As It Happens

Fort McMurray: Why is Ottawa only matching donations to the Red Cross?

The Alberta fires have Ottawa promising to match millions of dollars being given to the Red Cross by private donors. But, we hear from a group that's urging Canadians to ask whether other local organizations might be able to do more with their money.
A helicopter flies past a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. (Jason Franson/CP)

Canadians are digging deep to help the communities devastated by the fires in Alberta. The bulk of those charitable donations are being directed at the Canadian Red Cross. Ottawa and the Alberta government are promising to match every dollar the organisation gets from private sources. By Friday, the Red Cross had collected close to $30 million in private donations since the fires began. That number ballooned to $60 million on Monday, May 9th (not including funds matched by both governments.)

"Given this type of disaster, it's going to be all hands on deck. It's going to be all charities having to do what they can to help the residents of Fort McMurray. Why does one charity get preferential treatment?- Kate Bahen, Managing Director of Charity Intelligence Canada
Kate Bahen applauds the good will of Canadians. But she's calling on people to think twice before donating to the Red Cross. Bahen is the Managing Director of Charity Intelligence Canada and she spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the importance of supporting a broad network of local charities during a disaster of this scale. Here is part of their conversation:


Carol Off: Ms. Bahen, we have heard the government of Canada is urging Canadians to contribute to the Canadian Red Cross, what capacity do these agencies have on the ground that the Red Cross doesn't?

Kate Bahen: I think they have huge capacity. They are the local charity. They are managed by people of Fort McMurray. In the past, when we look back, it is these local charities that pull their weight and were absolutely key in building back the community. So right now, obviously there is nobody there, but when there is going to be the "all clear" and people return, it is these charities — the United Way of Fort McMurray, Big Brothers Big Sisters Fort McMurray, Salvation Army Fort McMurray — these are going to be key organizations and they're going to need donations to be able to support the people.

Social worker Danielle Holm, left, and Walter Dong of the Edmonton Food Bank, right, pack care packages for evacuees of the wildfires in and around Fort McMurray at the Edmonton Food Bank in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

KB: In the 2013 disaster, with the floods in Alberta, the Red Cross received $43 million. Local charities received less than two per cent of that [in 2013] and yet they had to do the bulk of the work. They are the first responders. They are out there giving food, helping the evacuees and they're going to play the absolute key role in the rebuilding of Fort McMurray.

Char Kaye packs care packages for evacuees of the wildfires in and around Fort McMurray from her home in Spruce Grove Alta, on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

CO: One of the things the Red Cross has said is that this is a long term strategy — that it needs to look ahead to four to five years of spending the money it's taking in, in order to rebuild the community. Is that what the Red Cross does best, working as a kind of long term partner on the ground? And you're saying these local charities are better for the emergency they're facing right now?

KB: Yes, I would say that. I think when you look at the sort of three to five year long term plan, that's the Red Cross emergency delivery relief model. It doesn't seem to change very much whether it's Haiti or whether it's the Philippines typhoon or whether it's Calgary, Alberta.

I mean it's quite astounding to me, when you look at how much money was spent in Lac-Mégantic and Calgary, it's pretty much one third. One third of the money is spent in each year. [But] Edmonton and Fort McMurray are highly advanced economies. They are not Haiti. They are not the outer islands of the Philippines hit by a typhoon and I believe that the needs of the community in Fort McMurray should be more heavily weighted to spending the money in the first 12 to 18 months.

CO: And what should the government be doing, given that it's offering to match the funds to Red Cross and doesn't give any other charity that it plans to do that with?

KB: Well that's a political question and I'm not good at politics. But if I give a donation to the Salvation Army's Alberta wildfire disaster plan — why is that different from giving to the Red Cross Alberta fires? If I give to the Edmonton Food Bank to help feed the people from Fort McMurray who have evacuated — why does the government treat that differently? That is a government decision, both at the federal level and also at the Alberta level, that's their choice. But me as a donor, I want to see and I want to make sure that my donation gets to work as best it can. That's why at Charity Intelligence we do the research on charities and we're recommending that donors give to local front line charities.

CO: And we've seen that before, when the Canadian government offers matching funds to a list of charities.

KB: Yes, when there is an international disaster, the Philippines or Haiti, you can give to Doctors Without Borders, you can give to World Vision, you can give to the Red Cross, and dollars are counted equal and all dollars are matched. But here at home, it's a different set of rules and I don't understand why. Given this type of disaster, it's going to be all hands on deck. It's going to be all charities having to do what they can to help the residents of Fort McMurray. Why does one charity get preferential treatment?

This interview is edited for length and clarity. To hear more, take a listen above to our full interview with Kate Bahen. Here is a list of some of the organizations she mentions. 

On Friday, the President of the Canadian Red Cross gave some details about how the organization plans to spend the charitable donations. Here is Conrad Sauvé speaking in Toronto:

Conrad Sauvé, the president of the Canadian Red Cross, speaking in Toronto about how the organization is using charitable donations.

The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale sent As It Happens a statement, which reads in part:

The situation on the ground is complex and fluid, changing day-by-day. The Red Cross is providing essential immediate relief and assistance. 

The matching program will support Canadians' generosity right away. Over the long term, there will opportunity to consider the support required for recovery and the partners to provide it. 

The Red Cross will be working alongside those affected not just today, but for the weeks and months and even years that follow as they recover. We are grateful the decision to match donations to the Red Cross has received widespread support across the country and across party lines.

We also received this statement from the Red Cross:

When a disaster or emergency occurs, the Canadian Red Cross works closely with government, local community leaders and other organizations to ensure funds are used efficiently and to avoid duplicating efforts. This includes providing financial support to other organizations.

Red Cross community initiatives strengthen or reinstate local services such as food banks, youth and seniors' programs, sport and recreational activities, community centres, and other gathering places. For example, after the Southern Alberta Floods of 2013, the Red Cross provided Samaritan's Purse with financial support of $1.4 million and Habitat for Humanity with $1 million for home repair and rehabilitation to help those affected by the flood. In addition, the Canadian Red Cross provided financial support to 84 other organizations for local projects, events and workshops that contributed to recovery efforts in the communities affected by the floods to help them build back strong and resilient.