Around 1995, Canada had its own Greta Thunberg, when out of nowhere emerged an earnest 12-year-old boy named Craig Keilburger. He was a kid from Thornhill, whose parents Fred and Theresa were both teachers and real estate investors. Things got started when Craig saw a headline in the Toronto Star that read “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered.” The accompanying story was about a young Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih, a child labourer turned child-rights activist who was killed for speaking out against the carpet industry.
By December 1995, Kielburger had travelled to Asia with Alam Rahman, a 25-year-old family friend from Bangladesh to see the condition of child labourers for himself. While there, he learnt that then-Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien was travelling to India. After initially being denied a meeting, Kielburger in a move that was part luck, part stroke of brilliance (although he doesn’t see it that way), Kielburger and Free the Children bumped up the date of the press conference they’d been organizing for the local media, inviting the barrage of Canadian reporters that were following Chrétien. Two dozen journalists from high-profile Canadian newspapers and journals, and all of the major Canadian TV networks rearranged their schedules to attend. The news conference resulting in headlines across Canada and internationally. Upon his return, Kielburger attracted international media attention with features on 60 Minutes and the Oprah Winfrey Show His South Asian trip was documented in the Judy Jackson documentary “It Takes a Child”.[In 1999, the teenage Kielburger collaborated with novelist Kevin Major to write Free the Children, a book detailing his trip to South Asia, his meetings with child labourers, and the founding of Free The Children.
Kielburger’s charity initially fundraised for organizations that raided factories and freed children from forced labour situations. When it became clear that the rescued children were being resold by their impoverished families, Free The Children changed its approach. The organization began to fund school building projects in Nicaragua, Kenya, Ecuador and India. Eventually, it developed an international development model focused on education, water, health care, food security and income generation. Since then the organization grew, was rebranded as We Charity and by 2018 had net assets of nearly $50 Million. Kielburger has met Mother Theresa, and been awarded the Order of Canada. He is the author of 12 books .Other honours include World Economic Forum Global Leaders of Tomorrow Award 1988, Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award, 2003, and the EY & Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award.(2008). He is three years away from his 40th birthday.
Given the size of the organization and its success, and given the obvious brilliance of the precocious Kielburger—nobody could accomplish was he and his brother have done without possessing unusual qualities– events of the past few weeks must be bewildering. Only weeks ago the Kielburgers and the Trudeau’s were basking in each other’s glory—star quality on all sides.
It is too early to say where this is all headed. More information may come out as journalists and critics of the We Charity subject it to increasing scrutiny but so far, at least, there has been no allegation of fiduciary wrongdoing on the part of the Kielburgers. That may change, but at the present time what we have are reports that there have been abrupt resignations this year at the Charity’s board level, and that there is blurring of the business of Me to We-the profit-making arm of the charity and the charity itself and that the organization has substantial real estate holdings.. The Charity Watchdog, Charity Intelligence Canada gives WE a decent rating on financial transparency for posting its financials publicly, an “A” for reporting its activities, but a “fair” only on its ability to demonstrate the impact of its work. The watchdog reported that 86 cents out of every dollar went to charitable work.
It is also worth noting that until the awarding of the sole-source contract without Prime Minister Trudeau declaring his clear conflict of interest, as he should have; there was nothing wrong with Margaret Trudeau and Sacha Trudeau accepting paid speaking engagements. It was Trudeau’s actions that cast those engagements in a bad light. One can feel some sympathy for Margaret Trudeau who has struggled with mental illness since she was a young bride. It was only in the past few years that she found her stride as a mental health advocate, speaking on the issue at WE events, yes—but in many other forums as well. With the current controversy that avenue seems to be cut off, at least for now.
Events may overtake these thoughts in the coming days, but regardless of what may ultimately emerge, there is some sadness to see the amount of reputational destruction that can result from the careless errors in judgement by the Prime Minister, to the highly successful charity, two very gifted entrepreneurs and most important–to his own family.