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The scandal is us, not WE

Delving deeper into the scandal surrounding the WE Charity offers an unflattering image of Canadian foreign policy

Canadian PoliticsGlobalization

Demi Lovato at We Day 2012, Vancouver. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The most concerning element of the WE Charity scandal is not that Justin Trudeau and his finance minister, Bill Morneau, aided an organization with ties to their families, but rather the broad backing of an organization that is a caricature of white saviourism. The real scandal is that all of the corporations, media organizations, schools, politicians, unions, and celebrities that directly enabled WE have also done so at the service of Canadian imperialism.

As I detailed recently in this widely circulated article, the main problem with WE is that it has directed young people towards ineffective international political actions and a narrow understanding of what it means to do good in the world. What is missing from much of the coverage of the scandal is that WE and other non-governmental organizations have foisted a neoliberal form of “charitable” social services delivery onto poor countries in the Global South.

While WE’s ‘imperialism’ is the central storyline being ignored, reports about the rot within the organization are startling. Among the most shocking revelations is that WE partnered with companies complicit in child labour. Perhaps even more troubling, the organization’s founder, Marc Kielburger, participated in a conversation that included a staff member in Kenya who discussed bribes and made multiple death threats.

WE has over $40 million invested in Toronto real estate and the Kielburger parents have amassed some $24 million worth of property.

Elsewhere, a WE contractor sought out the name of the child of journalist who was critical of the charity, and the organization has repeatedly denied muckraking journalists access to WE day, an annual series of stadium-sized youth empowerment events.

WE also has a slew of interconnected legal structures including a for-profit arm, Me to We, that sells lifestyle products, leadership training, and travel experiences. The company has even paid firms to manipulate Google searches to bury critical stories about the organization, and in 2019, WE spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Republican aligned US lobbyists who accused Canadaland, a public interest news site, of releasing “demonstrably false and inaccurate articles” about the charity.

How did things go so wrong? As the old business adage goes, if you swim with the sharks, you might get eaten, or worse: you could become one. Right from the beginning, WE’s methods and business-friendly strategy was appealing to corporations and governments that have been active in pushing neoliberal “solutions” for the world’s most exploited nations.

At its best, WE echoed some of the messages put forward by the anti-globalization movement of the late-1990s. But it never really joined that movement and was always hyper-focused on media exposure.

Marc Kielburger at We Day Waterloo, 2011. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

WE’s promotion of political change through consumerism is a distraction and its “voluntourism” is based on “faulty ideals of feel-good white saviourism.” It should be obvious to any critical-minded person that sending Canadian youth halfway across the world to pose for photo ops with orphans or to build schools is an ineffective form of international development (with a large ecological footprint). At a broader level, countries don’t break from impoverishment, underdevelopment, or the unequal terms of trade agreements through the work of legions of foreign teenagers building their infrastructure. The social and economic issues in the Global South are deeply political and to avoid saying as much is highly suspect.

An organization engaged in “community development” in Africa that ignores Canadian corporations vacuuming up billions in profits annually from the continent is upholding imperialism. An organization seeking to expand clean drinking water that ignores the Canadian Air Force’s role in damaging Libya’s Great Manmade River aquifer system—the source of 70 percent of the country’s water—is part of the problem. An organization that says it is battling HIV-AIDS but ignores how a Canadian-backed coup in Haiti undercut success on that front is complicit in unequal power relations.

Corporate sponsors like RBC, Telus and Potashcorp, and media partners including the Globe and Mail and CTV, school boards, federal, provincial and municipal governments, and a slew of celebrities have contributed directly to WE’s rise. So have Canadian unions. With their charity, rather than international solidarity focused humanities funds, organized labour played an important role in getting WE’s predecessor, Free the Children, off the ground. And, even as WE became little more than a corporate shell, unions continued promoting it.

However, it is not only those who have directly supported WE that are responsible for its growth; all those who have avoided confronting Canadian imperialism have laid the groundwork for organizations like WE to profit. To put it plainly, if people understood the nature of Canadian foreign policy and global power dynamics, WE’s neoliberal ‘solutions’ to poverty would be a laughing-stock.

Even the organization largely responsible for exposing WE mostly avoids questioning the political culture behind the charity’s rise. Focused on covering the media, Canadaland has largely failed to investigate the mainstream media’s subservience to official Canadian and US foreign policy, far and away its most extreme bias in favour of power (I detail one element of Canadaland’s refusal to challenge Canadian media’s foreign policy coverage in this article and in my book, A Propaganda System).

An organization or individual in Canada that refuses to challenge imperialism (you don’t have to use the word) is enabling it. As the title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography asserts, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

For those seeking to understand what I mean by ignoring imperialism, below is a sort of ‘test’ of whether an organization or individual is upholding the political culture that allows organizations like WE to thrive. Do they support a call to:

  • End public support for Canadian mining companies responsible for significant social and ecological abuses abroad.
  • Withdraw Canada from the Core Group of countries that largely rule Haiti.
  • End the charitable status designation of the explicitly racist and colonialist Jewish National Fund.
  • Include per capita greenhouse gas emissions disparities between Canada and the Global South when discussing climate change.
  • Withdraw from the racist Five Eyes intelligence network.
  • Seek legal opinion about whether Canada’s sanctions policy aligns with international law.
  • Withdraw from the Lima Group which is seeking to overthrow the elected government in Venezuela.
  • Adopt the nuclear ban treaty.
  • Withdraw from Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements in which the proportion of two-way investment is more than three to one in Canada’s favour.
  • Oppose spending $19 billion on new fighter jets that are about “enhancing the air force’s ability to join operations with the US and NATO.”

Individuals and organizations that will not support modest reforms to Canada’s foreign policy are arguably complicit in its imperialist practices and in the rise of WE.

Those seeking to question Canadian imperialism should sign this open letter, backed by a growing coalition of prominent individuals and organizations, calling for a “fundamental reassessment of Canadian foreign policy.”

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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