The death of WE in Canada will kill any momentum that the opposition parties are seeking to pump up. But don’t expect them to stop trying. The program was killed, the finance minister is gone, and so is WE.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 14, 2020.
OTTAWA—The death of WE in Canada is shameful.
The ruthless destruction of a charity for political purposes accomplishes nothing.
The critics of WE puffed themselves up after Craig and Marc Kielburger announced the shuttering of their Canadian operations.
“Well, at least we have cut off a huge source of income for the Trudeau family,” snarled one on Twitter.
Earth to Twitter-verse: you are not cutting off a Trudeau money source, you are killing a program that convinced thousands of young Canadians of the value of volunteerism.
And for all those armchair quarterbacks who said somebody else could run the youth program, there is no other national organization that has a tie-in to education systems in multiple provinces.
Some argued we should have tasked the government with running youth programs. Others said it was a task for the military.
But in the end, as cabinet decided at the time, there is no other national organization with the heft and depth to run the kind of massive youth engagement that WE was contracted to launch.
We should reflect on what the death of WE says about the current political culture in Canada.
What WE-haters succeeded in doing was killing an organization that had direct involvement with 7,000 schools across the country. The Kielburgers are gone, and their organization will only function as a foundation while the WE work continues in other countries; what a loss for Canada.
In the Kielburgers’ public exit letter, they claimed that in the 25 years of their organization’s existence, youth volunteerism went from the bottom to the top of the demographic charts.
One million students attended the WE Day celebrations after the teens had already helped 3,000 charities.
How does the death of WE help anyone? It certainly doesn’t support the plethora of young people who have been motivated to look beyond their own little worlds when it comes to caring about life.
Set aside the politics of a scandal that wasn’t really a scandal. The organization was designed to inspire young people to think beyond themselves.
Turning the “me” into the “we” was the whole premise behind the movement that motivated youth in all parts of the country.
A friend of mine witnessed their first rally, describing it as “cultish.” Truth be told, the experience of sharing the joy of volunteerism with thousands of others in a rally is very un-Canadian. Most of us like to hide our light under a bushel, and that holds true in the volunteer sphere as well.
But from the beginning, the Kielburgers went against the grain. At the age of 12, Craig Kielburger actually got a meeting with prime minister Jean Chrétien to promote a simple message—child poverty on the international agenda.
Kielburger was prompted to action when he read about a Pakistan boy named Iqbal Masih who was sold for $4 at age four to work in a rug factory where he was chained to the loom.
Masih ran away, became an advocate against child exploitation and was murdered at age 12, exactly the same age as Kielburger. The story had a huge impact on the young Canadian. “It really upset me. What did the two of us have in common except our age?” he told The Washington Post in a 1996 interview.
That chance article led Kielburger and his brother into lives of doing things for others.
Around the world, young leaders are lauded. When Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai survived a gunshot wound to the head, shot by anti-girl extremists, she devoted her life to girls and education. Greta Thunberg became the face for climate action.
Malala became the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
She spoke at a WE Day in the United Kingdom six years ago, supporting the values of the organization.
WE plans to continue its work across the pond and in other countries where it has a presence.
The only country it is leaving is the home where it was founded, Canada.
The death of WE in Canada will kill any momentum that the opposition parties are seeking to pump up. But don’t expect them to stop trying.
The program was killed, the finance minister is gone, and so is WE.
There is not much more that opponents can do to damage this incredible, youth-motivating organization.
The notion that it was a Liberal cash cow is a joke. Bill Morneau donated $100,00 to the organization. He was hardly looking for a freebie trip.
Mistakes were made. Only in Canada, do we expect perfect.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.