issue 228 - February 1992
Illustration by KORKY PAUL
Scandal in the family
Financial dirt in the newspapers, crass fundraising techniques,
starving-baby images... How much longer are the other Oxfams going to let Oxfam
Quebec get away with it? Sue Montgomery profiles a charity in crisis.
Gaston Truchon pushes the play button and the large television screen comes alive with a white luxury car driving through the gates of one of Quebec's poshest golf courses. As classical music reaches a crescendo in the background, the camera zooms in on over-weight golfers piling their plates high with food from a huge buffet table. There are close ups of their bald pates, their paunches and the scrambled eggs and toast as it enters their mouths. The players pick their teeth and head for the green. After 18 holes played to Mozart, Beethoven and various calypso tunes, they hit the showers. A well- tanned man chats on his cellular phone while he blow-dries his hair.
Truchon, Oxfam Quebec's general director, beams as the tape comes to an end. The agency, he explains, holds four golf tournaments a year and raises about $35,000 by charging $1,000 for each team of four. For that, says Truchon, they have a great time and get to take home a souvenir video.
It's a fundraising technique that Oxfam Canada - and probably all the other Oxfams - wouldn't be seen dead using. Since Oxfam Quebec split amicably from Oxfam Canada in 1973 - about the time a strong nationalist movement took hold in Quebec, the only French-speaking province in Canada - the two have reflected radically different philosophies toward development and fundraising.
Oxfam Quebec, which ranks among the top three charities in this province of six million people, relies largely on the business community for its annual two million dollars in donations. In addition, it works together with the powerful Desjardins bank to produce its own Visa credit card - about 3,000 such cards are circulating in the province. Each card is emblazoned with the Oxfam name and produces about $20 a year for the agency.
Oxfam Quebec also produces bottled water called Eau Secours - a play on words meaning Emergency Water - for sale through local grocery stores. Truchon says they expect to make close to $200,000 a year on the product. John Foster, Oxfam Canada's national secretary, compares the water commercials to those for beer which use a lot of 'crotch shots'. 'It may well sell water but it has nothing to do with development', he says.
Oxfam Quebec's overseas work is generally less in question: it certainly supports many worthwhile partner groups in the Third World, among them education projects in Bangladesh. But its approach is noticeably different from the other Oxfams, which have come to realize over the years that no aid, no intervention in another society, can be politically neutral. Oxfam Quebec, in contrast, proudly advertises the 'non-political' nature of its work.
Its main emphasis, though, is on emergency-relief work. It has been criticized for using photographs of starving fly-covered children - what is referred to as 'the pornography of misery' - to get Quebecois to dig into their pockets, again something which the other Oxfams now avoid.
Truchon doesn't deny this strategy nor does he defend the fact that only three of the 13-member board of directors has development experience. 'Even if I'm not a guy who has spent ten years of my life working as a volunteer in Zimbabwe, I think we are doing a good job,' says Truchon, who refers to himself as a marketing man.
But recent reports in Montreal's main French newspaper alleging that Oxfam Quebec's former president Jean O'Keefe flew first class, used an Oxfam credit card for personal expenses and was in a conflict of interest may have raised questions in Quebecois' minds about the organization.
O'Keefe, a salesperson who was one of the charity's founders, has resigned and been replaced by Jean-Guy Brodeur, top public-relations executive at Canadian National Railways and a self-declared 'crisis-management specialist'. A fast-talking, jovial man, he says he is out to re-establish Oxfam Quebec's credibility and the first thing on his damage-control list is to open up the agency's books. Brodeur also has had all company credit cards destroyed. 'We have to be very careful,' he says. 'Nobody has a company credit card now. Certainly not me.'
Oxfam Quebec had to miss the meeting of all Oxfams in India last November because of what has become known as 'the crisis'. But a message of solidarity was sent to Montreal with Oxfam America agreeing to meet with them to discuss the issue. But both Oxfam Canada and Oxfam America agree company credit cards should not be used for personal use even if the funds are repaid - and employees should at all times fly economy class. 'We have a tradition as a modest organization', says Oxfam America's executive director John Hammock. 'The money should go to the poor so we should do as much as possible to keep overheads low.'
Yvan Patry, an experienced Montreal film maker on development issues, says he would never work with the organization. He talks of 'the deteriorating climate in which all non-governmental organizations function since the early 1980s and how they are going down the drain,' he says. '(Oxfam) are less and less credible in Quebec and their fundraising campaigns are showing that.' Another member of the local development community goes even further, dismissing Oxfam Quebec's management as 'crafty bullshitters and crafty entrepreneurs, the kind that can sell used cars'.
Sue Montgomery works for the Canadian Press news agency in Montreal.