McCain is one of Canada’s most respected and admired philanthropists. Gifts from her and her late husband Wallace McCain and from their charitable foundations have benefited causes ranging from pancreatic cancer to family violence and mental health among youth.
In an interview with TVO in 2012, McCain used an allegorical tale to explain her motivation for making a recent gift of $10 million to support mental health initiatives for children and youth at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
She talked about a psychiatrist standing on the banks of a river watching drowning children being swept by and having to make “a terrible choice, a terrible decision ” — whether to jump in downstream to save as many as he could or go upstream to find out why they are falling into the river.
McCain said for years she worked on the downstream side, which prompted her in 1985 to co-found the Muriel McQueen Ferguson Foundation, which aims to promote public education to eliminate family violence.
McCain says that Fraser Mustard, the esteemed advocate of early childhood education, “pulled me upstream” to focus on early childhood development. In 1999, they co-authored a landmark report called “The Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain,” that put a spotlight on the critical importance of the first years of life for a person’s healthy development.
According to McCain, governments are beginning to better understand that despite tough economic times, it is economically wise to invest in early childhood than face the social costs of reduced emotional, intellectual and physical health later in life. The introduction of all-day kindergarten in Ontario is one example of the report’s enduring legacy.
McCain’s own actions speak most loudly. In addition to the gift to CAMH, she and Wallace in 2011 gave $5 million to establish the Wallace McCain Centre for pancreatic cancer at Princess Margaret Hospital. Wallace died of the disease in May of that year.
In 2006, she received the Philanthropist of the Year Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals for donating time and money to Canada’s National Ballet School, the Learning Partnership and to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
She is both a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of New Brunswick and continues to play a major role as an advocate for children, helping them “be the best that they can be.”