Charity denies wrongdoing in lawsuit over search-and-rescue fundraising

A Victoria-based charity is denying wrongdoing, after being hit by a lawsuit that alleges it misrepresented itself when soliciting donations to fund search and rescue in B.C., including Prince George.

North Shore Rescue alleges the Search and Rescue Society of B.C. has been deceiving the public by using the well-known North Shore organization's name to raise funds, according to the lawsuit, filed on Monday.

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It said it has received complaints about "aggressive" telephone solicitation from Metro Vancouver residents who believe the calls were made or authorized by North Shore Rescue. The mountain rescue team does not solicit donations by telephone.

Glen Redden, vice-president of the Search and Rescue Society of B.C., said his group had looked into North Shore Rescue's allegations by checking recordings of phone calls complained of and found no evidence of misrepresentation.

"We don't use NSR's name," he said.

"We have a script that gets followed strictly. Nowhere does it mention NSR and other teams aside from SARBC."

Redden says his group, which was founded in 1983, is a legitimate search and rescue organization that steps in to help families when other search-and-rescue groups have called off their operations. It uses a third-party contractor to raise funds through telephone solicitations.

Since the lawsuit was filed Monday, North Shore Rescue has received more complaints from people who allege they have been duped into donating to the Search and Rescue Society, said North Shore Rescue leader Mike Danks.

The testimonies from complainants were clear and detailed, said lawyer Gregory Heywood, who represents North Shore Rescue.

He said the callers identified themselves as representing North Shore Rescue, and even mention how many rescues they've done on North Shore mountains, he said.

Other search-and-rescue groups, including teams in Prince George and Campbell River, have also reported receiving similar complaints.

"It makes me sick to my stomach," said Danks. "They pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Where is that money going? What do these guys actually do?"

The Search and Rescue Society of B.C. is not a member of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, an umbrella group that represents 80 search and rescue groups in the province.

His group opted not to join the association because if it did, it wouldn't be able to continue its work as a rescue organization of last resort, said Redden.

When asked how many operations his group has participated in, Redden said they do not keep a running tally, but said it has recorded 22 operations between July 2015 and July 2016.

The Search and Rescue Society is also the provincial agency for Project Lifesaver, a U.S. organization that uses radio beacons to help track people with dementia who are at risk of wandering.

Financial documents filed by the charity shows The Search and Rescue Society collected $166,578 in donations last year and $208,460 in 2015.

North Shore Rescue said it had received a $50 and a $200 cheque from The Search and Rescue Society in the last four months.

North Shore Rescue is claiming damages from a loss of goodwill and is seeking an accounting of funds raised by The Search and Rescue Society. It is also asking for an injunction prohibiting the society from purporting to raise money on behalf of North Shore Rescue and banning it from calling itself a search-and-rescue team.

The allegations made in the civil claim have not been proven in court.

Redden said his group plans to defend itself. "I don't think (the lawsuit's) with merit."

Naomi Yamamoto, minister of state for emergency preparedness and MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, said she is concerned donations people believe are going to the North Shore Rescue are getting directed somewhere else.

"No search and rescue team in B.C. solicits donations by phone," she said. "If they want to donate to their local search and rescue teams, donate directly to them."

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