Cheque please: Front L-R Bernie Breen and Derrick Ross; Back L-R: Amanda Power, Darren Throop, Tom Cochrane (on behalf of Rob Steele),Jodie Ferneyhough, Catharine Saxberg, Sheila Hamilton, Gary Slaight. Photo: Barry Roden
Cheque please: Front L-R Bernie Breen and Derrick Ross; Back L-R: Amanda Power, Darren Throop, Tom Cochrane (on behalf of Rob Steele),Jodie Ferneyhough, Catharine Saxberg, Sheila Hamilton, Gary Slaight. Photo: Barry Roden

Christmas Comes Early For Unison With $750K in Donations During Schmoozefest

Christmas came early for the Unison Benevolent Fund on Monday night.

Thanks to generous donations from Gary Slaight and the Slaight Family Foundation, the Throop Family Foundation and the Rob Steele Foundation, Unison added $750K to its charity coffers in a special presentation held during the organization's annual Holiday Schmoozefest - with a further $50K ponied up through admission to the event, donations and a silent auction.

Held at the Liberty Grand on the Toronto CNE Grounds for the first time and attended by over 700 people wearing surprisingly few ugly Christmas sweaters, the Schmoozefest partiers feasted on sliders, fries and veggies - and listened to the wheels of steel spun by guest DJ Brendan Canning - until outgoing Unison Benevolent Fund chair Derrick Ross made the huge announcement shortly after 8 p.m., where he first walked down memory lane.

"Unison was started approximately 10 years ago by two founders - Catharine Saxberg and Jodie Ferneyhough. I happened to be at the announcement of the formation of the Unison Benevolent Fund, where Graham Henderson, representing Music Canada, and myself, representing the Slaight Family Foundation, pledged $250K each to help Unison get off the ground."

Ross added that once $500K in additional funds was raised, the cumulative $1M allowed them to hire Sheila Hamilton as Executive Director and sole staff member - "and start providing emergency relief to those of our community in need."

"That was an exciting and proud day for me, 10 years ago," Ross recalled. "I'm so proud to be here today to make another historic announcement for Unison."

After inviting Saxberg, Ferneyhough, Hamilton, current Unison ED Amanda Power and incoming Unison Chair Bernie Breen to join him on stage, Ross invited the benefactors and referenced an October 23rd Toronto Star article about Unison that featured a candid interview with Bill Bell, among others.

"On that day, Gary came to my office and said, 'DR, I'm willing to do a little something special for Unison, but you'll have to go out to some of our industry friends and get them to support Unison in the same way,'" Ross recalled. "I took up that challenge and reached out to Rob and to Darren, about joining Gary in this endeavour, and both did not hesitate at all, and responded very positively to my request.  As a matter of fact, Rob's comment to me was, 'Sure,' and my 10-minute conversation with Darren went, 'I"m in. Happy to help the cause.'"

Gary Slaight, Darren Throop and Rob Steele (represented by Juno Award-winning artist and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Tom Cochrane) each pledged $250K and over the next several minutes, Unison execs handed cheques to each altruist to be signed in front of the crowd. In appreciation of their largesse, the donors were given special Unison golden diamond string bracelets.

Gary Slaight O.C., president and CEO of Slaight Communications, the Slaight Family Foundation, Slaight Music, was the first to take to the podium.

"It is, in my opinion, it is such an important cause. And Catharine and Jodie, congratulations to you. I still remember when you came to my office 10 years ago and it's amazing what everyone has done," he declared, before turning to gently rib outgoing Chair Derrick Ross, president of Slaight Music.

"I hate doing this, but Derrick - good goin'," he joked. "You were an amazing Chair. You spent way too much time on it, but at least it got you out of the office and we could have some peace and quiet, it was perfect.

"Derrick did a great job between the golf tournaments and this event," he continued. "And Tom, thank you for being here - you're the best - I love you brother. And Darren, you need something to do with all the money you're about to receive. So this is a good cause. Thank you."

Appearing on behalf of his Throop Family Foundation, eOne (Entertainment One) founder, president and CEO, Darren Throop, whose company was recently purchased for $4B by Hasbro, was next.

"Great cause! Great foundation!" Throop enthused. "Happy to help and be part of it. eOne has a long history in Canadian music. It really started in music with the record store in Halifax, and so to bring it full circle is kind of important to me and important to everybody at the company. So happy to help if we can."

Tom Cochrane O.C., representing Rob Steele, chairman and CEO of Newfoundland Capital Corp and past CEO of Newcap. Broadcasting, and CEO of Steele Auto Group, reminded everyone that the scope that the Unison Benevolent Fund covers is just not restricted to musicians.

"Rob Steele and I have had a number of discussions about how important this organization - the Unison Benevolent Fund is - as there's very little to support musicians, but also the extending community of the technicians as well because they go from one gig to the next and before you know it they're in their 60s and 70s," said Cochrane on behalf of the Rob Steele Foundation. "I've got a few of those guys working for me and hopefully they'll work for another few years. But we can't always count on this stuff and I had a road manager that fell by the wayside about a year-and-a-half ago and Unison helped him out.

"I know my good buddy Billy (Bell)  who is an outspoken proponent and an angel of the organization - he's done a lot of good work for people and we got to pull together as musicians and artists and the extended community of technicians because we love music. As Rob Steele pointed out to me, music is the tie that binds us all together, whether we're Canadians or whether we're Americans or whether we're from Timbuktu". 

Speaking on behalf of Unison co-founder Jodie Ferneyhough, fellow co-founder Catharine Saxberg said the announcement was "a total shock" and - aside from thanking the trio of philanthropists for their "astounding donations," also thanked Derrick Ross for the work he contributed as Chair. 

"When we turned over the Board Chair to Derrick, we knew that the organization was going to be in really good hands, because we knew he was going to make people do things that we hadn't been able to make them do," Saxberg said. "He has not proven us wrong, so thank you, Derrick, for taking our dream and taking it to the next level. It's an absolutely wonderful thing and it's humbling every time we get the opportunity to see the people that we've been able to help.  It's a great staff and a wonderful board that's taking over for us and we know the organization is in really good hands and will continue to support the Canadian music industry going forward."

As Ross crowed, "Seven-hundred-and-fifty-grand, mofos, not a bad night!" to the cheering throng, revellers partied away the night and posed for pics with Paul Mason - a.k.a. Fashion Santa - and Canadian drag superstar Tynomi Banks - both of whom donated $1K each to the Unison cause. The festive atmosphere was pronounced knowing that so far, Unison has helped over 800 individuals in emergency situations by helping them pay rent, buy groceries, make car payments, provide dental assistance, get counselling and keep the lights on for short term crisis relief...and that that service will continue for many years to come.

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