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February 15, 2024 | Alumni | Volunteer & Awards

Education advocate and U of T alum Margaret McCain is recognized with an award from OISE

By Marianne Lau

Margaret McCain smiling

The Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain is widely recognized as one of Canada’s leading child advocates, working tirelessly to promote the best possible early childhood for all of the country’s children. Photo by V. Tony Hauser.

The OISE Young Alumni Council awarded the Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain (BSc 1955, Hon. LLD 1996, Hon. DLitt 2004) the annual InspirED Award at a special luncheon in January. The award recognizes alumni and friends of the Institute who have made significant contributions to the education sector.

Hosted by Professor Erica N. Walker, Dean of OISE, and Dr. Rumeet Billan, chair of the OISE Young Alumni Council, the luncheon was attended by a select group of emerging and established educational leaders, including esteemed guest Dr. Jane Bertrand, program director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, who accepted the award on Mrs. McCain’s behalf.

A champion of children and early childhood education

The Honourable Margaret McCain is widely recognized as one of Canada’s leading child advocates, working tirelessly to promote the best possible early childhood for all of the country’s children. 

One of her most notable contributions was co-chairing the landmark Early Years Study in 1999 alongside the late Dr. Fraser Mustard. In leading a team to advise the Ontario government on improving outcomes for young children, they conducted an extensive literature review and consulted with child development experts worldwide. Their efforts resulted in the Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain report, which left a lasting influence both nationally and internationally. 

The report emphasized the importance of early child development, underscoring that it is as crucial – sometimes even more so – than the time children and youth spend in formal education. It called upon governments to establish a first-tier program for early childhood development, assigning it equal significance to elementary, secondary and post-secondary education.

“[The study] propelled Margaret as really wanting to be a leader in early childhood education, and seeing that as the foundation of education,” said Bertrand, who served as research coordinator for the Early Years study.

Following the report’s release, the McCain Family Foundation decided to dedicate its mission exclusively to championing effective early childhood education across Canada, Bertrand says.

A woman is presented with an award at a table
At a special luncheon, Dr. Jane Bertrand, the program director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, received the InspirED Award from OISE Dean Erica Walker on behalf of Mrs. Margaret McCain. Photo by Christopher Katsarov Luna.

Throughout her career, McCain has worked to improve the lives of children and families. She was a founding member of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation, whose mission is to eliminate family violence through public education and research. Her commitment brought her into contact with Dr. Fraser, U of T alumnus and one of the world’s leading authorities on early childhood development, in 1993.

Bertrand fondly recounted the first meeting between Mrs. McCain and Dr. Fraser, where the latter handed McCain a huge stack of research papers on early childhood education.

“Well, Margaret doesn’t like to not be in the know. So she took [the stack of papers] home, read through them, and brought together folks to discuss what it meant,” said Bertrand. “She came to deeply understand that mammoth amount of different kinds of research – so much so that when Premier [Mike] Harris asked Fraser to head up a study on early child development, he insisted that [McCain] co-chair with him.” 

A model for leadership and advocacy

Recalling their first encounter, Dean Walker said that Mrs. McCain made a lasting impression. 

“I was very motivated and inspired to think about how we model leadership and advocacy, and how to contribute across multiple dimensions,” said Walker. “She is a stellar example of how you stay engaged and involved.” 

Luncheon guests, recognizing Bertrand’s own influence in early childhood education, sought her advice on making an impact in the field. 

Drawing inspiration from Mrs. McCain’s approach, Bertrand emphasized the importance of robust research evidence: “Build on an integrated base of research evidence, not just one big study[.] Be solid in what you are promoting from multiple lines of evidence.”

In her acceptance remarks, Bertrand said that McCain saw OISE as “a leader in both research policy and practice that is essential for quality early learning environments for young children.” 

Mrs. McCain and her late husband, Wallace McCain, are among Canada’s most admired and respected philanthropists. At the University of Toronto, the support of the McCains has been generously directed to OISE, the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, and the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. 

Mrs. McCain also served as Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick from 1994 to 1997 – the first woman to hold the position.

Originally published by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education