As It Happens

Red Cross gives cash transfers worth $50M to Fort Mac evacuees in 'unprecedented' move

This week, the Canadian Red Cross announced it would deliver relief funds to Fort McMurray fire evacuees in the form of cash transfers, to the tune of $50 million. It's an unprecedented move for a charity that historically spends more money on long-term relief than immediate assistance.
Fire evacuees from Fort McMurray line up at an Emergency Relief Centre in Edmonton, Alberta on May 10, 2016. (COLE BURSTON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Canadians have so far donated more than $79 million to the Red Cross in support of Fort McMurray fire evacuees. That number is expected to rise even further in the coming days and weeks — and that's before the federal government matches the amount with its own funds.

On Thursday, the Red Cross announced an unprecedented plan: to distribute 50 million of those dollars in cash transfers to fire evacuees, immediately. 

"This is the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one," says Canadian Red Cross President and CEO, Conrad Sauvé.

Adults who escaped the Fort McMurray fire will be eligible to receive $600 each, while children will receive $300 each.

"The [cash transfers] will allow those evacuees to be empowered, to have their own assistance in their hands, and to be able to make decisions for their own emerging needs," Jenn McManus, vice-president of the Canadian Red Cross for Alberta, tells As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Jenn McManus with the Canadian Red Cross says her organization can do more with cash donations than with gifts in kind. (CBC)

But the decision marks a huge shift in the way the Canadian Red Cross has allocated money in other domestic disasters. Last weekAs It Happens spoke to Kate Bahen, Charity Intelligence Canada, who said that historically, the Red Cross spend the majority of its donor funds on long-term relief — money the watchdog group believes would be better spent on immediate assistance, through local charities.

"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," Bahen said.

Evacuees from Fort McMurray, Alta., line up to register at an evacuee reception centre set up and operated by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in nearby Anzac, Alta., on Wednesday.. Raging forest fires whipped up by shifting winds sliced through the middle of the remote oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing in both directions and prompting the evacuation of the entire city. (Greg Halinda/Canadian Press)

But McManus disputes this. She says during the Alberta floods, the Red Cross actually gave $12 million to local charities — which works out to be about 26 per cent of the money raised.

"I was in our emergency operations centre in 2013 when the Southern Alberta floods unfolded. I have been alongside every stage of our recovery program. The two per cent figure is inaccurate," McManus says. 

Conrad Sauvé, President and CEO, Canadian Red Cross and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announce details of emergency funds for Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. (JASON FRANSON/CP)

The $12 million McManus refers to was spent over the course of three years. McManus says there's good reason for that.

"I met face to face with smaller agencies [during the floods], and they were overwhelmed. They did not have the capacity to respond. [The Red Cross] could bridge the immediate needs, and then later, that gave community groups the chance to get their sea legs and their footing."

To hear more, take a listen to our full interview with Jenn McManus.

The burnt remains of a barbecue pictured in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray after the massive wildfire. Officials say it will be at least 10 more days before residents can return to the city. (Reuters)

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