MOUNT FOREST – The fallout from the federal government’s decision to contract delivery of a student volunteer program to WE Charity has robbed Canada of the benefits of an “innovative” organization that convinced many young people “they could help to make the world a better place,” says a dedicated local volunteer.
Mount Forest resident Donna McFarlane has been involved with WE Charity, originally known as Free The Children and later Me to We, since 2008.
A former teacher, she was instrumental, along with Wellington Heights Secondary School teacher Barb Cowen, in organizing educators and students from Mount Forest’s three schools into a local volunteer arm of the charity.
The group raised over $50,000, using the funds to drill a new water source and expand classroom space at a school in the Kenyan community of Osenetoi. Involvement in the African community has seen local Me to We volunteers, including McFarlane and Cowen, make trips in 2011 and 2016 to Osenetoi to work on projects there.
In 2012 McFarlane received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, in part for her humanitarian work with Free the Children/WE.
More recently she has spearheaded the collection and delivery of sewing machines for the newly established WE College in Kenya and also donated a portion of the sale of her two children’s books – Crazy About Gum and Who Makes the Best – to ongoing work in Osenetoi and WE College.
McFarlane said her most recent involvement came after WE Charity was asked by the Kenyan government to organize and administer the fight against COVID-19 in the Maasai Mara area of Kenya.
“WE Charity built and supports Baraka Health Clinic, which has transformed the health and longevity of the local people. Our support there was financial,” she told the Advertiser.
Cowen’s connection to the WE movement began through her work as an educator. In 2004 she discovered the documentary It Takes a Child, which tells the story of Craig Kielburger and his fight against child labour. For years, she showed the video to her Grade 9 business students as part of the ethics and social responsibility component of the course.
“It was always an eye-opening experience for students to learn how other children around the world are not in school, forced to work and live in unhealthy and dangerous situations,” said Cowen.
“In 2008, after watching the documentary, I was approached by a small group of female students who said, ‘We have to do something!’ and asked if we could start a school club. A teenage Craig Kielburger changed their perspective.”
In 2009, McFarlane and Cowen took a group of students to attend their first WE Day in Toronto.
“It was inspirational and unforgettable,” Cowen recalls. “Because of WE Charity, year after year, we had the opportunity to listen to amazing inspirational speakers including: Desmond Tutu, Romeo Dallaire, Kofi Annan, Elie Wiesel, Al Gore, Martin Luther King III, Prince Harry, Chris Hadfield, Gord Downie.
“Listening to their stories and learning about the most pressing world issues provided the spark for students to become global-minded citizens for the rest of their lives.”
McFarlane was “thrilled” when she learned WE Charities had been tabbed in June to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), a program that would provide students with scholarship funds in return for community service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I truly believe they were the best organization for this job and would have been the group legitimately and ultimately chosen if things had not been so badly bungled,” said McFarlane.
“They have so many involvements with youth throughout our country, within all of the educational institutions and have overseen so much volunteerism that they had contacts everywhere.
“As I think of the other possibilities like the YMCA, UNICEF, 4-H Canada, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Red Cross, United Way and many others less well known, I just don’t think they had the network of contacts that WE Charity did. Their youthful staff and focus were well suited to put this together.”
“To me, it was the absolute perfect match,” said Cowen.
“It is a well-established organization, operates across the country, has young people as its focus, has experience logging volunteer hours, is well connected with many national and international volunteer/charity organizations, and Marc and Craig Kielburger are brilliant social activists with high principles and a proven record of success.”
However, allegations of conflict of interest related to the WE organization’s payment of fees to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife for appearances at WE events, derailed the program before it was launched.
The controversy continued to dog both the government and the charity through the spring and summer and last month WE founders Craig and Marc Kielburger announced they would wind down the charity’s Canadian operations and liquidate some of its assets to create an endowment fund to support projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
“I was truly heartbroken when I heard the Kielburgers were shutting down the WE Charities Canadian operations,” said McFarlane.
“I believe that if it wasn’t (for) COVID and schools were operating as they normally would be, that there would have been a movement mobilized by school clubs and teacher leaders to fight the assassination of Craig and Marc’s honour and reputations. That perhaps would have saved this home-grown Canadian charity.”
Cowen said, “I have had nothing but rewarding experiences being involved with WE Charity and admire their integrity and all that they have accomplished. It is a tremendous loss for students who see Marc and Craig as true Canadian heroes who inspire them to be socially responsible.
“After much scrutinization of WE Charity it has been established that they have done nothing illegal or unethical, but sadly the unfair and bad publicity was enough to ruin their image and ability to be financially viable in Canada.”
While she believes the prime minister should have recused himself from the selection process, McFarlane indicated she doesn’t feel a genuine conflict existed.
“I do believe Craig and Marc when they say that they didn’t have personal relationships with Prime Minister Trudeau and his wife, mom and brother. They stated that they never have spent social time together, eaten a meal together or any such thing that would indicate friendship,” she explained.
McFarlane noted that many charities seek out “famous people” to speak on their behalf in order to pull in more donations.
Cowen notes that long before Justin Trudeau was prime minister, he was a teacher and a social activist. She heard him speak at a WE Day before he became prime minister.
“I also heard his mother speak about her struggle with mental illness. None of their messages were political in nature and I assumed that most high-profile speakers were compensated, so I personally did not see a problem with the connection.”
Cowen added, “I believe that PM Trudeau’s support of WE Charity to operate the CSSG program was done in good faith and that a failure to recuse himself was not a good choice, but given the crisis situation, excusable.
“I do, however, think that the finance minister (Bill Morneau) should have recused himself for accepting complimentary trips, being a big donor to WE Charity and having a family member currently employed with the organization. There is no grey area there.”
McFarlane believes the “unfortunate decision” not to recuse from the WE discussions by Trudeau led to the Kielburgers closing their Canadian operation.
“In my eyes that robs Canada of their unbelievable and innovative ways of improving the lives of our youth, our country and some of the poorest, deprived and neglected peoples of the world,” she stated.
“I think politics created this fiasco and the media and people frustrated by the horrors of COVID and their inability to control things going on in their own lives, found people (Craig and Marc) to dump their rage and indignation upon. I think The Kielburgers were unfairly maligned and had their good intentions attacked.”
McFarlane questioned how Canadians, school boards and WE’s corporate sponsors could “love and admire Craig and Marc one minute and totally believe that they are self-serving egotistical beings the next?”
McFarlane observed that prior to the controversy, the Kielburgers had already laid off staff at the organization and “felt they could weather the storm that is COVID-19.
“They were not in a desperate financial situation and were not going to make a profit from this program. I do believe that both Craig and Marc are not at all cognizant of the workings of politics, but how does this naivety mean that they are suddenly liars?”
McFarlane believes the episode has drastically distorted the public’s image of the Kielburgers.
She recalls that in the early days of the pandemic Marc, at “great risk to his own personal health and safety,” went looking for PPE to help out people in Kenya.
“The only supply he could access was in England, which was already hard in the throes of the pandemic,” she said. “While everyone else was hunkering down at home, he boarded a plane to England to pick up and then deliver the necessary supplies to Kenya. This is one small example of the multitude of Marc’s selfless acts I could describe … not the actions of an egotistical money grubber some would have us believe him to be.”
McFarlane believes the loss of WE will have wide-ranging impacts.
She notes that around the world WE has:
– provided isolated communities access to clean water, greatly improving children’s health and overall life expectancy;
– helped tens of thousands of people learn skills that allow them to become self sufficient and support their families;
– helped girls to get an education rather than spend their days walking in search of water;
– built hundreds of schools and helped show communities that educating their young will lead to empowerment; and
– built health centres/hospitals in numerous locations.
Among the benefits WE involvement has provided for student volunteers, McFarlane lists:
– development of empathy, caring for others rather than self-focus, emphasis on people rather than material things;
– learning organizational skills from planning and manning events;
– intellectual development from learning about different cultures;
– fostered an understanding of volunteerism, increased self-confidence and self-worth;
– team building and communication skills; and
– artistic development through making crafts, etc. for sale at fundraisers.
“Essentially, WE Charity empowers students. Whether it be fighting hunger and poverty, championing girls’ rights, protecting the environment or addressing Native rights locally, nationally or internationally, WE Charity encouraged young people to find their passion and create the change they want to see,” said Cowen.
McFarlane noted, “I feel like nothing in my 40 years of being involved in education has drawn our students together for a cause like WE Charity has. Youth have an idealism that has been pounded out of many adults by life experiences and disappointments. The basic motto of WE has been ‘Children helping children through education.’ It was happening big time.”
She added the charity’s activities “convinced our youth that they could help to make the world a better place.”
The world, said McFarlane, needs a philosophy based on hope and optimism.
“Our world is a suffering place where drug and alcohol abuse, as well as suicide, are much too commonplace. We need movements like WE to help us see others and ease their hurts, whether that is by organizing a food drive for our local food bank or volunteering on a Habitat build, or helping seniors weave bed mats for children overseas.”
McFarlane said she is sad for communities abroad “who might have been lucky enough to escape their harsh realities” with the charity’s assistance.
“I am particularly concerned that the communities where we worked so hard might fall back onto times so hard we can’t even imagine them,” she explained.
Cowen said, “As far as educating students to care about others, give back to their communities and be a good global citizen, teachers will continue to do so. However, she notes, the “WE spirit” will be missing.
Cowen pointed out the thousands of community volunteer hours students log through WE will be lost, as well as “the tons of food they collect for foodbanks, and the money they raise for important causes.”
Canadian students, McFarlane pointed out, will also lose out on the boost they would have received from the CSSG program.
“The sad reality is that due to the political fiasco, the CSSG didn’t happen at all and 100,000 students who would have each received $5,000 for 500 hours of volunteer work over the summer received no funds whatsoever to help them with academic expenses. Not only that, the many places where those volunteers would have been placed received no benefits either. It became a lose-lose situation.”
Also lost, McFarlane pointed out, is “the wonderful project” the Kielburgers were planning to celebrate the charity’s 25th anniversary.
“It had to do with remembering how hard it was in their early days to pay the rent for their initial offices,” she said. “They purchased several buildings around their headquarters in Toronto to provide free rental space for young visionaries to get their personal, charitable ventures off the ground. It would have been amazing to see.”
For Cowen, an enduring memory of the WE experience is witnessing “the astounding sustainable development” which occurred between the 2011 and 2016 trips by local volunteers to Osenetoi.
“In 2016, we saw very few women or girls carry water on their backs because there were more wells and women had become financially able to buy donkeys to do the work,” said Cowen.
“Women were becoming entrepreneurial—growing vegetables to sell, bee keeping, raising livestock, operating a dairy, hiring employees, and the most impressive change was some of them had become landowners. In 2011, we helped to build a small building to keep medicine at Baraka health clinic, but when we returned in 2016 the clinic had become a hospital for the entire county.
“In 2011, we helped build the dorm rooms for the second incoming class at Kissaruni, the first girls’ WE high school. When we returned five years later, there were two girls’ and one boys’ high school and the new WE College was being built.”
She added, “It makes me sad to think that students in Canada will not have the opportunity to be part of WE Charity.”