The Current

WE Charity worker says organization sacrificed ethical integrity to serve as vessel for 'corporate interests'

A WE Charity worker says he and his team were encouraged to prioritize the interests of corporations whose operations did not fit into the organization’s ethical structure over that of its charitable work. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother was paid $250,000 for speaking at 28 WE Charity events

A unnamed former WE Charity worker says the organization is more interested in 'serving as a vessel for corporate and individual interests' than retaining its ethical integrity. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)

Read story transcript

A WE Charity worker says he and his team were encouraged to prioritize the interests of corporations whose operations did not fit into the organization's ethical structure over that of its charitable work. 

The employee, who has been granted confidentiality by CBC because of a non-disclosure agreement, told The Current guest host Mark Kelley that following his hiring, he "almost immediately" had concerns around the way WE conducted the corporate side of its business. 

"The first [concern] was about who we were partnering with and what was in our pipeline of potential corporate partners," he said Tuesday. "The second was the contents of what we were actually proposing."

On July 9, Canadaland and CBC News reported that Prime Minister Justin 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.

As a result of those revelations and others, the prime minister is now the subject of an investigation by Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, as is Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Both the House of Commons finance and ethics committees are conducting separate inquiries. 

WATCH | The significance of Trudeau testifying about WE Charity controversy:

The significance of Trudeau testifying about WE Charity controversy

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
Justin Trudeau will be the first prime minister since 2006 to appear before a House committee when he testifies about his government's decision to partner with WE Charity for a summer grant program. And Trudeau’s appearance comes while his popularity takes a hit because of the controversy.

Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, will appear before the finance committee on Thursday. WE founders Craig and Marc Kielburger will also appear before a House committee on Tuesday to answer questions about the partnership they'd struck with the Liberal government to administer a $900-million student grant program through the We Charity Foundation.

Documents shared with the Commons finance committee on Monday show only up to $500 million could have paid out in the form of grants to students, while $43.53 million would have been allocated to the WE Charity Foundation for administering the program.

Conflicting ethical standards 

Corporate partnerships that the employee said conflicted with the ethical standards of WE included Boeing, which manufactures weapons and aircraft, Dow Chemical and Canadian mining companies like PotashCorp. 

"It also seemed as if the pipeline of companies that we were pitching to had either environmental, supply chain or labour issues," the WE Charity worker told The Current. "So there were numerous concerns that we raised as a team about the reputation of the companies that we were partnering with or attempting to partner with.

WE Charity has come under investigation after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother was paid $250,000 for speaking at 28 events. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

"We had flagged [that] this might actually end up being a reputational risk to WE Charity over time," he said. 

In a statement, WE Charity said it "has a long-standing policy to carefully review potential corporate funders" and "engaging select corporate partners to support programming, bring attention to causes, and mobilize the community is critical" to the efficacy of its work.

"WE only partners with companies who use their marketing dollars and philanthropy to create positive social outcomes by supporting programs that help youth become leaders and agents of change," the statement said.

The unnamed employee said that when his team attempted to do due diligence or check with operational teams on the quality of corporate partners, they were pressured "in no uncertain terms," not to look into it and to "just continue with developing an attractive proposal." 

He said these issues were raised to the Kielburgers, but they were "shut down" by both the brothers and WE's board of directors.

WATCH | Bill Morneau says he paid back WE Charity expenses:

Bill Morneau says he paid back WE Charity expenses

2 years ago
Duration 2:55
'Today I wrote a cheque in payment of $41,366. I expected and always had intended to pay the full cost of these trips.'

"I started to see WE Charity as being less the organization that I thought it was and much more an organization serving as a vessel for corporate and individual interests," the employee said. 

Alarm bells had been ringing for some time, but the employee says he felt compelled to tell his story now because it was "certainly in the public interest" to know more detail about the charity's inner workings. 

"I also think it's of value to speak up because this controversy has raised a lot of questions about the Canadian charitable sector itself," he said. "I hope that giving some of these details will help to clarify that there are aspects of this controversy that are specific to WE Charity and this shouldn't be weaponized to discredit other charities in the sector." 

Calls for criminal investigation 

Meanwhile, Duff Conacher, co-ordinator for government watchdog Democracy Watch, says the current ethics probes into the WE Charity controversy don't go far enough. He's calling for a criminal investigation.

He said that both Trudeau's and Morneau's conduct violates the RCMP's breach of trust by a public officer, which falls under Section 122 of the Criminal Code. 

"And there are five factors, too, that have to be proven to prove a breach of trust. And the first four are already proven," he told Kelley.

"Both Prime Minister Trudeau and Finance Minister Morneau are public officials. They were acting in an official capacity in participating in the decision. They violated ethics laws by doing so, that's already clear. 

WATCH | Trudeau said only WE Charity can administer $900 million grant program:

Trudeau says only WE Charity can administer $900 million student grant program

2 years ago
Duration 2:51
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Monday.

"The violation is serious and [breaks] one of the key rules of not furthering private interests because they're supposed to be upholding the public's trust."

Conacher says the remaining factor is if the two public officials had a "dishonest or corrupt intent" and this condition needs to be investigated.   

"The prime minister's initial statement that WE Charity's the only organization that could do this, this programme has been proven to be false. There were other organisations considered by the public service, but WE Charity was one of the few that was even contacted."

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Kate Cornick. With files from CBC News. 

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