Politics·Analysis

The Kielburgers struggle to salvage their brand

Marc and Craig Kielburger appeared before a Commons committee to answer questions about the WE Charity controversy. Their answers don't seem to have moved the dial for the Liberals, the opposition parties or for the Kielburgers' own attempt to save their brand from the damage done by the student grant controversy.

Once they rubbed shoulders with the international A-list — now they're getting grilled by MPs

Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger speak during "We Day" in Toronto on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)

In March, at their last WE Day event before the pandemic made such gatherings inadvisable, Marc and Craig Kielburger shared a stage at Wembley Arena in London, England with the actor Idris Elba, F1 race car driver Lewis Hamilton, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and singer Leona Lewis.

Less than four months later, the brothers found themselves sharing a virtual stage with the assembled members of the House of Commons standing committee on finance.

It was a WE Day of another kind — the boundless enthusiasm of celebrities replaced by the impatience and consternation of opposition MPs, the dulcet tones of pop stars replaced by the Prince Edward Island twang of Liberal committee chair Wayne Easter.

Speaking with practiced enthusiasm and polish, the Kielburgers surely hoped to at least bandage the wounds their brand has suffered over the past month.

But the four-hour hearing on Tuesday wasn't really about them — at least not primarily. For all their status, and for all the questions about what they've built up to now, their interrogators were still more interested in what the brothers might be able to say about one of the stars they've shared a stage with — Justin Trudeau.

A scandal in three parts

There are effectively three subplots that combine to form the WE affair. There is the question of whether WE is a credible and ethical organization. There is the question of whether federal officials should have done more due diligence before deciding to partner with the charity.

And then there is the question of whether Trudeau or anyone else in his government did anything inappropriate in connection with the decision to use WE to deliver a student volunteer grant.

For obvious reasons, that last one carries the most political weight.

Trudeau was not alone in his willingness to associate with the Kielburgers and their cause. During their prepared remarks on Tuesday, the Kielburgers made sure to note that former Alberta premier Rachel Notley, a New Democrat, had spoken at a WE Day event and Laureen Harper, wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, had hosted a reception for them at 24 Sussex in 2013.

Co-founders Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa, Tuesday November 10, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But the current prime minister was a particularly enthusiastic participant in WE events, going back to 2007. His family was involved too — up to and including payments to his mother and brother for their appearances at WE events.

When WE and the federal government walked away from the original plan to deliver a student service program, the focus of most concern seemed to be WE's general practices and how it planned to deliver the new grant. For all their prominence and high-profile supporters, WE had its skeptics and detractors long before the current imbroglio.

The Kielburgers are struggling to overcome the questions that came to the fore when they became a partner of the federal government and the brothers surely hoped that their appearance before the finance committee would help shore up their battered foundation.

'We would never have picked up the phone ...'

"When Employment and Social Development Canada asked us to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, we regret that we didn't recognize how this decision would be perceived," Craig Kielburger said in his opening statement. "We would have never picked up the phone when the civil service called …  if we had known the consequences, that young people would not get the help they need now and the 25 years of WE Charity programs helping millions of youth would be in jeopardy."

(The Kielburgers were formally under oath, but the expression of regret is no doubt sincere.)

There were many questions about whether WE stood to profit from its agreement with the government and how it dealt with the legal liability of taking on the program. But the members of the finance committee were most concerned about Justin Trudeau's family and government and how they interacted with WE.

Watch | 'There are days when we wish we hadn't answered the phone ...'

Craig and Marc Kielburger appeared before the Commons finance committee Tuesday. 0:38

The first question from Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic, concerned Marc Kielburger's claim, subsequently retracted, that someone in the Prime Minister's Office had called to invite WE to run the student grant program. The elder Kielburger said that he had exaggerated — that no one from the PMO had ever called.

Had the prime minister invited WE to participate in Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations as, according to Poilievre, the Kielburgers had suggested in 2017? No, apparently he had not.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill as the country marks its 150th anniversary in Ottawa July 1, 2017. (REUTERS)

What about payments directed to Trudeau's wife, mother or brother? The Kielburgers said that WE covered the expenses for any travel they did in attending WE Day events.

What about speaking fees? And why weren't other speakers compensated for appearing at WE Day events? The Kielburgers said that fees were only paid to those individuals who appeared at ancillary events and receptions.

The travels and travails of Finance Minister Bill Morneau were the Conservatives' second point of focus. For a moment, it seemed that Conservative MP Michael Cooper might have found something new as he pushed the Kielburgers to state whether Morneau and his family had used a private plane to reach the location of a WE property they were visiting — something that is expressly prohibited under the Conflict of Interest Act.

But the Kielburgers suggested the Morneau family may have reached the site via a motorized canoe — and the Conflict of Interest Act is silent on the status of such watercraft.

Opposition MPs did at least underline one interesting fact: that Margaret Trudeau — former wife of Pierre Trudeau, mother of Justin Trudeau and now a prominent advocate for mental health — had not been paid by WE for any events before 2015.

That detail might not prove anything, but it might be used to raise further questions.

Watch | Kielburgers defend WE Charity's role in student grant controversy:

WE Charity founders Marc and Craig Kielburger defended the charity’s finances, intentions and their relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family during four hours of questioning about the student grant controversy. 3:56

The prime minister, while insisting that WE was recommended by public servants, already has acknowledged that he should have recused himself from the cabinet decision on the student grant.

His best-case scenario is that he isn't found to have done anything more wrong than that — that his government is guilty only of hastily entering into an agreement it shouldn't have agreed to, with the result being a loss of numerous volunteer opportunities, unnecessary damage to the finance minister's image and another hit to the government's credibility.

Nothing said on Tuesday seemed to make Trudeau's situation any worse. But he still faces his own moment on the finance committee's stage on Thursday.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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