The Plague-Ground – Justin Not-So-True Though

I won’t write about the loucheness of Justin Trudeau, his need to feather his mother’s nest, his whac–a-mole conflicts of interest; nor the conflicts of his Minister of Finance and Chief of Staff; nor forcing his officials to be economical with the truth in explaining the preposterous coincidence of an unsolicited proposal arriving on their desks from none other than WE;  nor their buying 15 parcels of land in downtown Toronto owned by four different WE organizations; nor dismissing nearly all of their board of directors; nor in appearing to move funds in ever bigger blobs from their non-profit arm to their privately-controlled for-profit arm.

I have nothing to say on any of that.

What I want to talk about are two parts of this scandal that have been largely missed in the waves of revelation: the first is the payment of speakers at charity events; and the second is the validity of thinking young people can change the world by helping build a school in a developing country over March break.

A friend of mine who had helped bring sponsors to WE in its early days put his anger this way: “To find out now that WE is paying its speakers feels like a betrayal.”

I don’t feel quite as betrayed.

Lots of charities pay speakers to headline their gala dinners, meet-and-greets and big-tent events. The charities will try to get a reduced rate, of course, or best of all, no fee at all, and many speakers and their agents will accommodate them. Or if the idea of taking money from a charity that is raising money from the speaker’s drawing power doesn’t pass the sniff test, the speaker can ask for their fee to be donated to the charity of their choice or to the charity in question. Or they can get a corporate sponsor to pay the fee.

This is just how it’s done.

But when a charity shifts from international development to motivational events as its main purpose, as seems to be the case with WE, getting famous people on stage is no longer a side-show, it’s the main event. So I would ask the Kielburgers what WE paid Al Gore, Kofi Annan, Naomi Campbell, and the ever-present Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – all of whom have spoken at WE events. I’d also ask how much more money they raised because they drew such global stars.

As for my friend who felt betrayed that some of the money he raised was going into the Prime Minister’s mother’s pockets, I feel for him. Because this is now a matter of degree and not just kind. If the Kielburgers had said: “By the way, 5% of the money you turned our way goes to pay speakers,” that’s just being ultra-transparent. But if they said: “25% of the money you brought us goes to pay speakers,” my friend would likely say: “Are you nuts?”

He felt betrayed that WE paid Margaret Trudeau anything at all. I felt betrayed that she was paid so obscenely much.

As for WE’s mission to help young people volunteer in developing countries during their holidays, this is a bigger philosophical issue. Can eager, but unskilled volunteers actually do anything of value in the one week they’re practising volun-tourism? If you ask many charities, they’ll privately say no.

Years ago, Jean and I joined a group of 25 friends of a friend whose 60th birthday party was a day of us all volunteering to build new homes at Habitat for Humanity.  We all had fun. We all felt great about doing good. We talked to a family who was going to move into the home we were building. But we were terrible carpenters, even when guided by the very patient Habitat staff. We were also incredibly slow. So it may be true that when we left at the end of the day, some real carpenters came in, quickly undid our work and made it safe for that family to live in a home that wouldn’t collapse on them.

I’m not saying Habitat isn’t great and that its volunteers aren’t vital. I just think the goal here – whether you’re a high school senior filling in your resume with some non-profit work, or friends of a friend who’s deeply committed to a vital cause – is not to change the world with what you’re doing, but to change yourself.

Which brings me back to the Prime Minister who can’t seem to change himself, no matter what the peril.


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29 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Justin Not-So-True Though”

  1. As we learn more about WE every week, the question will become “Is this a charity with a multi-million dollar real estate portfolio, or is it the other way around?” I do not think this will help the reputation of the charitable sector.

  2. The other piece that gets underplayed in all of this is the incredibly false use of the word “volunteer”. Nowhere in this program do I see anyone doing anything for the sheer satisfaction of lending a hand – not the 450(!) staff that WE apparently hired: not the teachers who were being offered $12K to recruit students, and not the students themselves who were to be paid for their “volunteer” work. I must have missed the memo, so I will be writing the PM to ask if I can get back pay for the volunteer hours I’ve put in over my lifetime! I didn’t keep track, but a fair estimate would be at least 5-8 hours/week for 45 years. Direct deposit will be fine!

    1. Jan — I agree with you entirely…..lending a hand has become selling a finger. Their business model feels more like Mary Kay Cosmetics
      than the church on the corner.
      Cheers and thanks for connecting on this.

  3. Adam Plackett

    Hi Bob:

    I don’t disagree with your comments on WE generally and Justin Trudeau specifically but I think that your comment about his need to feather his mother’s nest is a cheap shot and unworthy of you, quite apart from being irrelevant to the issue at hand.. According to Wikipedia, Margaret Trudeau is an author, actress, photographer, former television talk show hostess, and social advocate for people with bipolar disorder, with which she is diagnosed. In other words, she is an accomplished individual who has made her own way in life and is entitled to charge for her speaking engagements. I have yet to see any evidence that she got the speaking gigs because she is the PM’s mother as distinct from based on her own abilities.

    1. This is hardly a “cheap shot”. We cannot view Ms. Trudeau as an arm’s length party in this instance. The fact is that she is the Prime Minister’s mother and is being paid a materially above-market rate by an organization that accepts public money. Regardless of the value of her contribution, this is utterly inappropriate.

    2. This comment misses the mark widely. Margaret got handsomely paid while other celebrities unknowingly got nothing for their efforts. In my view this is shabby at best. Ditto for Sasha.

    3. Adam — I don’t think it’s a cheap shot at all. To your point, she is a professional woman and entitled to charge for her appearances.
      Because of this, we have hired her to speak on occasion. But since she is the Prime Minister’s mother, she has to be Caesar’s Wife when it comes to
      this kind of situation.

      1. Betty DelBianco

        I am curious as to why the Drifter think other celebrities “unknowingly” got paid nothing at all. I am willing to bet that anyone who was not paid knew they were not being paid. Anyway it is a matter of public record that other speakers were paid by WE, including astronaut Chris Hadfield and others. It is a common practice for charities to pay speakers to appear. The ROI on such fees can be significant in terms of funds raised as a result. That is why they do it! It benefits the charity. If people think this is wrong, fine – everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it is a bit unfair to imply that WE was acting nefariously in following a common and successful fund-raising strategy. But Bob I am writing primarily in response to your comment that Margaret Trudeau must be “Caesar’s wife in this type of situation”. In what type of situation exactly? She started speaking at WE events in 2016, long before the events that are the subject of this discussion. It is hard to think of any company or organization, not-for-profit or otherwise, that might not potentially be impacted by the actions or policies of governments at all levels. Is she expected to refrain from earning a living because it is theoretically possible that any organization that pays her might one day benefit from a government action/contract/policy?

  4. Michael Gundy

    While we are pondering the highly irregular WE, consider; small charities are not-for-profits who file with CRA (say a parish church). When thy ey become larger (consider hospitals, etc) they establish a separate yet connected not-for-profit entity focusing on fundraising. Both again file with CRA.

    The Kielburgers, on the other hand, escape acceptable standards of transparency by having their private for-profit companies handle management, property, etc. Having been on the Boards of public, private, and not-for-profit boards for many decades, this is a first for me.

    Am I overly prissy or are the Trudeaus, Moreaus, and anyone else who drank the WE Cool-Aid really as dumb as I think? WE never ever passed the basic governance sniff test.

    1. Michael — Good to hear from you. I knew about the same model you did: charities that have a separate not-for-profit fund-raising arm
      (Princess Margaret Foundation, Toronto Public Library Foundation, etc.). But I didn’t know that the Kielburgers had …uh…bifurcated their actions and money in such a different way. Reminds me of the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

  5. I completely agree with you Bob. Often we worked with charities that would bring in big “stars”, some paid, others not. It’s complicated but it helps drive event $$. But the WE issue doesn’t surprise me (although I can’t reveal why). The Trudeaus are not the only ones getting paid……

  6. Bob, I fully agree with you regarding the building of homes. I have volunteered overseas (in low income countries) a half dozen times. Now I was not building homes, however I did see the results of those who where. Although very well intentioned, the locals can do it so much more efficiently at low costs, which also provides employment.

  7. Being paid to speak at a charity event is something new, unless you are on the level of a Barbara Streisand. From 1975 to 2001, Al Waxman spoke at thousands of charity fundraisers; he travelled across the country with another celebity for two days stopping in every city to make a speech, he played Santa Clause for the Police Department, he travelled from Newfoundland to Victoria for Heart and Stroke, for Cancer, for Variety Club; he hosted telethons, he was available for every one who believed that his presence helped in Canada and the U.S. While others accepted a fee, he refused a penny. Except on one occasion. He was offered a very high sum, and decided to do a little negotiating. Since the event was in the name of a known anti-semite, (then deceased) he laid down a condition. He would speak, only if the cheque was made out to B’Nai Brith. They complied, and he felt quite satisfied with that. It is only in the past few decades that everyone who does any public speaking is offered a fee. In the 80s and 90s we both were involved with dozens of charities here. Money never ever changed hands. It was a matter of integrity for Al. Paying Margaret and Sasha a fee makes me sick. I wonder what Pierre would say. I don’t think he would approve.

  8. Anita Blackwood

    Hi Bob…
    These two angels ..the Kielburgers had my ‘shit sensor’ in the red from day 1. They were just a bit too good to be true. They have real estate holdings as well along Carlton Street east of Parliament. Many of these buildings provide ‘accommodation’ for the endless young people who travel to Toronto to volunteer. They don’t have to look for a place to stay..It’s right there…volunteers paying ‘rent’ in Kielburger owned properties. How great is that?
    And Jully Black commented in an interview on CBC radio that WE or was it WE to ME…refused to even cover her long distance phone bill..while she was travelling to entertain the WE ‘troops’ and was calling her mother. A mother who was dealing with cancer.
    Sadly this whole affair shows Justin’s naivete…yet again. However…rather Justin and the great Chrystia Freeland than the other options

    1. Sara — I’d almost forgotten about those days when no one even thought of getting paid. But once one person is paid,
      everyone not surprisingly wants to get paid. I also doubt Pierre would approve. Cheers. Bob

    2. Right, it doesn’t help much to save the world if you’re taking someone else’s job in doing that.
      And how ARE you these days?!

      1. I am doing very well – thank you for asking! As someone who does not have a cottage, I have taken to coming up north for a few days at a time, staying in hotels/resorts and visiting with my friends by social distancing at their cottages. I would highly recommend this to anyone feeling stuck in the city!
        I saw our mutual Cheryl yesterday and I understand that you spoke this morning 🙂
        Keep posting on Instagram. Those cottage pics are great.

  9. Madeline Thompson

    Thank you for all this amazing information. Being outside of Canada, I only got
    the headline news on the Trudeau vs WE situation and was missing many pieces
    of the puzzle. Grateful to be filled in on that. I have one question left – one headline
    noted that the Canadian government – ie. Canadian taxpayers, of which I am still
    one – owes WE major money for ‘defaulting’ on a signed agreement ( believe this
    basically covers that situation?). Does anyone know how that one is playing out,
    if at all?

    Thank you in advance…… Madeline

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