By Matthew Torigian
On October 29 the Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion exonerated former Finance Minister Bill Morneau of conflict of interest charges over his participation in two volunteer trips for WE Charity.
Morneau stood accused of not disclosing these trips; he maintained that he believed he had paid for them and reimbursed the charity once he learned otherwise. Mr. Dion agreed: “I accept that you genuinely believed you had paid for the entire cost of both trips, including the portion of the trip that involved the use of non-commercial chartered aircraft.”
Welcome words, but cold comfort: Mr. Morneau was still forced to resign his portfolio and his seat in the House of Commons. His demise was one of the many casualties of the rush to judgment made by politicians, the media, and ordinary Canadians about the awarding of the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to WE Charity.
The biggest casualty, of course, was WE Charity itself, which has all but ceased its Canadian operations. Much of the controversy related to how and why WE Charity came to be chosen to deliver the CSSG. The media narrative was that WE Charity’s senior leaders, Marc and Craig Kielburger, approached the government with the CSSG idea to rescue the charity from financial crisis and make a personal profit themselves. But was that narrative grounded in fact, or fiction?
As a police officer and former deputy solicitor general of Ontario, I’ve overseen hundreds of complex investigations. Because of my background I was asked to examine the steps taken in selecting the organization to administer the $543M program announced in June and cancelled in July due to political controversy.
I examined more than 5,000 pages of government documents, emails and other material released by federal departments to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, and more than 360 pages of documents WE Charity provided to the committee.
Government reached out
My conclusion? The evidence is clear that the government reached out to WE Charity, not the reverse. Bureaucrats examined their options, considered other organizations, like the YMCA and Shopify, but concluded that WE Charity was the right choice.
As has been documented by the finance committee, it was senior bureaucrat Rachel Wernick who contacted Craig Kielburger to discuss WE’s potential involvement in administering the program that would later be known as the CSSG. While that’s not as enticing a storyline as the generally accepted narrative, it happens to be the truth.
Concurrent to my review, two forensic auditing firms were hired. Forensic accounting expert Dr. Al Rosen reviewed the relevant financial materials to test the theory that WE Charity was on the brink of financial collapse as the pandemic took hold. Rosen is a certified fraud examiner who has provided expert testimony before the Supreme Court of Canada. He concluded:
“WE was financially viable at the time of the signing of the CSSG Funding Agreement with the Federal Government and was not in any financial peril.”
All profits donated to charity
On the question of potential profit for WE Charity or the Kielburgers, Rosen concluded: “the CSSG program reimbursed only incurred expenses and WE was not entitled to or able to receive a profit.”
The reports were commissioned by the U.S.-based Stillman Foundation — a long-time supporter of the charity.
Froese Forensics further conducted a forensic audit examining the charity’s financial conduct and its relationship with social enterprise ME to WE. They concluded, “We did not identify any concerns in relation to interactions between WE Charity and M2WSE (ME to WE Social Enterprise)”.
On the contrary, 100 per cent of ME to WE’s profits were donated to the charity or reinvested in the next social program. WE co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger also submitted their personal finances to a forensic audit to address character attacks implying personal gain. The auditors concluded: “We found no evidence of improper transactions which benefited the Kielburgers personally.”
The case is clear: WE Charity was not looking for a lifeline. It didn’t get special treatment. It was properly approached by the bureaucracy. And neither the charity nor its co-founders stood to profit from the CSSG.
But a story like that doesn’t sell papers or threaten to bring down a government. All it does is hurt thousands of children and dim the flame of volunteerism, at a time when Canada — and the world — has never needed it more.
Matthew Torigian is the former deputy solicitor general for Ontario from 2014-2018, responsible for justice and public safety systems. He previously served as chief of police for the Waterloo Regional Police Service and is currently a distinguished fellow in the Global Justice Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.