Jesse Brown’s Latest Flop: Making $20 by Attacking a Charity

Opinion
By
Mark Bourrie
June 30, 2019
Fair Press by Mark Bourrie logo

I didn’t start this site to talk about Jesse Brown. It’s really supposed to be about the intersection of media, law and politics. But damn, when Canadaland is bad, it’s really the worst political/news site in Canada.

I have been following his campaign against WE Charity, which is an organization I deeply believe in. And I won’t let go.

The long-awaited Canadaland follow-up investigation on Craig and Marc Kielburger and WE Charity finally came out last week under the headline “Inside the ‘Cult’ of Kielburger”, and the best response I’ve seen to it so far came from former Prime Minister Kim Campbell who tweeted:

This latest attempt to “take down” WE Charity was Jesse Brown’s most boring yet. This is Canadaland’s 9th article/podcast about WE (with its promised 10th coming Monday).

After almost a year, Kerr and Brown could only get two ex-employees to go on the record with negative comments. One was a former Grade 13 co-op student who briefly worked for the organization in 2007.  Two people out of 2200 current and former staff.

The tedious article refers to WE management practices from 10 or 15+ years ago. During those days the organization would do things like billet travelling staff at the homes of local teachers and offer staff housing in Toronto. Even Canadaland acknowledges that the charity was in a start-up mode, and quotes one of the senior staff referencing the early days as “the organization was going through a transformation from a youth-driven grassroots charity, to a professional organization”. But Canadaland telescoped the time element. It was one of many sleights of hand in Jaren Kerr’s reporting.

Let’s explore the three fundamental accusations of this article:

  • WE is a “a cult”

Keep in mind WE has uplifted 1M+ children and families from poverty, built schools and clean water systems all over the developing world and inspires North American children to think about important social issues. The entire basis for the allegation seems to be that Craig Kielburger is charismatic and a passionate speaker, and that WE used to provide free housing to employees in its earliest days. That’s it?

A boss who cares deeply about his work – what a drag. Free rent in Toronto – that’s a bitch. You pretty much have to go to jail to get a free place to live in Toronto now. And even that accommodation is way out in Milton.

  • Some staff want a pay raise

Who doesn’t?

WE says its starting salary is 35k, plus dental, prescription drugs, mental health support, in-office gym, Goodlife gym membership, free Barista, free physiotherapist.

It’s all a bit rich coming from Canadaland, too, where ex-employees complain they lived like flat broke students, but without a drug plan. Yet Brown claims his starting wage at Canadaland is $48,000, but without the complete benefit plan (he kicks in $2500 for benefits and $1,000 for professional development). Keep in mind that WE is a charity and Canadaland is not.

Not every employee loves their job or their bosses all the time

I don’t, and I’m self-employed. When I did have jobs, my bosses sometimes got angry. I suspect many people have had the same experience.

Celebrity Gossip #1

Canadaland published a graphic showing hotel and travel expenses for celebrities, and they write: “Celebrities donate their time when they appear at WE Day, but stars still have expenses. Some are revealed in a WE budget obtained by Canadaland. WE Charity said these costs are completely covered by corporate sponsors or TV ad revenue, and ‘the funds could not have been used for any other purpose.’”

Funds from WE Day TV ad revenue and sponsors paid for a $4,700 hotel bill for former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, security team and staff. I guess the YMCA was full.

Celebrity Gossip #2

Jacob Hoggard of Hedley is charged with sexual assault. One alleged victim is a WE volunteer Hoggard supposedly met online through the dating app Tinder. But Brown makes it look like victims were offered up by WE to scummy celebs: “A perk available to WE employees in their “Employee Value Proposition” includes “opportunities to interact with and learn from WE’s celebrity ambassadors.” (Until recently, the band Hedley was among WE’s “celebrity ambassadors”).

That’s just gross. The WE organization immediately cut the Hoggard loose when they found out about the sexual assault allegations.

Even Jesse’s twitter buddies thought this was an overreach:

N M‏ @nicxelaine Replying to @JesseBrown

Seriously, this is a reach and it’s gross. Are you actually suggesting WE contributed to this woman’s sexual assault? Hoggard is a predator, this is no one’s fault but his. Also, the victim met him met on Tinder. Are you writing a takedown piece on them, too?

— N M (@nicxelaine) June 25, 2019

In response to a question from me, Brown weaseled around the issue: “A former WE employee says that she was warned about Jacob Hoggard at work, before the assault allegations. WE says that management had no prior knowledge about Hoggard. I have no reason to doubt or disbelieve either claim.” But Brown still decided to post repeatedly on twitter about Jacob Hoggard’s connection to WE.

Back to former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, she had this to say about WE’s HR practices and respect for women. “I have long followed WE’s work and its impressive record of empowering women and girls around the world. Led by the widely admired rights activist Michelle Douglas as Chair of its Board of Directors, the proudly Canadian charitable organization routinely engages the leading minds in human resources and legal experts when developing and reviewing its workplace policies and standards.”

Retired judge Stephen Goudge has looked at Canadaland’s reporting and has found it to be biased and flawed. All of the judge’s reports about WE can be found (here) on the organization’s web site.

In response, Brown says, “in my opinion they are slanted, but not because WE is paying him or because he is biased per se. They’re slanted because the questions he “ruled” on were written by WE, and because WE had the opportunity to provide him with any additional materials or documents that they felt would help their case, and Canadaland was not given that opportunity. It was a bogus process.”

I have asked Brown whether he offered to send anything to Goudge to bolster his reporting and prove the allegations that Goudge says are spurious. I will update this with any answer that I get.

Gossiping About Gossip

Brown says WE employees sign non-disclosure agreements and mutual non-disparage agreements. This, in Brown’s mind, is bad. (Hey, Jonathan Goldsbie, I heard Jesse…”) These are standard in many workplaces. They help keep peace and prevent bullying.

But this is Brown’s take when asked if he thought workplace gossip was a good thing:

“In my opinion, yes. The only workplace where people don’t gossip that I can conceive of is one in which employees don’t trust or like each other. Gossip is just something human beings do in any environment (check out the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari), and it falls outside of the realm of things that management can control or regulate. How do we even define “gossip?”. Any discussion of anyone who isn’t present could be considered gossip. In many work environments (I am not speaking specifically of WE) gossip can turn negative, and then managers may complain that gossip is a problem. But sometimes people gossip negatively because there’s something negative to gossip about.”

However, a basic google search shows Brown needs to work on his HR ideas.

—–

To believe Canadaland’s claims by anonymous sources, you need to disbelieve the over 100 former staff who each gave statements on the record and the 900+ current staff who are surveyed every year (anonymously and by an independent third-party firm Tembo Status) and report that 78% of these they employees “love their job”, and another 96% say their work is helping to make a difference in the world.

Brown was not able to undermine that fact. Just go to their website to see all the third-party analysis, reports and disclosures they conduct and post on a regular basis.

Despite Brown’s clickbait “cult” headline, WE has been recognized as one of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award, and three times as one of Canada’s Top Employers for Young People, along with of other HR awards.

A report from Singh Lamarche LLP, a law firm specializing in employment law and workplace investigations, found that WE’s policies and procedures that protect employees from discrimination, harassment and violence, represent the “gold standard” in the sector.

Have a look at WE’s historical HR Case Study here, or read the Coles notes version, here. Or check out the lengths they go to in order to create a healthy in their HR Report, safe, harassment free work environment in their staff Safety Report and to facilitate safety for participants in WE Day, WE Schools and WE Trips.

Despite Canadaland having more than 25 third-party reports and statements about WE, Canadaland nitpicked at only one report. It’s by Dr. David Baum who gave a character reference for Marc Kielburger and Craig Kielburger. His sin? He officiated at Craig Kielburger’s wedding. Supposedly, this was a gross conflict of interest.

Baum has a PhD in Organizational Psychology and another PhD in Divinity Studies and is an ordained minister (which qualified him to conduct the wedding ceremony) and he has worked with Fortune 500 CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, and helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland.

But none of that was good enough for Brown, who says Baum is compromised.

“In my opinion, Baum is in a perceived conflict of interest at minimum. He calls his report ‘independent’ and his report concerns things like how much mentorship Craig & Marc get and the fact that he likes them very much. He does not disclose in his reports that he himself has been their mentor and friend for years,” Brown told me.

Baum is a Kielburger mentor, but Brown would like readers to think he’s the only one, and that he’s unable to do his job simply because he is a friend. The idea that Dr. Baum can’t act professionally because he likes the Kielburger brothers is absurd.

Finally, I’m not the only person calling out this crap.

Lauren Martin, a WE staff member posted on social media, “Jaren said he spoke with 2 dozen former employees. That represents no more that 1% of former and current WE Staff (2400+). Name an Org out there that doesn’t have at least 1% of staff that speak negatively about their former employer…”

Jesse Brown goes on to bully her, because that’s what truth-seeking media critics are supposed to do.

But she had a of interesting things to say on Twitter about her experience with Canadaland:

I spoke at length with Jaren about this in our conversations. Disappointed with the attempted smear on their characters…

“The vast majority of questions asked were skewed towards me refuting negative comments from his anonymous sources. It made me feel like he wasn’t interested in hearing the other side, just differing opinions on the negative perspective of a few former disgruntled employees. He said he felt his last report was fair because he posted a link to WE’s 100+ page response to all of his questions. But posting 100 pages that no one is going to read and not integrating it into the article isn’t really fair…”

“When we talked about why he took this project on, he said …well…there’s a lot of positive coverage about WE, but not a lot of negative… He also said this was a make or break career move for him. I don’t feel like those are the intentions of someone looking to do balanced work. Off the record, I didn’t hold back with him. I told him how I felt about his previous reporting. That it bias and full of inaccuracies and manufactured so-called “evidence” – like that Kellogg’s box that never existed. Really?…”

“Jaren said he spoke with 2 dozen former employees. That represents no more that 1% of former/current WE Staff (2400+). Name an Org out there that doesn’t have at least 1% of staff that speak negatively about their former employer. And to underscore this further, the only 2 named negative sources in the coverage were both asked to leave the org: one, 12 years ago (2007) at age 19 shortly after a high school co-op. This is hardly credible & doesn’t appropriately represent the 2,400 former/current staff.”

Martin says she spent “3-4 hours with Jaren in-person, I spoke extensively about the character of both Marc & Craig: incredible leaders in this organization that are extremely smart, kind and treat everyone with respect.”

We’re seeing how the sausage is made, and it’s not pretty.

Conclusion

As I wrote in my last piece, it’s clear why Jesse Brown is doing this: clicks andmoney. With his subscribers in decline and revenue falling, his super-torqued headlines about WE were lame attempts to drive interest. The guy simply can’t break real stories.

Despite Brown’s assertion on the June 26 episode of Shortcuts that the story is “one of the best pieces of journalism Canadaland has ever published”, the story seems to be a giant flop.

I think that people are simply tired with the stories about WE. They weren’t that interesting to begin with.

The first WE articles that Canadaland published, along with last fall’s Thunder Bay podcast,  produced a big bump in subscribers for Brown. January’s stuff gave them another bounce.

This time, not so much. On June 24, the day before the article was published, Canadaland had 4,947 subscribers (this data can easily be found on Patreon’s data analytics page). As of Saturday the 29th, they were up to a whopping 4,951. That’s four new subscribers from a piece that took 8 months to produce.

$20 buck return to Canadaland in their attempt to take down a charity and its co-founders who help poor children in Africa.

What’s more, I haven’t seen a single mainstream media organization pick up anything from this supposedly ground-breaking investigation.

A few minutes after Canadaland published the article, Brown posted this Tweet:

It’s an amazing statement and embodies all that is wrong with Jesse Brown in one 279 character tweet.

Brown also tried to drive traffic to his website by posting a snarky Tweet about Hedley’s Jacob Hoggard and the sexual assault of young women. Imagine being the young woman Jacob Hoggard is accused of sexually assaulting and beating, and seeing this Tweet from Brown. Or consider the other girl, who was under 16 at the time of Hoggard’s alleged assault on her, and seeing this online.

Brown wants to take down internationally-famous Canadian activists who have each won an Order of Canada for their work helping to lift over 1-million children and families out of poverty, plus engage millions of Canadian youth to volunteer annually 10m+ hours for 5000+ causes. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The “social enterprise” model of fundraising may have skeptics. But over-torquing a lame investigation in a “make or break” career move is just wrong.

The only thing good is that it appears that this sad saga may finally be coming to a end.