflicts of interest, the PM gave an answer that was not only disconnected from the fact, but you could argue was counter to what the PM himself said in his own apology weeks before. He told the committee that he wasn’t in an actual conflict regarding WE when he approved the grant at cabinet. No he said there was just a “perception” of a conflict there, a statement that knocked my head back a bit. Not to be too snarky about this, but after being found ethically wanting by the Ethics Commissioner twice already, this Prime Minister might not be the best judge of what is or isn’t a conflict of interest. Again, harkening back to the comment I made at the start, if that’s what he truly felt was the case, why didn’t he say it way back when he gave his apology for not recusing himself? It just doesn’t add up.
  • For the final round of testimony from Chief of Staff Katie Telford, from what I watched I only saw a few things of note that she brought forward that couldn’t have been answered by a Minister or the PM, that being the piece around questionable timelines. When you look at the timeline, of the PM stalling the cabinet approval on May 8th but WE started incurring expenses on May 5th, the start date on the contribution agreement. It’s not a good look and Telford didn’t have a good reply to that. That also undercut the PM pointing to pushing back the ultimate approval of this contribution agreement to May 22nd. Once WE started spending money on the program “in good faith” as they put it, are we to believe that this wasn’t going to be ultimately approved on May 8th, May 22nd or whenever it got to cabinet? That’s a serious hole in the governments case, one that they really didn’t do a good job of addressing.
  • Beyond that important piece of testimony, I don’t think that Telford should have been called before the committee. I understand why she was called to testify but if you listened to that testimony you would be left to ask “why was she called at all?” When it comes to having called her to testify to this, I believe this is a good case of where the opposition overplayed its hand. You only get to pull the “call the senior staff to testify card” so many times, so you need to use it judiciously. I can’t knock the thought of calling her to testify to a scandal like this, but unless you’ve got real big questions to ask that their elected bosses couldn’t speak to, it’s a waste of time. And I would call the hour or so of that testimony today a suboptimal use of committee time.

My biggest take away from this meeting today comes back to two points; the lax approach by the Prime Minister to his testimony and that he came offering no solutions. I was really struck at how unstructured and relatively unprepared he seemed testifying today. Not having simple details and answers to questions that you knew were coming didn’t help his case and I would argue undercut his attempts to explain this all away. It also hurt his attempts to seem sincere at probably the worst time, the moment when he needed the most to be sincere.

The sincerity of his testimony and his apologies are also undercut by the lack of something very important to any sense of closure in this story: actions to correct things. We’ve seen no resignations or reassignments of minister or staff responsible for this. We’ve seen no punishment laid out for what happened here. We haven’t seen any changes in policies or procedures, no changes to ethics legislation or new legislation to address such issues. We haven’t even seen a hint of any such thing and yet today coming before that committee offered the PM a chance to announce any, some or all of those things.

Today would have been the perfect opportunity for a Prime Minister who was truly sincere in his apologies and wanting to do better to come before Canadians with actual actions he was going to take. He could have shown that not only was he sorry for his mistakes, but that he had learned from those mistakes and shown Canadians how they were going to do better. But like with the past scandals that ended up before the Ethics Commissioner, this Prime Minister has shown that while he will apologize until the organically fed cows come home, he won’t actually act to do better. Actions speak louder than words, especially when we have been a steady diet of nothing but sweet apologies. That complete lack of any action, any plan, or any offers to take actions to do better probably does the most damage to the Prime Ministers attempts to “sorry” this away. And without any actions this scandal will continue. Where it goes from here, we’ll see but with the lack of actions or closure offered by Mr. Trudeau today, I feel safe in saying it will continue none the less.

Talking the WE Scandal & the Kielburgers Testimony with Rob Snow

Yesterday I joined Rob Snow on 1310 News “The Rob Snow Show” along with Katlyn Harrison. We talked about the latest on the WE Scandal, Tuesdays testimony by the Kielburgers before the House of Commons Finance Committee, how their testimony didn’t help their cause nor that of the government, the serious questions the testimony raised and more. You can listen to the audio by clicking below, starting at the 23:00 minute mark.

WE’s Cribs Notes

Yesterday was quite a day and much of the Canadian political landscape is buzzing about the testimony the Kielburger Brothers gave to the House of Commons Finance Committee, just not for the reasons why I think the brothers were hoping. I remain surprised that they went before that committee and decided to approach it that way. They were smarmy, disconnected and really didn’t do themselves any favours. They tried to paint Opposition MPs as somehow trying to kill a Canadian charity and being against Canadian youth, which went over about as well as you could expect.

But coming out of their four hours of testimony I’ll admit something has stuck in the back of my mind that’s gnawing at me. As NDP MP Charlie Angus said yesterday, these brothers many years ago started doing great work and did good things, yet something seemed to have changed over time. The smug and highly privileged way that they presented themselves at the committee yesterday showed us that “after” look, but it made me wonder: how did they get to this point? How did they go from being the teens looking to do good to that performance we saw yesterday?

That also stayed in my mind as I read through my Twitter feed over since that testimony and it’s been interesting to see what’s come up, which spoke to that question but also for me raised questions about how there were “the only ones” who could provide this important government program. Then today someone on Twitter who I follow shared the following Tweet, which grabbed my attention:

Wait, dude went on Cribs? Seriously? Obviously, this set me on a search for video of that appearance and maybe it would give us some clues to that question lingering in my mind. And after a bit of work, I came up with this and folks, it really speaks for itself:

MTV Cribs: Craig Kielburger Epsiode from Haddon Strategy on Vimeo.

Ummm, wow, that was something. That now makes two WE videos we’ve seen in this story that have raised some questions, although these ones are more around judgement in my mind than anything else. And before I start, I can picture a scenario where taking Cribs to a charity project could be a cool publicity move that could do some good for the work they do. But that, well that just didn’t do it.

As I said on CFRA on Monday afternoon, I personally have issues with the concept of voluntourism that involves foisting one selves onto a community and not doing what the community wants or needs. Those kinds of activities strike me as much more about those doing the work and making them happy, and not about the actual needs of the communities themselves. A good piece in the Huffington Post this month from a former WE volunteer really shone a good light on the problems with this concept, pointing to some activities that she did on her first trip as “busy work” and described other activities as “clearly more for our own experience than it was for the benefit of local stakeholders.” WE is not alone in having this issue in international development, but they are the focus right now.

How does that fit into what we saw above? Well folks look at what you saw in that video. Look at the Kielburgers home that he showed us, the nice finishes, the big living room, the beautiful building itself. Also look at the attitude and body language that Mr. Kielburger showed us in that video; he was seriously stunting for the MTV cameras. There was no humility in there to be seen. He was showing off and I couldn’t get the feeling that this was more about him. It wasn’t about their works, their projects, or the people on the ground that they say they are there to help. That was him showing off, with a privileged smirk that just really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s just as odd for a charity helping the poor to go on MTV to show off their master bathroom and palatial living room while they are surrounded by poverty. If anything, it felt like watching a televangelist showing off his 15-bedroom ranch or doing a selfie from his brand-new Gulfstream jet. Not only does it look bad, it says far more about where your head is at and can easily make people question what your real priorities are. And that’s before you think about what it says about how they use the money they raise from everyday people.

In that video he was the walking, talking personification of everything that’s wrong with voluntourism as we see it being done in many cases. It’s all about making privileged folks here at home feel good. Those who can give or raise thousands of dollars to go abroad to move bricks from one pile to another while gawking at the poverty around them, all to make them feel like they’ve made a difference. It’s about making those people feel good about “giving back” in probably one of the most expensive and inefficient ways humanly possible.

That’s not a productive approach in my view and it’s centered in a selfish approach that’s more about “me” than “we”, yet that is exactly what we saw before the House committee yesterday. We saw these brothers wrapping themselves in that work, the youth and tried to paint those daring to question them as uncaring boors who wanted to deny those in need the privilege of their assistance, as if they were the only ones who could provide it. It’s a smug arrogance that shone through, just as it did in that goofy Cribs appearance. Again it wasn’t about trying to do what was best for those in need, it was all about self-gratification.

So if that video gives us any clue into whatever happened over the past 25 years or so, it looks like it happened further back. This is not a recent development as what we saw from that 2011 video was eerily similar to what we saw yesterday. What bothers me most about all of this is that I’m a big believer in volunteering and giving back. I’m a big believer in working with communities, helping them but above all following their lead and not imposing things on them. I believe that where WE started did come from a good place with a well-meaning goal, something that I think we should want more people to aspire to.

Yet something changed along the way and it appears that this became more about them and less about the people they were there to serve. Because if they were really all about the work and helping people, yesterday they would have gone into that committee with humility and put their own personal pride aside. They would have sacrificed their own ambitions and feelings in order to do better and protect whatever good work they are doing. Instead they aimed to make it all personal. They tried to use those who they serve as a shield to protect themselves rather than to do the truly selfless thing, which would have been to step out front and shield those they serve. They showed their thoughts to be all about them, just as we saw on Cribs. If they wanted us to believe that their motives were not about self-preservation and self-interest, that was a very odd way of trying to do it.

A Different Kind of WE Day

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.