The transformative power of a gift: McGill and Quebec – 190 Years of History

Speech delivered by Professor Heather Munroe-Blum
To the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal
November 25, 2011

Check against delivery


Thank you so much, Michel, for that very generous introduction. I would like to thank you all for coming today, and would in particular like to acknowledge Minister Gignac, Minister Blais, Senator Smith and other members of the National Assembly, of the House of Commons and of the City of Montreal, as well as my fellow rectors and professors. I am very happy to return to speak at an organization that has provided such economic and business leadership to Montreal.

Two-thousand and eleven marks the 190th anniversary of the founding of McGill University. Two-thousand and twelve will mark the 190th anniversary of the Chambre. Congratulations to McGill! Congratulations to the Chambre!

It has been a memorable, even tumultuous year across the globe, from the Arab spring to major new crises rocking the world’s economies. Here at home, despite our prudent regulatory systems, we are feeling the economic effects of these crises across every sector, including universities. McGill has itself experienced a fall of ups and downs, with a difficult strike and significant campus demonstrations. And, engaging with these tough events can create an occasion to grow and learn, as these challenging times have both risks and opportunities.

And in tumultuous times, it can be good to step back and remind ourselves how far we have come, and how we got here. A mere 50 years ago, there was no organized system of higher education in Quebec. But thanks to visionary leadership beginning in the 1960s, we have blossomed. Quebec is now home to a wonderful system of universities, and yes, one that has ranked, year after year, in the world’s top 20 of the QS World University Rankings. I think we can all be proud that one of our public universities is now mentioned in the same breath as Oxford, or Princeton, or Cambridge.

Today, I’d like to share with you the story of McGill’s metamorphosis, from that first tiny class of medical students to the vibrant institution of today, changing lives in Quebec, in Canada broadly, and around the globe.

McGill’s founder, James McGill, was not born into wealth, but his studies at Glasgow University in the mid-18th century Scottish Enlightenment instilled in him a belief that education was nothing less than the key to progress -- the betterment of self, for the betterment of the world.

He left Scotland to build a new life in Montreal –a small town at the edge of an undeveloped continent. Skilled in French and aboriginal languages, he worked his way up, little by little, in the rough and tumble fur trade. And, as his toil began to make him a wealthy man, he committed himself to making a difference in his adopted home. James McGill served the public as an elected member of the very first Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, he led the militia to defend Montreal in the War of 1812, and he also launched grassroots community projects, such as the creation of the volunteer fire brigade.

Interested in sharing the gift of education that had served him so well, James McGill looked out at his land near the snowy slope of Mount-Royal and envisioned a place where people could work hard to hone their intellects; a place where they could expand their worldview with new perspectives—and then use that learning to improve the world. His bequest of this estate, and 10,000 pounds, led to the creation of McGill University.

One of my favourite chapters in McGill’s history is the story of its very first women graduates, the so-called “Eight of 1888.” They weren’t just academic pioneers, they were positive social activists. In the late 19th century, life for many women in Montreal was simply brutal. If a man made $1.10 for a backbreaking 10-hour shift at the local brewery, a woman earned only half that – then went home to backbreaking housework by night. The Eight of 1888 took it upon themselves to create change. They rented a house, hired a cook and offered affordable roast beef dinners and other hot meals to Montreal’s female workforce. By 1894, they were serving more than 25,000 meals a year.

Now, jump ahead a century, and that spirit is just as strong. Some of you may have known the late Jim Lund, who served as McGill’s dean of dentistry from 1995 to 2008. Jim is one of the major reasons that our Faculty of Dentistry is today considered one of the world’s premiere dentistry schools for research. Jim also believed passionately that all members of society—the homeless, the elderly, the working poor —deserve quality dental care, even when they can’t pay for it.

Thanks to Jim, and now a very large group of students and professors, McGill dental students go to community centres and church basements, and fix the teeth of disadvantaged people right across the city. Working with the Welcome Hall Mission in Saint-Henri, the Faculty recently opened the Jim Lund Dental Clinic, a permanent free clinic to extend the good work being done by the mobile units. In just 10 months, nearly 700 Montrealers have benefited from this clinic.

Over 190 years, McGill through its people has had an extraordinary impact on Quebec, all of Canada, and the world.

  • Canada’s first francophone prime minister, earned his law degree from McGill – Wilfrid Laurier – class of 1866.
  • Physics professor Ernest Rutherford launched the nuclear age by showing that atoms can spontaneously decay. His Nobel Prize, the first given for work done at a Canadian university, is one of nine Nobel Prizes received by McGill professors and alumni over the university’s history, three in the last three years alone.
  • Canada’s first woman professor was McGill botanist Carrie Derrick – class of 1890.
  • As part of the government’s Réseau Universitaire Intégré de Santé program, McGill provides specialty care to more than 60 per cent of Quebec’s land mass, including the Plan Nord territory.
  • McGill Law professor John Humphrey wrote the first draft of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our beloved and much-missed Professor Paul Andre Crépeau led reforms of Quebec’s Civil Code and Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
  • McGill professors Bernard Belleau and Mark Wainberg, in collaboration with graduate Francesco Bellini developed 3TC, the treatment that changed AIDS from a certain death sentence to a treatable disease.
  • McGill’s Dr. Wilder Penfield invented groundbreaking brain surgery procedures at our world-renowned Montreal Neurological Institute. Professor Brenda Milner has followed in his pioneering footsteps, discovering that the brain has multiple systems for governing memory.
  • While students at McGill, Thomas Chang invented the artificial blood cell, Alan Emtage, Peter J. Deutsch, and Bill Heelan created the world’s first Internet search engine, and William Chalmers discovered the main component of Plexiglas.
  • And there’s still a whole other set of McGill people, such as William Shatner, Leonard Cohen, Matt Haimovitz or Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, who have made an indelible mark on the international performing arts scene.

I could spend hours describing McGill’s daily contributions, but you’re hungry, so I’ll get to the point. What do all of these accomplishments, have in common? They started with James McGill’s gift.

One gift. Just think of this. Immeasurable impact.

So that brings us to community engagement, and philanthropy. It’s a timely theme for the holiday season.

Quebec is a wonderful, vibrant, astonishing place to live. All of us as Quebecers are justifiably proud of our home, and you can see this pride in our very strong sense of community.

I am especially proud to serve as co-chair of this year’s Montreal Centraide Campaign, along with M. Pierre Beaudoin, because I know how much good work this organization does in our communities, especially at the holidays.

The popular TV series Donnez au suivant, shows the chain reaction of kindness that spins out from Quebecers helping Quebecers. It shows generosity is an important part of who we are. But that community spirit doesn’t translate into volunteerism and dollars the way it does elsewhere in North America.

According to the federal government’s most recent “Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating”, we fall behind the rest of Canada in both volunteerism and philanthropy. we give an average of $219 per year, compared to $437 by the average Canadian. Only 37 per cent of us volunteer, the lowest rate in Canada. When it comes to taking care of society, we rely most heavily on the government alone. It is time to change that.

Relying solely on government is a reflex we have gotten used to regarding universities as well. It’s time to change that as well.

McGill’s strong tradition of philanthropy has been unique in Quebec until recently, and certainly it is important. However, many people look at our performance in international rankings and make a completely incorrect assumption: they think that if McGill can compete with wealthy schools like Harvard, McGill must also be a wealthy school, correct? No, we are not.

Even with the welcome philanthropy we receive, McGill’s operating funding is weak in comparison to the universities outside Quebec with whom we compete. In terms of operating budget, McGill ranks 9th in funding among Canada’s top 13 research universities. The University of Michigan, the only public university in North America who ranks with McGill near the top of the QS rankings, has average operating funds of $28,000 per student, compared to just over $16,000 for McGill. Its total endowment, at $6 billion, is more than seven times that of McGill. The endowment of Princeton? $13 billion. Yale? $16 billion. And Harvard? $26 billion. And the University of Toronto just launched a $2 billion fundraising campaign, and the University of British Columbia a $1.5 billion campaign. That’s the competition.

Moreover, McGill faces an aging infrastructure problem, which per capita is the worst of any major research-intensive university in Quebec and Canada. Why? Because the University is 190 years old, and more than half of its buildings were constructed before the Second World War.

The Governments of Quebec and Canada recently made welcome increases to higher education and research – but they cannot come close to bridging the funding gap, particularly in this volatile economy. Even with Quebec’s recent increases to tuition, it will take Quebec universities five years to reach only two-thirds of the average Canadian tuition … of last year. And a significant portion of that tuition increase goes directly to students as aid so that access to university can be increased. At McGill, we have invested for years and will continue to invest, into student aid, 30 per cent of net new tuition increases that come to McGill – above and beyond Quebec’s student loans and bursaries program.

As manufacturing jobs flow out of North America, at an ever faster pace, our economy is only as strong as our education system – and that system is only as strong as the people who support it. Students, their families, employers who know they need talent in order to prosper, and generous, visionary community leaders, must support our universities, along with stable, effective and predictable government support.

Higher learning is an investment — and, unlike other investments in today’s economic climate, higher learning is an investment with a predictable, excellent return. When you invest in education, you’re investing in your economic future. And you’re also investing in a healthy, civil society. The business pages of the newspapers don’t offer analysis of this, so let me elaborate.

A healthy, civil society is one where you want to live. It’s where you want your children to grow up, work, and have their children. And, healthy, civil society values highly all of its citizens and how well-prepared they are. It values education highly – it has strong schools, a strong university system, and great universities.

But let’s get back to the numbers. Universities in Quebec are big economic drivers. At your seats, you will have received a 2010 study by SECOR Group. It shows that McGill’s education and preparation of highly skilled people increases Quebec’s productivity by nearly $1 billion each year. McGill’s creation and dissemination of knowledge increases Quebec’s productivity by a further $3.2 billion. And it’s not over! Our University, our international students, and our visitors to McGill add value of another billion dollars through their direct spending. In total, each year, McGill has an impact on the Quebec economy of $5.2 billion.

$5.2 billion. And that’s just one university out of the 18 in Quebec.

Universities conduct nearly 40 per cent of all research and development in the country. From 2008 to 2010, during the last economic storm, nearly 300,000 net new jobs for university graduates were created in Canada. And, for those who did not attend university, more than 400,000 jobs disappeared. Over the course of their working lives, university graduates will earn $1.3 million more, on average, than people with no university education. And our McGill collaboration with ETS in developing the Quartier de l’innovation (QI) aims to multiply the economic effects of our research and education. Studies show that university graduates are generally more engaged in their community, are physically healthier and draw less on social services. And crucially, they pay a greater proportion of taxes to support the wonderful quality of life that we Quebecers enjoy and take pride in.1

We cannot afford our fine social values without healthy, well-funded universities. We will have no prosperity, we will see ourselves outpaced by our competitors and, collectively, we will become poorer. It’s as simple as that.

Think about this: 100 years ago, in 1911, Canada had only 18 universities and 13,000 students. This year, more than one million students attend Canada’s 95 universities. But the so-called “developing economies” are making massive gains in education. In just one year, one million new students enrolled in Chinese universities. In one year, therefore, China will do what it has taken us 100 years to achieve. India estimates it will create 1,300 new universities over ten years to meet their demand.2

Brazil, India, China and other emerging countries -- this is where the competition is now coming from. It’s no longer about cheap labour and low manufacturing costs. Now, it’s about brains, knowledge and innovation. And if you have watched the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, you understand that China, in particular, have the drive to succeed in educating its citizens.

The idea that universities are the sole responsibility of the State no longer works. For Quebec to thrive in the global knowledge economy, each and every university in Quebec needs an endowment and all need to grow the endowments they now have. Ontario government programs to match philanthropic dollars for student aid sparked the creation of endowments at regional universities where there was no previous endowment, no tradition of giving. Every Ontario university, big or small, new or older, now has an endowment. In its last budget, the Government of Quebec put in place a similar program to dramatically expand its matching funds for gifts to universities. We have been given a golden opportunity that we can seize.

Some of you in this room are already champions for our universities and for philanthropy—and I thank you for your generous giving and your engagement with your communities. I’d also like to reassure you that I’m not going to ask you to give money to McGill specifically—at least not before lunch…

What I am here to ask of you, however, is that you become an ambassador for the importance of giving, of giving not just money but also your time and your passion to a cause dear to your heart. As Pierre Lassonde just emphasized in a recent speech, “Philanthropy isn’t measured by the number of zeros on a cheque; it is instead measured by your level of personal engagement, proportional to your own financial means. We all can make a difference.”

To sustain the quality of life we so value in Quebec, we must weave greater community engagement, volunteerism and philanthropy into the very fabric of our culture, into the values and actions of every citizen, taught, through example, in every family. In particular, I urge you to champion the cause of funding higher education in every region of Quebec - to commit to defend a strong system of universities where each one has programs of renown, and where a handful of our institutions stand with the very best in the world.

I urge you to be a champion like James McGill.

Let’s seize this opportunity to strengthen our culture of philanthropy, volunteerism and community engagement in Quebec, a culture that will be a pillar of higher education. Our progress and our future depends on it.

Thank you.



1Statistics from the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada.

2Statistics taken from the speech by AUCC chair Stephen Toope for AUCC’s centennial membership meeting.

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