There is a saying, often attributed to Nazi’s chief propagandist – Joseph Goebbels, that if you repeat a lie often enough, it eventually is accepted as truth.
It is hard to imagine a time in human history in which this saying was more accurate than the last two to three years. From pandemic disinformation, to Russian propaganda that fuels its unjust war in Ukraine, to attempts to overturn the US federal election, we have come to accept that a level of lying will be present in every major event or issue of our day.
But we should never quietly allow the levels of disinformation we are seeing today. Once society accepts lying on a mass scale, the truth is forever obscured.
These themes are explored in a new book by Tawfiq Rangwala called What WE Lost – Inside the Attack on Canada’s Largest Children’s Charity. The book tells the story of the so-called “WE Charity political scandal” that erupted in the first summer of COVID (2020), and the impact on the key players and the former benefactors of the charity itself.
In the spring of 2020, WE Charity was asked by the Government of Canada to quickly launch a massive student grant program to help offset the loss of student jobs in the summer ahead due to the pandemic. The charity scrambled to stand up a program that could match students with not for profit organizations to earn a grant based on the number of hours they served. WE Charity was asked to manage the program and disburse the grants.
But shortly after the program – known as the Canada Student Service Program (CSSG) – was announced, opposition politicians and the media cried foul due to the fact that Margaret Trudeau, the Prime Minister’s mother, had worked as a speaker at some of WE’s public events. The PM’s wife, Sophie, had also volunteered for the charity, and former Minister of Finance, Bill Mourneau, was a past donor and received a free service trip.
For the opposition and the media, this all added up to a scandal, and they collectively took to attacking the Canadian charity as a proxy for attacking Trudeau. It was a successful strategy that led to months of daily headlines, live coverage of Parliamentary Standing committee, Morneau’s resignation from Cabinet, and ultimately, the demise of WE Charity’s operations in Canada.
As a lawyer and former member of WE Charity’s board of directors, Rangwala provides an inside look at the lead-up to the awarding of the CSSG, the ensuing media circus, and the clever leveraging of the affair by opposition parties to attack the Trudeau government. MPs Charlie Angus and Pierre Poilievre are heavily featured for their constant repetition of untrue or torqued statements, both in Parliament and in the media.
A favourite was Angus’ ongoing use of the term “billion dollar program”, which he used to characterize the size of the contract between WE Charity and the government. In fact, the contract amount was barely half of that, with the charity only taking a small cut to administer the program and deliver the grants to the students at the end of the summer.
But in keeping with the theme, the lie was repeated enough such that the “billion dollar program” label sticks to this day.
The book also serves as a compelling case study of the Canadian media’s role in not simply reporting on a story, but becoming part of it. Such was the scenario when long-time WE Charity antagonist and publisher of Canadaland, Jesse Brown, agreed to testify before the parliamentary committee charged with investigating the CSSG contract.
Similarly, the What WE Lost chronicles the suspect tactics of journalists from the CBC’s The Fifth Estate who went to questionable lengths to try and justify their stories about WE Charity allegedly misleading donors about its operations in Kenya. The charity is currently suing the CBC over those pieces.
On a macro level, Rangwala examines how disinformation from those in power, abetted by media with their own agendas, can have significant effects on ordinary companies, organizations and individuals that have nothing to do with politics, power or the media.
It is a cautionary tale which demonstrates that disinformation is not just reserved for super powers like Russia or the US Republican party. Even relatively small-time politicians like Charlie Angus can create narratives that are eagerly taken up by the media, repeated again and again, with the truth being left on the cutting room floor.