After more than 70 years in Prince Albert, the Canadian Cancer Society is saying goodbye.
The society is facing a loss of $80-100 million this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has decided to not renew expiring leases in seven communities, including Prince Albert.
The loss in revenue comes from cancelled fundraising events, such as Relay for Life and daffodil sales, which require in-person contact and large group gatherings. The loss represents about 50 per cent of the organization’s annual income.
The office, located in the basement of the Red Cross building in the Unit Block of 11th Street East, will close at the end of April.
“This was not an easy decision, even though we know our supporters would rather dedicate our declining resources to programs that benefit people with cancer rather than renting a physical space,” the society wrote in an email to volunteers obtained by the Herald.
The society is also temporarily reducing its workforce by one-third, which means it will temporarily layoff its one Prince Albert employee.
It is committed to continuing to offer cancer information and peer support programs online at cancer.ca and through the toll-free helpline at 1-888-939-3333. The helpline has been busy and seen an increase in demand, but someone will get back to you, the society said.
Dan Holinda, regional executive director, prairies, said the organization feels a “sadness” about closing the Prince Albert office.
“We have to protect our mission, and that’s serving people. We had to make tough choices,” he said.
“The decision was made — anytime we saw a lease coming up we would get out of those leases to save those resource dollars so we could still provide service and mission. COVID-19 made those tough choices for us, sadly.”
Holinda said the cancer society has served over 100,000 Saskatchewan residents over the phone and online this year and has found success in its virtual model in other communities. He said over the past few years, in-person visits have been declining at all of their offices.
“We’re confident we’ll still be involved in the community. We’ll still reach out to community leaders, we’ll still do fundraising. We’ll be there for anybody who needs our support.”
One of the struggles of the organization is that social distancing has put a kibosh on many of its fundraising events, which include group gatherings and face-to-face contact.
It’s been trying to move fundraising online so that people can stay engaged and support the cancer society. He said it was too early to comment on what plans might be after social distancing measures are relaxed.
“We also recognize for corporations and individuals there is a loss of income, loss of business, loss of RRSPs. We’re not wanting to put pressure on people. We respect that they’ve been there to support us for 90 years and we don’t want to put that burden on them, but if they want to support us, they certainly can through one of the virtual platforms.”
Holinda said the organization has reached out to local leaders and volunteers who were unhappy, but respect why the decision had to be made and understand the tough choices.
“They’re being very kind to us,” he said.
“We’re still grateful for the support we received from Prince Albert and we are there for them — that’s not going to change.”
Longtime cancer society volunteer and Relay for Life chairperson Lyle Karasiuk was shocked when he saw the news.
“I’m sad to see them closing what has been in our community for well over 70 years,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means for the cancer society in our community.”
Karasiuk lamented the loss of person-to-person contact.
“When we start to see the loss of a human touch, it’s not the same as seeing someone at a daffodil sale or a meeting,” he said.
“I do realize that in the days of COVID-19, we’ve all had to change and we’re doing more things virtually.”
Karasiuk said he wonders what that means for longstanding events that were about more than just raising money.
“It’s about bringing people together. It’s more than just an event to raise dollars. It’s still pretty early for me to know what their plans are, but I was shocked by the news and saddened to learn they’re going to close their face-to-face contacts and revert solely to virtual contact.”
That virtual contact, or connection over the phone, is not the same, he said.
“You lose that personal touch,” he said.
Karasiuk said, once the pandemic has passed, some of those events will likely continue, but without the organization’s physical presence in the community, it won’t be the same.
“It’s just a sad day when (you lose) an institution like that …. For 70 years it had a vibrant presence in our community.”
Mayor Greg Dionne had similar comments.
“The cancer society was such a big part of our community,” he said.
“They were a great volunteer presence in our community. It’s disappointing. It’s a sad day when you lose a great organization like the cancer society, but I do understand where they’re coming from.”
Dionne said it will be a challenge for anyone looking for fundraising, donations and sponsorships over the next year as businesses will need their cash flow to pay employees.
Still, he said, if the cancer society ever changed its mind, he’d be happy to have it back.
“I want to wish the cancer society the best,” he said.
“If they’re in a position to reopen in Prince Albert, we’d be more than happy to have them.”