Just over a week ago the federal government announced it would use WE Charity to administer a $900-million student volunteer program. The money was expected to flow immediately and the program was to be completed within four months.
In 2019 the same federal government announced that Black community organizations would receive $25 million — $5 million a year over five years to “to celebrate, share knowledge and build capacity in in our vibrant Black Canadian communities.” The disbursement of these funds has been delayed, and Black communities have yet to see the bulk of this funding.
Though the federal government and WE Charity have announced they’ve mutually parted ways, and WE Charity will no longer be delivering the volunteer program, their partnership raises some critical questions about the fluidity between civil service and elected officials.
An enduring Canadian political myth insists that public servants are not influenced or impacted by elected officials. In fact, our politicians go to great pains to remind us of the invisible boundaries between them. Trudeau said that WE Charity had the confidence of the civil service, making it clear that neither he nor anyone at the Prime Minister’s Office had chosen the non-profit — which has close ties to his family — to administer hundreds of millions of dollars.
The image of these boundaries helps to sustain the vision that Ottawa is a place of equilibrium and rigour and dispassionate objectivity — that decisions such as how to distribute program funds never happen outside of the recommendations of public servants. Anything to distract us from the reality that decisions of this magnitude are often made in private conversations between powerful white men looking to line their pockets and turn a profit.
Are public servants influenced by those on the political side? That’s the $900-million question, and anyone who saw the de-commitment to WE and heard the apology in Trudeau’s tone at his press conference could tell you the answer. But perhaps what is more important for us to consider is the kind of clout it takes to be offered the responsibility of direct service delivery to address youth employment needs.
What does that mean for those of us who don’t walk the halls of Parliament and instead advocate and protest in our workplaces and in the streets? Power brokering behind the scenes is exactly why Black and Indigenous groups watch allocated funds become stalled and delayed, beginning and ending with promises and nary a cent invested. When I say Black Canadians don’t believe Trudeau or Canada, this is exactly what I mean.
Nowhere was this made more clear than the promise to WE Charity — a gang of brothers quietly marking their territory as profiteers of the non-profit industrial complex. I grew up knowing the story of the Kielburger brothers , including Craig, a young person defending the rights of other youth working in sweatshops around the world. Even then, as a young Black girl, I knew that what Craig had done could only happen in a middle-class, white household. My family was the Other he was defending — my parents experienced precarious work, irregular hours and lamentable working conditions, but they lived right here in Canada.
My teachers told me about Craig, and I wondered what this young white boy knew about advocacy, since his had just launched him into fame and stardom . My version of advocacy aligned more with making sure teachers couldn’t kick me out of class just because I told them they were being racist. For Black communities, this is just another glimpse into the experience of middle-class, white youth who volunteer and travel secure in the knowledge that a job is never far behind. You can be absolved of what you’ve done at home so long as you take the summer off to build a well in Kenya.
What makes the deal that the federal government struck with WE even more unbelievable is the centrality of employment and labour practices in the narrative. Craig’s first foray into advocacy was to stop child labour practices and the companies that used them; the government decided to launch a program to pay student volunteers instead of supporting youth employment opportunities; and now there’s a letter, endorsed by 200 former and current employees and addressed to the WE board of directors, that outlines collective experiences of racism and harm in the workplace at the hands of its current leadership. For Craig, I’m sure this is a far cry from the 12-year-old boy sitting on Oprah’s couch speaking about sweatshop labour conditions. What does an organization founded by individuals with excessive opportunity know about employment for youth experiencing insurmountable barriers, youth who are likely Black, Indigenous or racialized?
Despite the ethics commissioner’s investigation into the WE Charity contract , it is unlikely anything will change. Black people already know that there is no opportunity not afforded to two young white guys speaking on behalf of a generation. The truth is that WE Charity, Free the Children, ME to WE or whatever they’re calling themselves is exactly the organization it is designed to be. This backyard of unchecked and unregulated privilege finds itself in the non-profit sector and in the hallways of Ottawa, with our public service and our elected officials.
It also finds itself in the silence of the knowledgeable spectators to the Twitter hashtag #WeHaveAProblem, a non-profit sector campaign to redeploy the $900 million. There is no boundary between the public and political sides of service. There is no one set of rules that dictate how any of these games are played. In fact, the game itself is a moving benchmark only benefiting white people in positions of power. Knowing this matters and is important.
The solution is for the federal government to let the pendulum swing far to the other side: earmark 50 per cent of the $900 million for Black communities.
Spend less time creating reasons to blockade money to communities that need it the most, and treat the disbursement of funds in the way charities like WE have come to expect it. Expend the same energy advocating for a different world, one that actually employs Black youth, instead of volunteers, with decent wages and optimal conditions.
There should be no price tag on changing lives, but $450 million sounds like a good start.