The scandal is us, not WE

Craig Kielburger with African children

Delving deeper into the WE scandal offers an unflattering image of us.

The most concerning element of the WE story is not that the prime minister and finance minister aided an organization with ties to their families but rather the broad backing for an organization that is a caricature of white savior imperialism. The real scandal is all the corporations, media, schools, politicians, unions and celebrities that have directly enabled WE as well as those that have done so indirectly by ignoring Canadian imperialism.

As I detailed 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 doing good in the world. It and other NGOs have also foisted a neoliberal “charitable” international social services delivery system on poor countries.

While WE’s imperialism is the central story line being ignored, the reports about the rot within the organization are startling. WE partnered with companies complicit in child labour; Marc Kielburger participated in a conversation that included a staff member in Kenya discussing bribes and making multiple death threats; WE has over $40 million invested in Toronto real estate and the Kielburger parents have amassed some $24 million in property; A WE contractor sought out the name of a critical journalist’s child and their school; They repeatedly denied critical journalists access to WE day; WE has a slew of interconnected legal structures including a for-profit arm; A WE contractor paid firms to game Google searches to bury critical stories about the organization; They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Republican aligned US lobbyists that criticized Canadaland’s reporting on WE, etc.

How did an organization supposed to be making the world more just go so wrong? The answer is: If you swim with the sharks either you’ll be eaten or become one. Right from the beginning WE’s way was appealing to corporations and the governments who were pushing neoliberal “solutions” for the world’s most exploited nations.

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

WE’s promotion of political change through consumerism is a distraction and it’s “voluntourism” is ridiculous. It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a minute that sending Canadian youth halfway across the world to look after orphans or build schools is absurd for ecological, technical, cost, as well as social and political, reasons. Millions of, say, Kenyans or Ghanaians are better placed to build the schools. At a broader level, countries don’t break from impoverishment/underdevelopment/unequal terms of trade through foreign teenagers building their infrastructure. The issues are political and to avoid saying as much is highly political.

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 per cent 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 upholding imperialism.

Corporate sponsors RBC, Telus, Potashcorp etc., media partners such as 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.

But, it’s not only those that have directly supported WE that are responsible for the growth of this farcical organization. All those who’ve ignored confronting Canadian imperialism have laid the grounds for WE. To put it directly, if people understood the nature of Canadian foreign policy and global power dynamics WE’s ‘solutions’ to poverty would be laughed at.

Even the organization largely responsible for exposing WE mostly avoids questioning the political culture behind WE’s rise. Focused on covering the media, Canadaland has largely refused to investigate the dominant media’s subservience to Canadian/US foreign policy, far and away its most extreme bias in favor of power. (I detail one element of Canadaland’s refusal to challenge Canadian media’s foreign policy coverage in this article and the broader subject in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation, which Canadaland’s Jesse Brown was unwilling to discuss.)

An organization or individual in Canada that refuses to challenge imperialism (you don’t have to use the word) is upholding it. As Howard Zinn famously asserted, “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 WE to thrive. Do they support a call to:

  • End public support to 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 of the explicitly racist and colonialist Jewish National Fund.
  • Include current and historic per capita greenhouse gas emissions between Canada and the global South when discussing climate change.
  • Withdraw from the racist Five Eyes intelligence network.
  • Seek legal opinion about whether Canadian sanctions policy aligns with international law.
  • Withdraw from the Lima Group seeking to overthrow the Venezuelan government.
  • Adopt the nuclear ban treaty.
  • Withdraw from Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements in which the proportion of two-way investment is more than 3 to 1 in Canada’s favor.
  • Oppose spending $19 billion on new fighter jets that are about “enhancing the air force’s ability to join operations with the U.S. and NATO.”

Individuals and organizations that won’t support these modest reforms are probably upholding Canadian imperialism and indirectly complicit 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”.

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