As a Canadian and as a youth advocate, I’m particularly interested in the lessons of the vigorous anti-Me to WE campaign that’s rallying against the Craig and Marc Keilburger and the movement they’ve established over the last 25 years. To sum up the scandal, the Canadian federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accused of cronyism with the Keilburgers and their organization by granting them a great deal of unsolicited funds designed to employ Canadian youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the organization isn’t without fault, I think the entire situation is merely a cover for a more covert and cynical move by Trudeau’s political opponents. If ME to WE is guilty of anything, it was becoming an opportunistic pawn in a political game they didn’t want to play.
“We were not chosen for this work by public servants because of our relationship with politicians,” said Craig. “We were chosen because we are willing to leverage every part of our 25 years of experience to build this program at the breakneck speed required to have an impact on Canadian youth over the summer.”– Craig Keilburger to the Canada House Finance Committee in July 2020
Now, for the sake of transparency, I’ll reveal that I’ve had some dealings with Free the Children in the past. Starting in 2002, they didn’t like my “Freechild” branding and let me know. I took a few phone calls with the organization to see if there were collaborative spaces we could share. We decided to go different ways, and I’ve tried to stay out of their lane since. I’ve also read two books by the Keilburgers and attended a WE event in Seattle. I am not pro-WE, but I’m not against them either. We work in not dissimilar ways to accomplish particularly related missions, and while I admire their success I’m particularly suspicious of their methods to accomplish their goals.
That said, I think in this case almost the entire case against Me to WE is a smear campaign. In Canada, the Conservative Party is the minority party right now, and they haaaaate Justin Trudeau. They were hunting for a place to go after him, and voila! They found it in Me to WE.
A recent McLean’s article did a pithy job of getting those nonprofit critics to rip on Me to WE, and what they said was just easy criticism. What Me to WE did was use connections to get funding — which is a typical, traditional nonprofit model. They didn’t color outside the lines and they were more successful than others.
Finding people to speak against them is easy for detractors, if only because so many organizations are truly envious of Me to WE’s successes; the same can be said for deeply cynical, thinly veiled haters who opine against the organization and the Keilburger brothers.
All that said, the valid part of the entire campaign targeting Me to WE is that the Keilburger’s relationship between their nonprofit and their business was shady. Coupled with the reality that the Keilberger brothers profited majorly from the whole thing, that’s not good. Early on there were rumors their parents were profiting too. Too much family involvement and too much individual benefit, and the appearance of them gaming the Canadian nonprofit system is real. As this 2010 article shows, concerns about Me to WE are long-standing too — but that’s one thing that reinforces my conclusion that this is a smear campaign: detractors of Me to WE were simply looking for an opportune moment to link Trudeau to something that appeared shady.
However, the real problem in the whole thing is that this smear is larger than Me to WE and larger than Trudeau.
Instead, its a multi-generational campaign intentionally designed by the Conservatives to ensure another generation of Canadians becomes cynical about the nonprofit complex and the do-gooder mission of Me to WE. This is fuel on the fire of hopelessness, and it bums me out because it is going to be successful.
Hundreds of schools will drop Me to WE curriculum and the mission of young people doing good things to help the world become a better place.
I don’t care how they did it (superstar rallies are cosmetic feel-good BS), the fact is they did motivate a generation to get active, both in Canada, here in the States, and in many other nations worldwide. That’s going to go missing now.
This entire scandal is part of a larger pattern that Canada’s Conservatives and Republicans here in the US saw, where young people in schools were taught for 20 years that they should do good things to help people in the world. They saw that was happening and they stepped in to stop it, and that’s largely worked.
Me to WE is the latest casualty in the war for the hearts and minds of young people. Unfortunately, if we lose their work entirely, we are closer to losing another generation of Canadian youth and young people around the world. The cynicism inherent in this scandal will scare the perceptions of young people, and after being reinforced by the media, their parents and their schools, young people will further withdraw from the absolutely essential efforts our world needs them to take to make the situation here better for everyone.
We have to do better.