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November 1, 2021 | Volunteer & Awards

Interview with Margaret Mccain, 2021 recipient of the Rose Wolfe distinguished alumni award

Coin of Rose Wolfe against blue background

The Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain is this year’s Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. You can read about her achievements and this award recognition here.

Dr. McCain received her B.A. from Mount Allison University in 1954 and her BSc in Social Work from the University of Toronto in 1955. She returned to school 50 years later to earn a Bachelor of Science from Seneca College in 2007.

For the past 23 years she has worked with all levels of government, in regions across Canada, to advocate for healthy child development and early childhood education. She is one of the lead architects of the childcare plan rolling out nationally over the next few years. Her volunteerism and philanthropy have been recognized with honorary degrees from universities across Canada, including from the University of Toronto in 1996.

Mark Sedore, Senior Communications Advisor at the University of Toronto, chatted with Dr. McCain about her life as an advocate for healthy child development, her admiration for the Honourable Rosalie Abella—the 2019 Rose Wolfe Award recipient—how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected children, and what she would do if she got to relive her life.

Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation, and congratulations on receiving the Rose Wolfe Award.

Thank you very much.

You once said that once you get involved in a cause, it’s hard to let it go. And it’s clear that you’ve made child development and advocacy a lifelong passion, but what made you first interested in these areas?

My interest first flowed from my work in family violence. After graduating, I lived in a very small, rural village, so there weren’t any jobs for me. But I became involved with a nascent foundation trying to do something in the early days when family violence came out of the social closet. At first, all the emphasis was on violence against women. But then we began to understand the impact of violence on children. And when we established a foundation, partnering with the University of New Brunswick, our mission was to end family violence—to eliminate it through research and public education. So I did a lot of public speaking on that, and I came to understand the huge impact of—if a mother is being beaten, then the children are being beaten indirectly, and it’s every bit as damaging. It never happens in a vacuum, the impact of violence spreads and results in long-term damage to children.

As I began to understand this impact, I began to talk about it. But then Fraser Mustard heard about me and even actually attended one of my speeches and when I heard this, I thought I’d have a heart attack. I felt like I was talking about things I had no right to talk about in his presence, and that was the science underlying these principles. However, he followed me up to the podium after the next speech and complemented me for having taken the science and translated it into language that people on the street could understand. Well, I thought: Oooh boy! You know, it was a pat on the back. But that first encounter with him drew me into his orbit.

Fraser Mustard was an internationally renowned guru on early childhood development, of course, and at the time was president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He was traveling through Canada talking to ministers and ministries of health about the social determinants of health. You know, how early experiences impact a child’s development. Family violence is probably one of the most serious impediments to healthy human development. And when Fraser Mustard was invited to chair an early-years study—Mike Harris commissioned it, when he was Premier of Ontario—Fraser then asked me to co-chair it. Well! That was a very interesting experience of how he navigated these recommendations through what ended up being huge resistance from a Conservative government. But that first encounter pulled me into his orbit, and my focus from then on was children and early childhood development.

And how do you see the outlook for all of your work and government advocacy today?

Well, today, it’s a very exciting time for childhood education in Canada! The national plan we’re going to see come to pass over the next few years will have a far bigger impact than just on women and children. This is about Canada’s future economic prosperity. Because in the future, our economic resources are going to be bigger than any other resources. Bigger than oil, fish, trees, water—our people are going to be our key to the future. And how we prepare them—we have to give the opportunity to every child, not just those in the upper income brackets. That’s what we’ve been fighting for all along: equality and universality. A model that is equal to the universal health-care system, a universal early-learning and care system. It’s going to have implications for our whole society, not just women and children.

Part of the criteria of the Rose Wolfe Award is that, in your public role, you inspire others. But what or who inspires you?

Well, Fraser Mustard certainly did. Very much so. But there are all kinds of people that inspire me. My husband inspired me. His work ethic, his social conscience, blended with business. His commitment to the whole of society and social justice. He inspired me, and he gave me the chequebook that allowed us to pursue our philanthropy.

And I’m inspired by Rosalie Abella. When I was Chancellor of Mount Allison I gave her an honorary degree and I was so in awe of her—just her emotional intelligence, her people skills, her ability—this rare quality to make every person in her sphere feel as if they stand 10 feet tall. She has a rare gift—emanated from her, that beautiful soul. I mean, I can’t think of any person I would rather have on our Supreme Court than Rosalie Abella. Her sense of justice. But I was also inspired by Rose Wolfe.

I understand that you knew her, both personally and by reputation. What does it mean to win this award in her name?

Well, Rose Wolfe was one of the most notable, well-known, well-revered, successful graduates of U of T’s social work program. I didn’t know her as an intimate friend, though my husband actually knew her husband through the food business. But I knew her and watched her as she was Chancellor of the University, and I saw how hard she worked and how much she gave. And how respected she was. So really, in my world, she was way up there. I was a huge fan through observation and, certainly, through many, many conversations.

Ultimately, she was one of my heroes from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, which is a school to be proud of by the way, because it ranks right up there, among the best in the world. They’re doing something there that distinguishes them: they teach evidence-based practice. Which, you would almost think that was apple pie and motherhood. Except that not every faculty of social work in Canada teaches evidence-based practice.

Margaret McCain sits smiling against a blue background.
Photo by V. Tony Hauser

Given your long-term expertise with child development and the social determinants of health, how do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected children? Both regionally and across Canada?

There’s no one answer to that, I don’t think. Children were hampered by being cut off from their friends, with limited sociability in their lives—which is important. But at the same time, they might have been getting a richer home life.

Ultimately the impact would depend on each individual family, because there are no two alike. And the living circumstances: how much space was in the home? Could you separate the kids? Maybe they were on top of each other all the time. There are all kinds of different circumstances. In some cases it worked really well and the kids benefited by it. And there are some things people may never give up now, thanks to the family circumstances of the pandemic, such as family meals. Because there’s enormous value, and it grows over time, of sitting around a table at family meals and talking. Simply being around that table, and the conversations that arise. But also the family games around that same table. Clear the dishes away, set up a Monopoly game, or Snakes and Ladders, or just reading time.

So, on balance, you’d have to say: children did learn something new in the pandemic. Yes, they were driving their parents crazy! And their parents were screaming at them and supposedly guiding their school lessons, and everybody was pulling their hair out by the roots and screaming at each other. But there’s a lot of honesty in that too. So there was a lot of frustration, of course, and families of different backgrounds experiencing all different circumstances. But at the same time, an awful lot of richness was happening in families, I think. It’ll take a long time before they fully evaluate both the benefits and the downsides, the drawbacks to the pandemic.

You’ve received many honorary degrees and recognitions and given speeches across the country over the past few decades. But it seems that things are very different today than they were 25 years ago when, for example, you received an honorary degree from U of T. So what would you say, given the chance, to today’s graduating students?

I’ve always found that the most difficult speech of all. What do you say to inspire students? I always found it hard to speak about myself personally and yet, when I did become personal it was probably the best-received speech of all.

I was on a panel once and was asked: if you were to speak to your 20-year-old self today, what advice would you give? I started to laugh and I said, you know … my granddaughters with their new babies—my great-grandchildren—have done this thing called skin-to-skin. A baby is born and the parents crawl into bed together and pass the baby back and forth, strip to the waist—shut out the world! I would die to have done that with my husband and our children. In the days that I had my babies, fathers were totally shut out. The whole experience was eliminated from my kids’ lives—and from mine! And I said to the audience, while I was on this panel: my dream is to come back in my next life and get my husband to crawl into bed with me! Now, I brought the audience down because they had a visual of Wallace McCain doing that! And Wallace is up in heaven saying: ‘Oh my god, Margaret!’ And my son’s sitting there in the audience and he nearly fell under the table.

But that would be the beginning of the healthiest start for every child in the world: to have parents care enough to do that. And to share that immediate human touch. To hear and feel it, that would be the best start for every child in life. So I think in a speech today I might say, if we want to get the world off to a good start, this is what I would recommend. If every child in the whole world experienced hugs, and human touch from the minute that they leave the womb, the world would be a better place.

Let’s assume again that you’re addressing a graduating class and you’re talking about your volunteerism and your lifetime of working for social causes: why should people volunteer?

We live in a country, thank god, that believes in common good, for the most part. Obviously there are elements, in Canada, that have erupted, about individualism. But we have universal health care. We were able to get that and the United States cannot. We have universal education, a universal social safety net. We take these for granted as a public good, for the public good. So why should people volunteer? We all have something to give to the common good.

And giving to the common good is good for you. It is also one of the social determinants of health, by the way, alongside taking control of your personal and professional life and nurturing an intimate relationship. Everyone would benefit, personally, if they contributed to their community and the common good. And everybody thinks of philanthropy as always having money to give. But some of the biggest philanthropists I know didn’t have money to give, they gave of themself.

What personally have you found most frustrating in a lifetime of volunteerism and advocacy?

Most of my work, you know, has been focused on early child development. And early childhood education. The most frustrating thing is to convince the people in power of something that is good. One is early education. I mean, I’ve worked on it for 23 years. I’ve been around the block. I’ve worked from the highest levels on down, spoken to cabinets in almost every province, trying to convince people who have their fingers on the power buttons that a move in this direction of healthier child development is a good thing to do. Trying to sell the science. The research. Change. Maybe that’s what is most frustrating, that simple word: change.

What are you most proud of? Or what do you think your biggest legacy is going to be?

My children.

I’m proud of them. They’re good people. My children have grown up with the potential to have a silver spoon in their mouth, but they don’t. My husband especially taught them the value of hard work. Together we taught them the value of, well, good family values. Education. Hard work. Discipline. But also a social conscience. Again, a commitment to common purpose. And they all have it. They have a strong social conscience, they are very task-oriented, goal-oriented. In every case, none of these kids had to be driven to do homework. They were self-motivated. And some of them had—some had some challenges to overcome, but they did. They did extremely well and they are now exceptional parents. They make me look pale in comparison! Because as parents they are superb.

In closing: why have you devoted your life to child development?

You know what? I don’t have an answer. I haven’t figured it out yet! All I know is: I’m there. And I can’t leave it. I cannot sit and knit all day and I cannot sit and read all day. Even though I’m 87.

But when I look back on my life, things sort of just fell into place. From my earliest memory, I had been in love with babies. I couldn’t wait to have my own, and it’s just been a progression. When I went into social work it was child protection, child welfare. And it’s always been—there’s been a thread. I played with dolls until I was 12 years old. And now I’ve got nine grandchildren and soon to have eight great-grandchildren! So you could look back and say that healthy child development has been a lifelong passion.