WE might have a problem here

What good, really, is an apology these days?  This is a question I don’t imagine Justin Trudeau asks himself much.

Perhaps he should.  Our goofy boy prime minister has found himself in another one of his self-directed jams.

This time, as you’re probably aware, his government decided it would be a good idea to give a nearly $1-billion volunteer program — meant to get students money during the pandemic because of a lack of summer jobs — over to the not-a-cult charity WE to administer.  Turns out his connections to the place weren’t just spiritual, but financial, in that members of his family have been paid by WE to speak at their deeply weird events. 

For all this, Trudeau is very sorry.

He didn’t recuse himself from the discussions of giving WE the contract.  Neither did his finance minister, Bill Morneau, whose daughter works for the organization.  He is also sorry. 

But beyond these obvious and absurd — not to mention avoidable — conflicts, there is also the issue of why have WE run the program in the first place. 

CBC reports organizations had to sign contracts to promise to say only nice things about WE, to allow WE to use their logos, and to issue promotional statements for/about WE in order to access public money.  It also binds them to keep information about the contract secret. 

There are other weird aspects to the way things were being delivered by WE, according to CBC.  Different organizations were being offered different amounts of money to find and manage volunteers through the program.

The program had a goal of recruiting 100,000 students, CBC says, but if every one of those students worked enough hours to get the maximum grant of $5,000, that only accounts for $500 million.  That leaves more than $400 million going where exactly?

It’s all so bizarre.

That the situation has played out poorly isn’t a huge surprise.  WE is notoriously un-transparent about its operations, and does not seem to take well to scrutiny as an organization.  It has a complex financial structure with both a not-for-profit charity side (WE) and a for-profit entity (ME to WE), plus various international iterations of these organizations.

Not only that, but many of the terms of the contract between WE and the government were meant to be kept out of the public eye.  We have yet to see the contract between the charity and the government.  What we do know is that WE was supposed to be paid $19.5 million to do the work some part of the federal bureaucracy should have been taking care of.

An organization as secretive, vindictive, and, let’s be honest, creepy as WE should never have been within miles of delivering a public program meant to give students a financial boost during the pandemic.  It’s bad enough they’re able to hoover up public money to put on Canada Day weekend events where the prime minister’s own mother speaks.  Giving them a contract of this magnitude is just insulting.

And yet they were.  It’s madness, but the kind of absurd madness that only this government can produce.  Heads should roll, but it’s likely we’re only going to get a couple “oopsies!”  But that’s not enough.  Corruption like this, not just of the lining the pockets of your friends kind, but in the sense of an infected wound corrupting the body of the country cannot be allowed to stand.

It may be useful for Liberals to remind themselves how Ontario ended up with Doug Ford as premier.  After years of arrogance, bad governance, and various and assorted bits of corruption — both legal and less-than — Ontario voters finally got so sick of the party they put Ford in power.  (That so many of the current federal Liberal brain trust migrated from Toronto may have something to do with their inability to internalize this lesson.)

The Liberal Party tends to think of itself as a noble enterprise, where if it is doing something that thing is inherently good, because they are doing it.  WE operates under similar principles.  They’re doing whatever it is they’re doing — it’s never been entirely clear what the point of, say, WE Day is, but anyway — they’re doing it for the children, so how could it be bad?

It’s hard not to see this as akin to the simple hubris of Icarus.  Particularly for WE, an organization that has for much of its existence escaped scrutiny from the press.  Between their relentless smarmy do-goodery and their co-optation of much of the media through partnerships and column placements, WE has mostly avoided any serious look into its practices.

Now, after getting handed a big-dollar government contract to run, for no readily explicable reason, the scrutiny is coming fast and heavy.  They have flown too close the sun, and now the wax is melting.

The question now becomes, who do they drag down with them?

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Robert Hiltz.     @robert_hiltz

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