Donor Says WE Charity Removed Plaque Honoring His Dead Child

A WE Charity donor told a Canadian parliamentary committee that the organization replaced his plaque with that of another donor on a Kenyan school meant to honor his dead son, adding new allegations to a probe that has drawn in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family.

“It feels to me like returning to my son’s grave and finding it broken, open, defiled, and empty,” Reed Cowan told the committee. “I feel like my son was the victim of fraud.”

Donor Says WE Charity Removed Plaque Honoring His Dead Child

The testimony Friday prompted one committee member to say WE had shown “a pattern of duplicitous relations with donors” who raised money to build schools and other projects in Kenya. “We’ve had staff at WE tell us stuff was going on in the schools, but you have confirmed this,” said Charlie Angus, a member of the House ethics committee from the New Democratic Party.

In a statement, WE Charity said it was “sympathetic to Mr. Cowan’s loss and we want to reiterate our apology to Mr. Cowan for the mistake WE made in placing a plaque on one of the schools he funded. But there is no pattern here. WE has received tens of thousands of donations over the years. Mr. Cowan’s experience was unfortunate but exceedingly rare.”

Honoring His Child

Cowan pledged to help build schools in Kenya through WE Charity after the death of his 4-year-old son in an accident. He told the committee that he ultimately raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he said prompted celebrities and corporations to follow his giving.

The effort brought him solace, but Cowan testified that he grew suspicious after reading a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation published in December that included allegations from former staff that donor plaques on projects in Kenya were frequently swapped -- allegations that WE denied at the time.

Cowan later learned that a plaque on a schoolhouse commemorating his son, Wesley, was missing. He told the panel that he then found a video showing the charity dedicating the same schoolhouse to another donor just 13 days before his own visit. It was the same ceremony, the same staff, the same songs -- just a different plaque.

WE said Friday that he was mistaken. “There was only one opening ceremony for the schoolhouse and it was for Mr. Cowan,” it said, adding that “WE’s schoolhouses in Kenya are built to the same specifications and look similar to one another, so we understand Mr. Cowan’s confusion.”

After Cowan brought the error to WE’s attention, the group said it apologized and installed a second plaque last month. “We know that the most important thing for Mr. Cowan was to honor his son’s memory by building four schoolhouses in Kenya,” it said in the statement. “The four schoolhouses Mr. Cowan funded still stand to this day.”

Probe Expanded

The group also said its donor matching for projects in Kenya was independently reviewed last year by a forensic accountant “who confirmed that projects such as schoolhouses were not ‘double matched’.”

The report was funded by a major WE donor, the Stillman Family Foundation. Wesley’s plaque was replaced at a campus named the Howie Stillman Campus.

Cowan’s testimony came as lawmakers expand their probe of WE, which landed at the heart of a conflict-of-interest investigation in 2020 after it received a no-bid contract from Trudeau’s government to distribute pandemic aid. Trudeau failed to recuse himself from the awarding of the contract, even though the charity previously had paid his family members to appear at its events.

Donor Says WE Charity Removed Plaque Honoring His Dead Child

Founded in 1995 as Free the Children by then 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, WE evolved into a juggernaut famous in non-profit circles for its massive youth rallies and school programs in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. It also became known for its ability to court politicians, billionaires and celebrities, who went on voluntourism trips offered by its for-profit travel arm to help build schools or dig wells in impoverished parts of the world, with a portion of its profits going back to the charity.

Conflict of Interest

Canada’s federal ethics watchdog, as well as at least two parliamentary committees, have been conducting probes into the potential conflict-of-interest violations.

The probes have increased public scrutiny of the charity’s operations, sparking questions about its complex corporate structure and mix of charitable and for-profit activities, as well as its political connections.

Cowan, who describes himself as a journalist, author, filmmaker and speaker, said that when he discovered the plaque was missing he approached WE Charity and repeatedly asked the organization for accounts showing how much money was raised in connection with his son’s legacy and how it was spent. He said he has received no accounting.

WE said it “is retrieving its records from its archives and intends to provide them to Mr. Cowan.”

Cowan estimates that his efforts raised almost $100,000 in 2006, while a subsequent partnership with a school board in Florida brought in more than that amount. “I felt like I vetted the charity,” he said.

The lawmakers were visibly moved by Cowan’s testimony. “If my voice is shaking a little bit, I really am struggling a little bit on what to say,” said Colin Carrie, a member of the Conservative Party. “I’ve been a member of parliament for 17 years, and I don’t think I’ve been moved more from somebody opening up their heart to a committee before.”

Panel members asked Cowan what he would like to see done. He called on celebrities and big sponsors who have helped WE’s ascent -- including Oprah, Prince Harry, Trudeau and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. -- to come forward and open their records to prove that WE is “on the up and up.”

“And if you don’t, your silence says everything,” he added.

Another lawmaker asked Cowan how the experience had affected his views on charitable giving.

“You know, that’s the sad thing about this for me and all the kids who sat in those stadium events,” he said, referring to massive WE Days that were the group’s trademark in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. “I know for me personally, I will serve the communities I live in, and I won’t engage across borders because now I feel burned.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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