Politics

WE Charity announces restructuring amid student grant controversy

WE Charity will undergo a major restructuring and corporate review after it became embroiled in controversy when the charity was tasked with administering a $900-million summer student grant program despite the close ties it has with the Trudeau family.

WE Day activities will be cancelled for 'foreseeable future' charity says

WE Charity 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 on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

WE Charity says it's launching a restructuring and corporate review to "refocus" its "mission" after it became embroiled in controversy over a contract to administer a $900-million federal summer student grant program.

"After much reflection and with great care and concern for all our stakeholders, we have made some important decisions to refocus on our mission, simplify our program offering, and undertake a series of governance and structural changes," said a statement released tonight.

WE Day activities will be cancelled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic "for the foreseeable future," says the statement. WE says it has hosted 137 such events over its history.

WE Charity says it is bringing in outside experts from the consulting firm Korn Ferry to review and streamline its structure and governance. The charity also says it will hire a risk and compliance officer who will report directly to the board of directors.

The board itself will be reviewed for diversity, inclusion, independence and governance issues, says the statement. A general workplace review by Avis Glaze and McCarthy Tétrault LLP will also be conducted. WE Charity has faced criticism from former employees who said that their complaints about racism were not taken seriously. 

The charity also said former lieutenant governor of Ontario David Onley will join the organization to help guide its structural changes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have been under fire since announcing the program and the contract with WE Charity late last month because of the charity's association with the Trudeau family. 

Trudeau and his mother, Margaret, have appeared at a number of WE Day events, while Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the group called "WE Well-being."

Initially, WE Charity said members of the Trudeau family were not paid for appearing at WE events, although Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had been reimbursed for travel expenses.

Late last week, it emerged that Trudeau's mother Margaret was paid approximately $250,000 for speaking at 28 events, while his brother Alexandre spoke at eight events and received about $32,000.

The deal between WE Charity and the federal government has since been dissolved but the controversy over Trudeau's role in the contract continues to haunt his government.

Watch: 'The mistake that we made was on me': Trudeau apologizes for WE Charity furor:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Monday that he made a mistake when he took part in the government's decision to use the WE charity to run a student volunteer program. 2:54

ME to WE Social Enterprises — another part of the WE organization that does seek profits from its activities — will also be looked at "with the goal of a clearer separation of the social enterprise from the charitable entities," says the media statement.

WE Charity also says it plans to "return to its roots" in international development work.

"Our global partner villages have already been significantly impacted by COVID-19, and we must not let them be further adversely affected by unrelated issues halfway around the globe," the statement says. 

WE Charity says that its school service-learning programs will continue across North America but will shift to a digital only format.

"We are fully committed to ensuring that teachers have the necessary e-support for this program through our school partners," the statement says. 

The charity has gone through an organizational upheaval over the past few months. The chairs of both the Canadian and U.S. boards of directors for the WE Charity resigned in the spring.

The vast majority of the other board members in the two countries have been replaced as well, and staff have been laid off in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for the resignations in WE's upper ranks remain unclear. 

 

With files from the CBC's Catherine Cullen

now