One apology too many

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to apologize. The list of his apologies for historic wrongs is longer than my arm.

He also likes to apologize for his own wrongdoings. Although he did not apologize to Jody Wilson Raybould, even after the damning ethics commissioner’s report, he has apologized for his controversial 2016 family vacation on an island owned by the Aga Khan, for elbowing an MP during a debate in the House of Commons, for appearing in brownface at a school gala in 2001.

And, now, he has apologized for not removing himself from talks with WE Charity when the federal government decided to hand it, with no tendering process, a contract worth more than $40 million to administer the $900 million+ Canada Student Service Grant Program.

It’s just too much, at least for me. I understand that we can make mistakes and learn from them. I understand that a sincere apology can help to right a wrong that has been done. But even the best apology in the world is not, on its own, enough.

Radiance does not mean sincerity

We don’t have to look any farther than Canada’s favourite redhead, Anne of Green Gables, to hear what is possibly the most radiant apology ever. Initially determined to remain in her room rather than say she was sorry for an ill-spoken outburst, she eventually decides that the best approach is to be enthusiastic if not entirely sincere. Indeed, as the story goes:

“Anne was actually enjoying her valley of humiliation – was revelling in the thoroughness of her abasement . .. Anne had turned it [the apology] into a species of positive pleasure.”

In reflecting on her performance, Anne declares:

“I apologized pretty well, didn’t I? I thought since I had to do it, I might as well do it thoroughly.”

Not, perhaps, a model to be followed by politicians.

ME to WE or WE to ME?

The PM’s enthusiasm for the WE charity is longstanding. There is nothing wrong with that, on its face. However, it does not take a lot of digging to learn that, however idealistic 12-year-old Craig Kielburger was when he first spoke out about a 12-year-old boy in the Pakistan carpet industry, apparently killed for his activism on behalf of child laborers, things since then have lost at least some of that idealism.

Former employees and volunteers speak critically about the working conditions at not-for-profit WE and its sister organization, the for-profit ME to WE. Long hours and poor pay are the reality of many not-for-profits, but the situations some former employees say they were expected to work within go well beyond what most of us would consider reasonable.

Some have shared non-disclosure agreements that they say staff and volunteers were required to sign, with financial repercussions if they failed to follow them, including a requirement that they refrain from

“making any negative, disparaging, or defamatory comments about the Organization . . . “

There are criticisms of the mass rallies that are an essential component of ME to WE; events that bring together thousands of adolescent-aged students in giant arenas and stadiums for a day of inspirational talks and music. The glitz is supported by major corporate sponsors, who also get a spot on stage. As one teacher commented after attending a Vancouver event with students:

“At times, it wasn’t clear to me whether the individual up on stage was there to sell their brand or as one of the inspirational speakers.”

These events have the feel, for some, of evangelical gatherings, with attendees being emotionally manipulated, at times with fabricated stories of the pain and suffering of others.

Recently, the organization has been criticized because, while the for-profit ME to WE was established, in part, to fund the activities of the WE charity, the organizations’ most recent audited financial statements show that considerable money is also flowing from the charity to the for-profit.

There is also concern that there is insufficient separation between the various arms of this organization: the CFO of WE Charity in Canada is also the CFO of ME to WE Social Enterprise, WE Charity in the United States and the Treasurer of the U.S. ME to WE Foundation.

Questions that need answering

“Wow!!” I was asked to speak at a We Day and they said we don’t pay our speakers.”

Jully Black, a Canadian singer, performed for free, with no knowledge that members of the PM’s family were being paid.

  • Why did WE get this contract that would pay the organization more than $43 million without a tendering process? The not-for-profit organizations I work with have to solicit multiple bids for contracts of just a few thousand dollars.
  • Why didn’t the PM or his staff look beneath the surface to learn about some of the questionable practices of this organization? I am not a particularly skilled researcher, and it took me less than two hours to find everything I have included in this article and plenty more.

More than an apology is needed

There are serious cracks in the veneer of the WE conglomerate that need to be investigated. The flaws in the Student Service Grant Program also need to be addressed: it is mid-July, and the project is stalled in the starting blocks, while charities counting on volunteer labour and students hoping to earn some money while helping their communities wait and wonder.

As my niece, who herself works for a small not-for-profit organization that had been hoping to receive some volunteer labour through the project, wrote in a text to me:

“The one thing about the current situation is that it’s prompting people to look more critically at WE and realize that they’re pretty skeezy. They’re kind of a horrible NGO but they have such good brand awareness and good public opinion that until now they’ve basically been able to do what they want. I hope this means that will no longer be the case and they’ll have to be accountable. . . . I [also] wish they [the government] would take the time to figure out what they’re going to do with the CSSGP, ’cause all the students and NGOs like us who were facilitating their placements have no idea what’s going on or what the new timeline is.”

I’ll raise a glass to that

It’s Friday, and that means it’s time for another cocktail. Today, let’s toast the young people, like my niece, who are working hard to better their communities and the larger world, often with little or no recognition for their work, with this concoction: For two cocktails, combine 2 ounces vodka, 2 ounces Liqor 43 and 6 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice in a cocktail shaker. Shake well with ice, then pour into cocktail glasses.

After a few sips, you won’t be able to hear the PM apologizing.

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