If Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party are good at one thing, it’s blindly stumbling from one scandal to the next, handling each one worse than the last. These include bizarre trips to India, multiple instances of blackface, protecting the outright corruption of SNC-Lavalin, sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, and violently repressing Wet’suwet’en land defenders to name a few. The WE Charity scandal is only the latest in a long line of corruption scandals where the Liberals put profit first.
The scandal with regards to the WE Charity is the connection between Trudeau, his family, and the charity, which was awarded a $19.5 million sole-sourced contract on June 25 to administer $912 million of the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) as part of the Canada Emergency Student Benefits. WE has in the past paid $250,000 to Trudeau’s mother Margaret for speaking at 28 events and $32,000 for his brother Alexandre. The payments were made between 2016-2020. Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughter also works for WE, which didn’t stop him from participating in the Liberal cabinet’s consideration of the contract.
WE had hired 465 contract workers to dole out the grants, but after an outpouring of rightful public outrage, the charity pulled out of the deal and consequently laid off its contractors. The charade seemed over and done with before it even started, and we are met with the same old insincere “I’m sorry” that we have all come to expect from Justin Trudeau. Yet no one is held accountable, nothing changes, and our everyday lives worsen by the hour.
But this charity and grant racket is deeper, broader, and more pernicious than simple surface level nepotism. In fact, the history of the WE Charity perfectly typifies the corrupt conduct of the Liberal Party.
WE: the quintessential capitalist charity
The WE organization has its tentacles wrapped around many parts of the highly profitable charity sector. They use armies of volunteers and low-paid staff to organize rallies, events, clothing drives, and the like. WE’s international work includes providing drinking water and increasing access to education. They also run the ”social enterprise” ME to WE, which exists to make a profit.
In the world of these charities, the question of why countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo—which has an estimated $24 trillion USD of natural resources—need the aid of “charitable organizations” like WE is never asked. Neither does anyone question the fact that for every $1 of aid which is put into the Global South, $24 is extracted in the form of debt payments and capital flight to tax havens.
Band-Aid solutions aside, these charities operate like any other capitalist enterprise. They’re conniving, exploitative, ruthless and profit-hungry. Canadaland has extensively studied WE’s founders, the Kielburger brothers, and the charity kingdom they rule like tyrants. For their reporting, Canadaland has been served libel notices by the Kielburgers and the WE organization.
The WE charity is largely run on volunteers and lowly paid staff. A former WE director told Canadaland, “It is incredibly toxic and inappropriate, the way they treat young people,” who often work 16-hour days with unpaid overtime at near minimum wage. Guilt and fear are commonly used to control workers and squash any level of dissent. One former employee described Craig Kielburger’s cult of personality, saying, “He has this aura of a God.” Fourteen employees who were also interviewed described WE as a cult or cult-like. A former manager said the other Kielburger brother, Marc, “has so much bottled-up anger… It seeps from his pores.” Other employees described having to work 60-hour weeks with unpaid overtime while working second or third jobs on the weekends to be able to afford to live.
The Student Service Grant (CSSG) the WE Charity was supposed to preside over is just as dubious as the labour standards WE subjects their volunteers to.
The CSSG is a program which gives students $1,000 for every 100 hours they volunteer this summer in efforts to fight COVID-19. Students can gain up to a maximum of $5,000 for 500 hours. This is clearly below minimum wage, which is at least $11 in all Canadian jurisdictions and $15 in Alberta. Compensation is likely lower still since the hour count rounds down. So if you worked 189 hours, only $1,000 would be given, or $5.21 an hour.
In order to receive the $5,000 tuition voucher one would have to work nearly 50 hours a week, since only hours after the end of June are counted. How any student can do this while supporting themselves is anyone’s guess. In all likelihood the CSSG will be a nice little gift to well-off students who can afford to spend all their time volunteering instead of spending every waking minute worrying about where their next meal is going to come from or how they’re going to make rent. Maclean’s estimates the cost of living and tuition for only one year of university in Canada is nearly $20,000.
WE was only chosen for this contract after Volunteer Canada, a national volunteer group, did not accept the job, saying it would need to pay students below minimum wage which would be against the law. Its CEO called the Canada Student Service Grant nothing but a way to hire students at a discount rate.
These volunteer positions also sound an awful lot like professional jobs, involving skills like translation, communications, design, and programming—tasks which should fall under the job description of a full-time, educated employee, rather than a casual summer volunteer. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus was right when he said, “the red flags are everywhere with this program,” and that the program merely pushes desperate working class students to work for “sweatshop wages.”
Students are overworked, overstressed, and are sinking further and further into debt in an effort to qualify for nonexistent jobs in fields which aren’t hiring. They shouldn’t be working 50-hour weeks for less than $10 an hour to get a meager voucher for tuition—which itself should be free. Getting a 25-per-cent-off coupon in exchange for working 500 hours in a pandemic to receive an education which should be free in the first place perfectly embodies what the Liberals stand for: meager scraps for workers and billions for the rich and powerful.
Capitalism is corrupt
As we have explained, the WE Charity scandal is just the latest in a long line of Liberal Party corruption scandals. While they might seem like a series of unrelated train wrecks that happen to take place one after another, these are not isolated incidents. These scandals are emblematic of a corrupt political elite accustomed to ruling with disdain for working people.
The real scandal here is not that the Liberals tried to give money to their rich friends. It’s not even that the Kielburger royalty treats their workforce like little charity serfs. It’s that the Liberals are using an unprecedented economic and health crisis to prey on vulnerable and desperate students for cheap labour and calling it a “grant.” Bosses know students are willing to work for any amount of crumbs right now. These effects will be felt throughout the labour movement by placing massive downward pressure on wages. How can you compete for a design job if a student will do it for as little as $5 an hour?
Students and workers shouldn’t have to rely on charity. They already do the work necessary to make the world turn every single day. They shouldn’t be holding their hands out and waiting for the benevolence of this or that non-profit. Something like the Liberals’ aid package—which is already too little too late—comes from funds which were ours to begin with. Workers already produce more than enough wealth to give every single human a healthy and fulfilling life, pandemic or not. It’s just that much of that wealth is taken away by a small minority in the form of profits. It’ll take the collective effort of an organized working class to kick out the Liberals for good, and get us through this pandemic without causing any more pain and suffering for working people.