OTTAWA — Payments made to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family for appearing at WE events came under scrutiny Tuesday after the former chair of WE Charity’s board of directors testified that the board was explicitly told speakers were not paid.
Michelle Douglas, who resigned in March from the board of WE Charity, told the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday WE’s board made direct inquiries about whether speakers at the organization’s popular youth events known as “WE Days” were compensated.
WE’s executive director assured the board they were not paid, Douglas said.
“The WE Charity board always understood that speakers were not paid by the charity or the related organization to speak at WE Days. The board made direct inquiries on this issue,” Douglas told the committee.
Earlier this month, the WE organization confirmed it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family.
Trudeau’s mother Margaret Trudeau was paid about $250,000 for 28 speaking appearances at WE-related events between 2016 and 2020 and his brother Alexandre has been paid $32,000 for eight events, according to WE.
“I don’t know the precise nature of what they were paid for, but if it was exclusively to speak on the WE Day stage, that would have surprised me,” Douglas told the committee.
After Douglas’s appearance, Craig and Marc Kielburger told the committee Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has participated in seven WE Days and received an average of $3,618 for each event, to cover her expenses. That works out to $25,326 in total.
Margaret Trudeau’s expenses totalled $167,944, they said, citing an average of $5,988 for each of her 28 events. Alexandre Trudeau’s expenses averaged $2,447 each for his eight events, or $19,576.
The WE organization had previously said that it covered Trudeau family members’ travel costs but had not divulged these more detailed figures.
The Kielburgers explained that these speakers were not paid directly for speaking at WE Days, but to compensate them for their time for participating in “auxiliary events” such as receptions, cocktail parties, breakfasts and book-signings that took place in and around WE Days.
They acknowledged that not all speakers were offered this compensation, but said a small number of speakers, including members of the Trudeau family, were paid for these auxiliary events. They cited privacy for refusing to name other speakers paid for these appearances but said they would seek permission to reveal some soon.
Opposition MPs raised a number of questions about why members of Trudeau’s family in particular were asked to take part in paid WE events and whether other speakers had received similar remuneration.
Margaret Trudeau was asked to share her work on mental health and Alexandre Trudeau was engaged to speak about his environmental activism and was a last-minute replacement for Margaret, the Kielburgers explained.
“By bringing in these types of educational speakers to events, it allows us to bring partners and sponsors to the table. This is part of our model, and it works really well,” Craig Kielburger said.
He also noted many other prominent politicians have attended WE events, including Laureen Harper, the wife of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who hosted a post-WE Day reception at 24 Sussex Drive.
The WE co-founders disputed the suggestion they had close personal ties with the Trudeau family.
“I’ve never seen the prime minister or Sophie Gregoire Trudeau in a social setting. Neither of us have. We’ve never had a meal with them. We’ve never socialized with them,” Craig Kielburger said.
Meanwhile, the Kielburgers were also asked to address concerns voiced by Douglas about the status of WE Charity prior to entering into the now-aborted agreement with the federal government to administer the Canada Student Service Grant.
Douglas says she resigned from the board of WE Charity in March after the organization began a series of mass layoffs but refused to provide financial justification to the board for them.
“I did not resign as a routine member or as part of a planned board transition. I resigned because I could not do my job, I could not discharge my governance duties,” she said.
After the COVID-19 health crisis hit in March, the WE Charity’s executive team was “scrambling” to deal with the financial impacts of the pandemic, Douglas said, and began to lay off large numbers of staff.
As the days went by, the numbers of job losses grew quickly into the hundreds, she said (the Kielburgers would later testify that WE Charity laid off about half its 390 employees).
The board of directors convened an ad hoc committee to hold daily calls with the executive team for briefings and updates, and this committee was told the executive was running daily financial reports to inform its decision-making regarding its employees.
“Those reports were not shared with the board, despite our requests,” Douglas said.
“It was our view that you cannot fire hundreds of people without very strong, demonstrable evidence, and even then should explore mitigation measures to save jobs. Instead, the executive team were dismissing employees with great speed and in large numbers.”
After the board made a final demand for the reports to be produced immediately, Douglas said, Craig Kielburger called her up and asked her to resign.
The Kielburgers acknowledged that they were forced to let go a number of their employees, but said the board was briefed a number of times on the status of the charity.
The charity had decided to restructure its board in fall of 2019, but COVID-19 disrupted those plans, Craig Kielburger said.
He says Douglas was offered a “transition time” of three months in March, but she chose to leave the company immediately.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press