Skip to main content

An 87-year-old woman gave $2,000. Another woman was 97 when she gave $1,200. In recent years, tens of thousands of Canadians outside Quebec have donated at least $1.6-million to an animal-welfare group that operates solely in the Montreal area.

Many now say they were misled because, in its nationwide fundraising, Montreal's SPCA uses the name Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, under which it is incorporated.

Pierre Barnoti, the society's executive-director, defends the practice. "That's our name," he said in an interview. "We cannot change it today."

However, his French-language fundraising does not use the society's legal name.

What's more, Mr. Barnoti is a controversial figure who has drawn criticism in the past on issues ranging from his pay package to his association with a bull-fighting event.

He denies that he receives a cut of SPCA fundraising, although one of his past contracts said that he was supposed to get 10 to 15 per cent of the society's profits.

Although he declared bankruptcy before he worked for the SPCA, he is now the majority shareholder of a $1.7-million shopping mall in St-Joseph-de-Beauce south of Quebec City.

And Mr. Barnoti gave changing explanations when asked whether the SPCA paid for a trip he took to South America in 2004.

But it is the ad campaign that has drawn the most heat.

According to its internal fundraising documents, between 2001 and 2003 the Montreal SPCA collected $1.6-million from more than 34,000 donors outside Quebec.

The Globe and Mail tracked down 18 people or families outside Montreal who had given money. In 15 of 18 cases, people said they were not initially aware that they or their relatives had pledged money to a Montreal-only operation.

Six of those cases involved elderly donors. "Oh, my golly," said Paul McKnight of London, Ont., when asked about his 87-year-old mother's $2,000 donation. "That's terrible."

Another Ontario man, who asked that his name not be published, said his mother was 97 when she gave $1,200.

Both men said neither they nor their mothers knew that the Canadian SPCA was a Montreal society.

"I did think it was a national organization," said Doris Scott, a nurse in Fredericton, N.B., who gave $654.

"I was given the impression that it was going all over Canada," said Ana Sutendra, who pledged $60.

She was one of 24 residents of Yellowknife, NWT, who donated up to $150 each. Similarly, 62 people in Yukon gave to the Montreal SPCA.

"What? You're joking!" said Leah Bjork of Whitehorse, when told her $220 donation hadn't gone to a national group. "Well, that's the last nickel they'll get from me ..... You only have so much money."

Even within Quebec, some were under the same mistaken impression. "I thought at least it'd be Quebec-wide," said Pierre Bellefleur, a civil servant in Stoneham, Que., who gave $400.

Several of the donors were elderly people. Inge McGarry, a 77-year-old living in West Vancouver, donated $800. Eleanor Kennedy, 77, of Mansfield, Ont., gave $630. Neither realized their money's actual destination.

Another man said he wasn't certain how much his mother gave and whether she knew it was for a Montreal-only group. The woman is 85 and in a nursing home.

If money was mistakenly donated to his society, it was for a good cause, Mr. Barnoti said in an interview.

"If I knew that my mother had donated to a cause where people have misled her or given her false information, I would be devastated.

"On the other hand, if my mother, who's 91, donated to a good cause but isn't sure where this cause is, as long as I knew that the money went to the right place and served the right mission, I'd be perfectly happy."

He said there is nothing misleading about his Canada-wide mailing campaigns, which have triggered complaints from SPCAs in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Quebec.

Mr. Barnoti says he is only using the society's official incorporation name.

"You don't change the name of a humane society that's been there for 137 years," he said.

However, in letters sent out in French, the society doesn't use its official name, removing the reference to Canada.

Asked about the discrepancy, Mr. Barnoti at first said that the society's French-language name does not have the word "Canadian" in it. He acknowledged that it did when corrected by a reporter.

Neither English nor French fundraising letters explicitly say that the society isn't a national organization. In addition, donors are invited to mail their cheques to a local postal box in their province rather than the Montreal address.

Mr. Barnoti notes that at the bottom of the letters is the line, "Proudly serving the animals of Quebec since 1869."

But Diane Shannon, a spokeswoman for the Edmonton Humane Society, isn't impressed. "It is more like a P.S. footer message at the bottom of a very lengthy body of text," she said.

Even Quebec humane societies have complained. "Their whole fundraising strategy," said Serge Marquis, director of the Trois-Rivières society, "is based on confusion."

It is also based on volume: Filings with the Canada Revenue Agency show that, in 2004, the Montreal SPCA spent $2.2-million on promotion; by comparison, the Toronto Humane Society spent less than $221,000 the same year.

According to internal bookkeeping documents, the Montreal SPCA spends millions on its mailing campaign. In 2004 it paid $1.7 million to a Boston direct-mail company, Vantage Direct Marketing Services, and $1.6 million in 2005.

The Montreal society spends more on travel, too: $85,266 in 2006, compared to $11,410 for the Toronto organization.

In July of 2004, the Montreal SPCA paid for Mr. Barnoti and a veterinarian, Ronald Beaulieu, to go on an 11-day trip to meet vet students whom the SPCA sponsored to sterilize dogs in Argentina.

"It was all business," Mr. Barnoti said of the trip.

In fact, the two men spent only five of the 11 days with the students, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Globe.

Mr. Barnoti then acknowledged that during the trip he also went to the famous Iguaçú Falls, at the Argentina-Brazil border. He said he kept those expenses separate by booking a rental car on his own.

It would have been a memorable trip: Mr. Barnoti would have had to drive 1,336 kilometres, a distance local buses cover in 14 to 19 hours.

But according to a May 21, 2004, e-mail, a travel agent booked Mr. Barnoti and Dr. Beaulieu on a flight from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo in Brazil, from which they flew to the falls.

On being shown the e-mail, Mr. Barnoti said, "Yeah, you're right. I flew to Iguaçú. I remember."

He could not say how he knew how much to reimburse the SPCA. The booking was made along with the flights that took the two from Montreal to South America and back; there was no breakdown for the flights, which cost $4,104 in total.

"I gave the SPCA a cheque of $1,000," he eventually said, adding that he would provide documents to back it up.

However, contacted a week later, Mr. Barnoti said $1,159 had been deducted from one of his paycheques. He said the society's comptroller, Lorraine Lamarre, would confirm it.

But Ms. Lamarre and Howard Sholzberg, treasurer of the SPCA board of directors, said Mr. Barnoti's pay slips were confidential and would not be made public.

The veterinarian, Dr. Beaulieu, said in an interview that his plane tickets were paid by the SPCA, including the Brazilian flights.

Mr. Barnoti has been part of past controversies.

In 1999, the Montreal SPCA got involved with the organizers of La Feria, a Portuguese-style corrida that was to be held at the Olympic Stadium and where bulls are featured but not killed.

Mr. Barnoti said the SPCA could not stop the event so, after being approached by the corrida organizers, the society agreed to collaborate with them to ensure that the bulls would be treated better and would be retired afterward to a local farm.

The SPCA was to receive 25 cents for each ticket sold which Mr. Barnoti said would cover the bulls' resettlement. Other animal groups, however, criticized the proposal.

The scheme was cancelled in the ensuing uproar.

There is no question that Mr. Barnoti's financial fortunes have improved dramatically since he began working at the Montreal SPCA in 1994.

He had been a real-estate agent who, in 1994, declared bankruptcy with a Rolls-Royce worth $2,500 as his only asset. Today, he is the majority shareholder of Carrefour Saint-Joseph, a shopping mall with a $1.7-million property-tax evaluation.

Asked about how he came to have a stake in the mall, he said he was only a shareholder. "I haven't been hiding the fact that I am the co-owner of a share in a shopping centre."

He won't disclose his exact salary, but Revenue Canada filings show that the Montreal SPCA pays him at least $120,000 a year. The society also leases Mr. Barnoti's Nissan Murano SUV. He said he gets an allowance and pays the remainder of the cost.

Mr. Barnoti denies he ever got a percentage of the money raised for the Montreal SPCA. While his 1995-97 contract says he can keep 10 to 15 per cent of the fundraising profits, he says that was never implemented.

A Montreal Gazette article said Mr. Barnoti confirmed at a 1997 SPCA annual assembly that, in 1996, he kept $25,000 of the funds raised and $14,000 the year before. In news reports from that time, he did not deny receiving a percentage of revenues. He was quoted as saying that it was a good deal because his salary was low.

And what is Mr. Barnoti's opinion of the Gazette article now?

"Absolutely false," he said.