In the spring of 2021, a Canadian Member of Parliament warned an ordinary citizen testifying before the Parliamentary Finance Committee that “you are in a lot of trouble here my friend. You are under oath. Perjury is a crime.”
Without context, and given the tone of the questioner, one might imagine parallels to Robert Kennedy questioning Jimmy Hoffa in Congressional hearings in the 1950’s, or the brazen tactics of Senator Eugene McCarthy in the midst of his crusade to root out Communists from America.
But, this was not America in the 1950’s. It was Canada, well into the 21st Century. The MP was Pierre Poilievre, who today aspires to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. The citizen being threatened by a sitting politician was the founder of a Canadian children’s charity; Craig Kielburger, who launched the international success story, WE Charity, when he was just 12 years old.
A few months earlier, Poilievre uttered another threat to Craig (and his brother Marc, who co-founded the charity), Tweeting, “You can run, but you can’t hide”.
Poilievre’s grandstanding, along with the behaviour of other Canadian politicians and media is examined in a new book about the political scandal involving the Trudeau government and a contract awarded to WE Charity in the summer of 2020.
What WE Lost: Inside the Attack on Canada’s Largest Children’s Charity, written by Canadian lawyer and former WE Charity board member, Tawfiq Rangwala, details the elements of the affair, but also provides a sobering look at the state of our political discourse.
Rangwala warns that while such antics from elected members of parliament towards other politicians are nothing new, the actions of politicians like Poilievre and the NDP’s Charlie Angus against private citizens should alarm every Canadian.
While Angus and Poilievre should have nothing in common given their divergent political philosophies, they effectively teamed up to attack the Trudeau government through a proxy war against WE Charity and its founders. Their working theory seemed to be the worse they could make WE Charity look through their attacks, the worse it was for the Liberals.
Rangwala’s book also looks at the role of the media in the affair. After months of non-stop coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic that landed in March 2020, and featured daily announcements by Trudeau and other federal ministers, the media was clearly eager to change the channel and follow a new narrative.
As What WE Lost cleverly points out, the early days of the pandemic did wonders for Trudeau’s polling numbers. Just prior to COVID-19’s arrival in North America, the recently re-elected PM’s numbers were in free fall, besieged by his handling of national rail blockades by indigenous protestors and the cancelling of Tek Resource’s $20 billion Frontier Oilsands Mine – Trudeau was rapidly losing support from all sides.
But when the pandemic hit, Canadians rallied behind the PM and lauded his leadership. His approval rating rose to 55%, the highest it had been since 2016. There was no opening for the opposition or the media to criticize.
That quickly changed with the creation of the Canada Student Service Grant, announced in June 2020.
WE Charity was called upon to administer the student summer grant program, which was designed to get money in the hands of students who had little chance of finding summer jobs due to the pandemic.
But previous ties between the organization and Trudeau’s mother and wife, gave the opposition the opportunity to pounce, and the media served as the megaphone to amplify the endless accusations of wrongdoing.
What followed could conservatively be called a media and political circus.
Today, almost two years after the program launched, the political principals are all still in place – save for Bill Morneau, who fell on his sword for Trudeau – but the children’s charity is no more in Canada.
The Trudeau government was re-elected along with Angus and Poilievre, with the latter hoping to replace Trudeau as Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, as Rangwala carefully documents in What WE Lost, WE Charity’s former beneficiaries, including impoverished children in Africa, India, Haiti and elsewhere, and students across North America, were the unintended road kill in the now largely forgotten political scandal. While little changed politically due to the CSSG affair, the impacts on those largely voiceless groups will last for years.
What WE Lost: Inside the Attack on Canada’s Largest Children’s Charity