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  • Sir William C. Macdonald: A Biography
  • Terry Crowley (bio)
William Fong . Sir William C. Macdonald: A Biography. McGill-Queen's University Press. xx, 316. $34.95

Has Canadian philanthropy changed over the centuries? After the First World War and for many decades it was common to bemoan the parsimony of Canada's plutocracy as the product of an English/Scots/Irish meanness that stood in marked contrast to generous endowments made by the rich in the United States. Such unfavourable comparisons acknowledged ideological differences between the two countries; Americans favoured free enterprise, it was argued, and Canadians, partially in response to the severity of climate, inclined towards collective action based on government initiative. Canadians could not let people starve on the streets in winter. Still, such contrast generally neglected differences in size and relative wealth between the two countries as well as differing tax policies, since writeoffs in the United States were treated more generously.

In the thin history of Canadian philanthropy, SirWilliamC. Macdonald of Montreal tobacco fame was usually singled out along with the agricultural-implement Massey family as exceptions to general Canadian niggardliness. Both Macdonald and the Masseys began their major donations in the late nineteenth century when business and commerce reaped the avails of improved transport on land and sea. Technological innovation and a rising North American population increased profits while taxes were imposed not on incomes but on the general populace through tariffs, fees, and excises. The Masseys are much better known than William Macdonald as a result of their prominence in the movie industry and diplomacy, especially since Vincent Massey become Canada's first native-born Canadian governor general in 1952.

Prior to this biography by Montreal historianWilliam Fong, SirWilliam Macdonald had been known only to a few through snippets and patches. Commissioned by the Macdonald Stewart Foundation, this first study brings together facets of Macdonald's life into a coherent whole. Born in Prince Edward Island in 1831, William Macdonald lived a long life ending in 1917. Fong's work is based on a wide variety of archival sources hitherto unexplored. Although the background on the man's family origins is so extended that it might deter the undedicated from reading further, the account of Macdonald's business activities and especially his philanthropy adds immeasurably to both our knowledge and understanding. The evidence adduced suggests that William Macdonald hoped - through works such as Macdonald Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph and Macdonald College at McGill University - to create a legacy more glorious than the strain left on his temperament by the tobacco business in which he realized such [End Page 593] immense profits. His background in the nineteenth century and experience with both the United Kingdom and the United States imbued him with belief in progress and technological improvement. As someone who never married - living with his mother and sister for a number of years - William Macdonald grew isolated and increasingly irascible as he aged. His major philanthropy expanded greatly after he reached fifty-five years of age. Curt and often cutting with family members who failed to demonstrate the self-discipline he exemplified, Macdonald provided large donations and received acclaim that gave distinction to his life in a manner that he was otherwise unable to obtain.

One thus suspects that while philanthropy has changed in certain regards over the centuries, its fundamental grounding in complex psychology and the need for more permanent and pleasing presence beyond the tears of this transitory life has remained the same over time. President Liliane Stewart of the Macdonald Stewart Foundation is to be commended for long supporting this and other worthwhile ventures in the history of Canada. AuthorWilliam Fong has gone on more recently to publish a biography of Montreal philanthropist J.W. Connell, who established the first major foundation in the country. Vehicles for philanthropy may change, the extent of philanthropy may vary with conditions, but the results continue to be seen in socially beneficial ways.

Terry Crowley

Terry Crowley, Department of History, University of Guelph



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