Canadians Give Generously to Tsunami Relief

Sheila Wilson was determined to donate money to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), but couldn't get through by phone. "I persisted," she recalls and, finally, was able to leave a message.

Canadians Give Generously to Tsunami Relief

Sheila Wilson was determined to donate money to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), but couldn't get through by phone. "I persisted," she recalls and, finally, was able to leave a message. "If you haven't got enough people to answer those phones," the retired school trustee said, "I'll come and do it." Two days after the TSUNAMI struck, Wilson drove two hours from her home near Collingwood, Ont., into Toronto to help man the MSF lines. She stayed through the week and into the following one; this week she'll be back. "People are still calling and still wanting to give," she says.

In the wake of the world's worst natural disaster in recent memory, Canadians from all walks of life and all regions wanted to help. As Ottawa debated deploying its emergency-response team, kids emptied their piggy banks and gave up tooth-fairy money. A Buddhist congregation in B.C. offered the proceeds of the sale of its temple to the Red Cross. After playing at an artsy Toronto club, a band made an impromptu passing of the hat, a gesture repeated countless times in bars across Canada. A newly married couple in St. John's, Nfld., kissed each time wedding guests clinked their glasses - on condition celebrants donate to Oxfam's relief efforts. In Nanaimo, B.C., 14-year-old Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson tackled a would-be thief who'd tried to steal $2,600 she'd collected for the Red Cross at a makeshift booth at a grocery store. "She's a soccer player," her mom told the local paper. "She's very strong." And tens of thousands of others phoned in and emailed pledges of support to Canadian charities - or at least they tried to. In addition to blocked phone lines, some Internet servers temporarily crashed under the load.

Charities scrambled to respond. UNICEF, one of the savviest agencies, had its well-oiled fundraising machine up and running by midday Dec. 26, the same day the tsunami smashed into the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries. Its website was soliciting donations for relief work, newspaper ads were prepared to run the next day, and staff returned to work to answer phones. By the weekend, UNICEF had deals with schools in Ontario, with more to come in other provinces, to collect donations from students. At the beginning of a crisis, notes Ana White, VP of marketing and development, UNICEF Canada typically raises from $1 million to $2 million. By the end of last week, it had pulled in $8.5 million in private and corporate donations.

Not all charities were so prepared. "We didn't have enough people or phone lines," says Mark Fried, Oxfam Canada spokesman. "Donations came in spontaneously. It was a deluge." There's no way of knowing how many Canadians donated money, but it's a fair bet more have ponied up to help tsunami victims than for any other single crisis.

People weren't even put off by the notion that their money may not end up helping in Southeast Asia. Last week, after collecting more than $65 million worldwide, MSF said it had enough for its immediate relief work. "It would not be responsible for us to keep on asking for more money," says David Morley, executive director of MSF Canada. Regardless, donations continued to pour in. Michael Barnstijn and Louise MacCallum, a couple who live near Guelph, Ont., were so moved by the sheer scale of the disaster, they decided to donate $100,000 to MSF. Learning that the aid agency had enough at first gave them pause, but they decided to give the money anyway. "There's going to be future requirements for Southeast Asia, and there are other areas in the world where there are ongoing needs for help," says Barnstijn. "Sudan and other places are still in need of assistance, and we can't forget them."

As some charities suffered from an embarrassment of riches, others worried they'd be perceived as taking advantage of the disaster to raise money. "Our fundraising campaign was low-key at first, and it's going to go slowly," says Rita Karakas, CEO of Save the Children Canada. "We have to be very careful not to be seen to be exploiting the situation." Still, donations flowed into Save the Children's coffers. The money will go to disaster relief, but some will be used later in the reconstruction phase. "It might be spent a year and a half from now," she points out.

A few days after the initial crisis, Ottawa announced it would match donations given by individuals to designated charities. It also set a time limit: money donated between Dec. 26, the day the tsunami hit, and Jan. 11 would be matched. While the government's move boosted both the reputation and resources of those on the list, it left others lobbying for recognition. "We're disappointed," says Carol Wilding, CEO of Foster Parents Plan Canada, which was not included on the list, "but we're not distracted from the long-term development work that we do." Wilding added she will continue to lobby to be added to the list. Even among the designated groups, there were concerns about Ottawa's action. World Vision Canada, among others, is pushing for an extension of the Jan. 11 deadline. It also wants to be sure the government's matching money does not come with restrictive conditions, such as limiting it for use in immediate relief work. "We don't want to be put in the position of irresponsibly spending the federal money," said Linda Tripp, the group's VP of public affairs.

The flood of money doesn't seem to be slowing down. Organized fundraising events are just starting. In addition to individuals who've donated, many businesses, churches and community groups have responded, organizing dinners and dances, or matching money raised by employees or members. Benefit concerts, large and small, are being planned across the country. In Vancouver, a massive show is slated for General Motors Place on Jan. 29, with headliners Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne and Barenaked Ladies. Two days later, they'll reconvene in Calgary, with Bruce Cockburn joining the roster, all in aid of tsunami relief and reconstruction. "It's heartwarming," says Wilson, the MSF volunteer. "It starts out in a tragedy, but you start feeling very uplifted about Canadian people and how much they want to help."

OPEN WALLETS

The federal government will match dollar-for-dollar all personal contributions made to the following charities between Dec. 26 and Jan. 11. In addition, another $7.9 million has been donated to the charities by companies and charitable foundations.

PERSONAL DONATIONS

Canadian Red Cross $64.6 million

World Vision Canada $12 million

UNICEF Canada $7 million

Doctors Without Borders* $4.5 million

Mennonite Central Committee Canada $3.6 million

Oxfam Canada $3.4 million

CARE Canada $1.5 million

Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace $1.1 million

Focus Humanitarian Assistance Canada $450,000

Save the Children Canada $400,000

Oxfam Quebec (French only) $400,000

Canadian Lutheran World Relief $235,000

Adventist Development and Relief Agency Canada $175,000

Canadian Food for the Hungry International $115,000

World University Service of Canada $25,000

Subtotal $99.50 million

Federal matching funds $99.50 million

Total (as of Jan. 7) $199 million

*DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS ANNOUNCED ON JAN. 4 THAT $65 MILLION RAISED WORLDWIDE WAS ENOUGH FOR THE FIRST PHASE OF ITS TSUNAMI WORK. COMPILED BY PATRICIA TREBLE. SOURCES: CHARITIES LISTED ABOVE.

Maclean's January 17, 2005