Mining magnate Peter Munk is donating $1-million to the Canadian Red Cross to help the thousands of people who have been displaced by the wildfires in the Fort McMurray area – a crisis that the philanthropist said reminds him of his own past as a refugee and marks an opportunity for Canadians to unite.
The Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation will on Friday announce the pledge, which will build on the roughly $11-million in donations that have flowed to the Red Cross fund dedicated to supporting those affected by the fire. The federal government announced Thursday that it will match all charitable donations to the organization, including those that had already been made.
Jean-Philippe Tizi, vice-president of emergency management at the Red Cross, said the money will be used to meet the immediate physical and psychological needs of affected citizens. But he added that the donations will also be used to help people rebuild their lives. "It's going to take four or five years, but we'll be there as long as it takes," he said.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Munk said the footage of residents fleeing a burning city conjured thoughts of his own parents escaping a besieged Budapest during the Second World War. "It's very real to me," he said, adding that he was fortunate enough to have made his way to Switzerland by that time.
The Barrick Gold Corp. founder said the tragedy is a chance for Canadians to express their "total solidarity," no matter their background or economic status. When the roads became clogged with cars evacuating Fort McMurray, it was impossible to tell who was rich or poor, Jewish or Muslim, Mr. Munk said.
"We are all in this together," he said. "This particular event, more than any other, is a great occasion for Canadians to show that we have the same values as the people who created this country and received all of us. … No country had more open arms than us."
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons to offer his full support to the people of Northern Alberta, through both the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements emergency fund and the matching of private donations to the Red Cross.
"The outpouring of goodwill and compassion from Canadians right across the country has not only been inspirational, it has been entirely characteristic of who we are, the fundamental human values we share as Canadians," he said.
Ottawa has also issued a notice that it will accelerate the processing of employment-insurance claims for affected workers. The Fort McMurray Service Canada Centre is currently closed, but workers can contact the government online or at other federal centres in Alberta.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose praised the Liberal government for its quick response to the raging wildfires that forced the evacuation of 80,000 people from Fort McMurray.
She also called on the government to keep Fort McMurray "a top priority" as it makes infrastructure investments in the coming years. "It's a tough day for Albertans, but we'll persevere," she said, fighting back tears as she spoke of her home province.
Part of the logistical challenge is to make sure authorities can supply food, water, cots and blankets to the tens of thousands of residents who have fled. The government operations centre, run out of the Department of Public Safety, is co-ordinating the national effort to help Alberta cope with the disaster.
"Health Canada is stockpiling living supplies, cots, blankets and that sort of thing, working in close collaboration with the Red Cross," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said. "The good news – if there is good news out of this tragic situation – is obviously so far there do not appear to be any fatalities or indeed any serious injuries."
Mr. Goodale said federal officials are now working on estimating the long-term cost of rebuilding. "We need to be able to assure the province of Alberta, and the people of Fort McMurray specifically, that the Government of Canada will be there – not just today but every day to make sure the response is fulsome and adequate to restore their lives."