The meaningful munificence of Margaret McCain

Posted on August 23, 2012 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

For the former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and widow of one of Canada’s most successful industrialists, having it all is not nearly as important as giving it all away.

On any given day, at any other time of the year, you might find one of Canada’s wealthiest women and most prominent philanthropists behind a podium giving a fundraising speech, or before fellow establishmentarians preaching the good gospel of social works, or, perhaps, entertaining her children and brood of grandkids at her spacious and tastefully garnished home in the heart of Toronto’s Rosedale district.

But on this day, an achingly beautiful late June morning, you find Margaret Norrie McCain at the end of Ollie’s Loop, where Covey Road winds down through the junipers, firs and jack pines, past the azaleas and elderberries, all the way to the sea, near Hackett’s Cove, and a view only the rich can afford.

For this is Nova Scotia’s South Shore: The playground of international yachtsmen, American trust-fund babies, Halifax’s greatest (if not necessarily noblest) families, and other denizens of unreachable privilege. This, McCain explains, is her summer sanctuary, a sylvan splash of land at which you arrive, through gates, and only by invitation. And you are welcome, even though she knows you are armed with questions about how the other half lives or, more precisely, how a charter member of the nation’s “one per cent” gives away a massive chunk of her late husband’s fortune to the other 99 before the sun sets on yet another exemplary life.

“I’m 78 this fall,” she declares almost cheerfully under the patio umbrella. “I don’t expect to live that long. But let’s say I live 20 years.”

She pauses, as if startled by the substance of her own statement.

“You know,” she continues, “in the past year, I’ve lost two significant men. One gave me love, a family and a life. The other gave me a mission.”

The “one” was Wallace McCain, her husband of 56 years who died, at age 81, on May 13, 2011. The “other” was Fraser Mustard, her mentor of nearly 20 years who died, at age 84, on November 16, 2011. It would be facile and, frankly, flat wrong to say these men animated her life, as if they were twin Svengalis to her Trilby. But, in meaningful ways, they played principal roles in the evolution of her world view, including her attitudes towards philanthropy.

Wallace, the son of a successful potato broker in Carleton County, New Brunswick, rose to become one of Canada’s most accomplished businessmen.

With his brother Harrison, he built a frozen french fry empire that spanned six continents. Later, he chaired the board of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods – a job he repeatedly insisted was virtually ceremonial – where his son, Michael, presided as CEO. Forbes Magazine once pegged his personal fortune at close to $2.3 billion (U.S.), making him, for a time, the country’s 13th richest individual.

Mustard was a physician and internationally renowned expert on early childhood development, a subject he framed under the rubric, “the socioeconomic determinants of human development and health.” A co-founder of McMaster University’s medical school and the intellectual fountainhead of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research between 1982 and 1996, he pioneered The Early Years studies (in which Margaret, herself, is listed as a co-author), a series of three seminal reports (1999, 2007 and 2010) which advocated, among other things, a system of early childhood education that recognized this stage in a person’s life as, he once wrote, “equal to or, in some cases, greater in importance for the quality of the next generation than the periods children and youth spend” in primary or secondary schools.

Superficially, the differences between these two men could not have been more striking. One was a titan of industry, a captain of capitalism. The other was, for lack of a more formal designation, an egghead. But they shared at least one fundamental ethic: They were convinced that people who possessed sufficient resources – intellectual, material or both – could not only change the world for the better, but had a responsibility to do so.

“Both Wallace and I grew up in homes where commitment to community and philanthropy to the degree that you are capable of giving was part of our family culture,” McCain says. “Meeting people in the 1930s at the back door. It happened in both homes. Education was a religion, along with faith … Wallace happened to be very successful in life. He always believed he was obliged to give back. More than this, though, he wanted very much to give back. In his dying days, he said it was more fun to give it away than it was to make it.”

In fact, Mustard and Wallace shared another trait: An abiding belief in the value of discipline and rigor. This found expression, in the former, in his systematic approach to the research, development and evaluation of early childhood development programs. In the latter – who once said his favorite subject in university was math – it manifested in his strict, by-the-numbers approach to commercial operations.

Now that they are gone, these qualities of mind – a passionate commitment to improving the life of others and a devotion to structure and strategy – purchase nearly every waking moment of Margaret McCain’s time.

“Philanthropy is far more than writing a check,” she says. “There is charitable philanthropy and there’s strategic philanthropy. And we’ve done both … But let’s say I do live another 20 years. I have to be effective. And effective philanthropy is focussed. It’s based on intelligence and knowledge of the issues.”

It is, in effect, a business, like any other. And to be successful, it needs a plan.

The list is as long as it is impressive: The Canadian Women’s Foundation, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and the Muriel McQueen Ferguson Foundation, which funds research into the causes, incidence and forms of family violence. And then there are the institutes of higher learning: The University of Toronto, Mount Allison, the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie, St. F.X., and Mount Saint Vincent University. And the health centres: Women’s College Hospital, St. Mike’s, Princess Margaret Hospital, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Altogether, McCain estimates that the first round of what she calls “legacy gifts” – the cornucopia of charities she and Wallace agreed to fund this past year – amounts to some $50 million. That’s on top of the roughly $45-50 million they had already dispersed to various organizations in the handful of years before his death. When done, she ball parks, the better part of $200 million will be gone – if not all before she dies, then eventually. In fact, that’s exactly how she puts it: “Eventually, everything will be gone.”

She utters these words almost gleefully. But there’s also the ring of solemnity in her voice, as if she has embraced a profound, even sacred, duty. “You know,” she says, “our kids are not going to be hungry or cold, because they inherited the shares in Wallace’s companies before he died. We were given a liquid piece of that specifically to give away, and, of course, to keep me until I die. I now handle the dispersement. That’s the plan we agreed on. We talked about it. We worked on it. That’s my job.”

Ultimately, though, these legacy gifts do not comprise the strictly “strategic philanthropy” in which she is otherwise engaged. Her real passion is the Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation whose board members include, apart from herself, her sons Michael and Scott, and her daughters Martha and Eleanor. Its mission is “To champion effective early childhood programs across Canada that provide equal opportunities for all children, align with the school system and operate within a provincial or territorial framework.”

More than this, its objectives are both specific and transformational: “In selected Atlantic Canada communities, to transform existing public health, family support, child care and early education resources into effective integrated early childhood programs that provide opportunities for all young children and their families; amplify efforts to put science into actions that benefit the lives of young children; support efforts to gather, build and share evidence about early child development with the goal of informing and inspiring public discourse and policy action” and “initiate a pan-Canadian alliance to promote policies for integrated provincial/territorial early childhood systems as an extension of public education.”

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