New Works in the Field

Acknowledging Multiple Histories: Perspectives on Philanthropic Foundations in Canada

Editors’ Note: Peter R. Elson and Sylvain A. Lefèvre, co-editors (with Jean-Marc Fontan) of the recently published Philanthropic Foundations in Canada: Landscapes, Indigenous Perspectives and Pathways to Change (PhiLab, 2020), introduce the themes of the new book.

An examination of the history of philanthropy can take one of two paths: A celebration of growth and accomplishment, or a critical analysis of the excesses of extraction-based industrialization and its impact on environmental, social and economic inequalities. We tend toward the latter path in no small part because it’s our job as academic researchers to critically examine phenomenon that may otherwise go undetected or under-explored.

We took this approach in a recently published volume, Philanthropic Foundations in Canada, in which we addressed Canadian philanthropic history and the comparative evolution of modern-day foundations with an emphasis on three issues: the Indigenous legacy of reciprocity, settler colonial philanthropy, and the distinct evolution of philanthropy in Quebec.

We say modern-day because, as many readers of this blog are aware, philanthropy or reciprocity has a long history, particularly in the context of periods of rapid industrialization and population growth throughout North America. Yet this dominant capitalistic/ entrepreneurial view of philanthropy is but one perspective, a perspective that either erases thousands of years of Indigenous reciprocity practices, or relegates it to a historical artifact of the past, not something that is alive, living and thriving.

Indigenous Legacy

Indigenous forms of giving and receiving predate settler colonial foundations in Canada by thousands of years. Whether it is a “Giveaway” at a powwow, the day-to-day sharing of country food, or a Potlatch ceremony, the sacred nature and collective community benefit of giving and receiving through prescribed protocols continue to take place in Indigenous communities across Canada and the United States. In the past, Indigenous reciprocity protocols were frequently banned by colonial governments. For example, Potlatch ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government between 1884 and 1951. These were ceremonies that, in part, attributed status and honouring of individuals to the wide redistribution of personal property to community members and allies. The Canadian government and its supporters saw the ceremony as anti-Christian, and reckless and wasteful of personal property (i.e., anti-capitalist). Today, the resurgence of potlatches and other reciprocity ceremonies are a source of individual, family and community healing.

The systematic erasure and displacement of Indigenous Peoples across North America was just one facet of many government policies designed to either eliminate or assimilate Indigenous Peoples. These policies, in various guises, continue to be resisted by Indigenous Peoples, through their exertion of treaty and inherent rights to land and self-governance practices. Courses or books on the history of philanthropy frequently mention the famous study of Marcel Mauss on the functions of gifts and reciprocity in pre-contact societies in North America and Oceania. However, by presenting reciprocity as a pre-contact phenomenon in the context of modern philanthropy, Indigenous sharing practices, practices that are still active and thriving in these communities, are made invisible, an act of erasure that continues to this day.

A few courageous Canadian foundations have started their own decolonization journey. Settler decolonization, in the context of foundations is the critical examination of embedded structures, values, practices, and policies that erase or ignore other worldviews and the people who hold those worldviews. Foundations can start this process by critically examining not only their investment, funding and administrative practices, but also the initial source of their wealth and its historical and contemporary impact on Indigenous Peoples. Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River and recently President and CEO of Indspire, in her chapter in Philanthropic Foundations in Canada, calls on foundations to begin their decolonization journey by acknowledging the tainted source of their wealth, building reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities, and hiring Indigenous managers and staff to oversee and implement Indigenous-focused funding programs. 

Settler colonial philanthropy

It would be a disservice to profile the emergence of foundations in Canada as independent from either Canada’s historic geopolitical position as a colony of Great Britain or as a neighbor to the United States. In the early 1900s, 25 percent of Canada’s domestic capital was in foreign hands, particularly British. This is in sharp contrast to the United States where it never exceeded 5 percent. In Canada, only two foundations were founded in the three decades following the establishment of the Massey Foundation in 1918. The Massey Foundation was the first charitable trust established in Canada, created with a majority of the estate of Hart Massey, son of the founder of the Massey farm equipment company.

The foundation supported a number of arts and educational initiatives, including Massey College at the University of Toronto. During this same time, some foundations in the United States grew both large and powerful, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations notable among them. These two foundations donated a total of $18.9 million to Canadian universities, museums, and libraries between 1911 and 1950. Aside from his native Scotland, the one country outside the United States that Andrew Carnegie chose to establish libraries was Canada.

Many of the powerful US and Canadian foundations had cross-over familial and employee ties. For example, Mackenzie King, before becoming Prime Minister in 1921, was chair of the industrial relations department at the Rockefeller Foundation from 1914 to 1918. He had especially close relationships with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and John W. McConnell, one of Canada’s early leading philanthropists, who made a fortune in multiple sectors (mining, insurance, transport, sugar refinery, finance). The Montréal-based McConnell Foundation, established in 1937, and inspired by these large American foundations, was for many decades a rare example of a Canadian foundation making often transformative investments in health, education, and the arts on a scale that approached that of the large United States foundations. The difference in number and scale of foundations in Canada and the United States was a reflection of both the scale of economic inequality and industrialization in United States and the emergence of a social safety net in Canada where foundations saw themselves as complementary to widespread state supported welfare and relief efforts. 

Historically, private foundations in Canada, like in the United States, have reflected the particular religious or ideological philosophy of their founders, which often expressed itself in sharp contrast to the focus or predatory ethos of the company from which that wealth was created and derived. Some foundations have become institutionalized and professionalized, over time becoming more independent from the initial purpose given by the donor at their creation. Among the 10,000 Canadian foundations, only 16 percent have ten or more paid and professional staff and almost 25 percent have no paid staff. However, there is one foundation in Canada that stands out by its sheer size: the Mastercard Foundation, created in 2006.

Today, as Canada’s largest foundation, it is an outlier from the rest of the Canadian philanthropic landscape: an asset base of $20 billion (CDN) (while the 10,000 other Canadian foundations total assets of approximately $60 billion). The MasterCard Foundation, linked to a US parent company, includes, as one of its programs, strategies to fight against poverty through financial inclusion in Africa. While the MasterCard Foundation is working with a number of Indigenous communities and universities in Canada to provide significant support to Indigenous students, it is underpinned by a philosophy of financial neoliberalism. The scale of MasterCard’s founding capital and the global reach of the foundation itself is emblematic of contemporary globalized financial capitalism.  

While the scale of foundations in Canada, in absolute numbers, is significantly different from the United States, Canadian foundations and the regulations governing them have both borrowed and differentiated themselves from foundations in the United States. If one common thread can be drawn across foundations in Canada and the United States, it is their contribution to education and research, health, and social services. One dimension of Canadian society, however, that is clearly distinct, and always has been, is the province of Quebec.

Quebec: A distinct philanthropic history of mutualism and solidarity

In many ways, the evolution of Quebec philanthropy is the exact opposite of what is observed in the rest of Canada. Today, Quebec has stronger mechanisms fostering social solidarity than other provinces in Canada. For example, 40 percent of all cooperatives in Canada are in Quebec. Moreover, the level of public spending, as a percentage of GDP, especially on social programs, is greater in Quebec than in the rest of Canada and is borne by a higher tax rate. Finally, the rate of unionization in Quebec is the second highest in Canada. While Quebec has a weaker level of philanthropic engagement than the rest of Canada (if we consider the level of donations), its level of poverty and structural income inequalities are also less pronounced. This situation results from the unique history and features of Quebec within Canada. As a secular social welfare state was developing in most of Canada after the Second World War, Quebec tied both its social service provision and philanthropy to the Catholic Church.

While the Industrial Revolution was in full swing at the turn of the last century and the first foundations were being set up in North America, Quebec took a distinct path. It certainly had its share of social patrons and bourgeois philanthropists, as in other major North American cities, who generally associated themselves with health reforms, improvements in working-class housing and the fight against tuberculosis. But in Quebec there was also an especially strong mutualist movement that provided members with services that were covered by neither the market nor the state (e.g. financial compensation in the case of disability, pensions to widows and orphans) by pooling resources and establishing mutual support networks. In fact, in the early 20th century, more than one in three men were members of such fraternal benefit societies in major Quebec cities. This mutualist movement, reflecting the strong sense of Quebecois solidarity is exemplified by the development of savings and credit cooperatives, starting with the creation in 1900 of the first credit union in North America by Alphonse Desjardins.

Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s the state and municipalities assumed that responsibility for social supports such as food, clothing and household heating fuel essentially lay with the Church and the family. In the 1940s the first social programs were gradually implemented by the federal and Quebec governments, including old age pensions, allowances for needy mothers, unemployment insurance, family allowances, and other types of support. But it was especially after the Second World War and during the 1960s that the welfare state developed a strong structure at the Canadian federal level with the establishment of a public and collective social security system. Yet here, again, Quebec took a different route with a government that outsourced social policies to the Catholic Church, rather than building a secular welfare state.

After the Second World War, Maurice Duplessis, the conservative leader in power in Quebec (1944–59), fought at the province-wide level against the strengthening of the welfare state, which he saw as a precursor to socialism and ultimately communism. In particular, he sealed an alliance with the Catholic Church and the dioceses, thereby strengthening the power of the latter. In that context, religious institutions, growing in size and power, began taking charge of multiple mandates in the field of health, education and even entertainment. Thus, during this post-war period, while in the rest of Canada, the United States and Europe, social policies were increasingly regulated by government policies and fiscal measures, Quebec continued to promote older forms of local, charitable and religious philanthropy.

But in the 1960s Québec experienced a period of rapid social, cultural and political change. For example, French, not English, became the official language in Quebec. The new winds that blew in with the “Quiet Revolution” and its nationalization policies marked the decline of the older  form of philanthropy centered in the Catholic Church and a transition to secular provision of health, education and welfare. One consequence of this shift was a dramatic decline in attendance and donations to the Catholic Church and hence its societal role and influence. In addition to the establishment of state supported health, welfare and social services, the Catholic dioceses lost influence and control in the field of education. This sudden secularization accompanying this dramatic political and cultural transformation had a powerful impact throughout all of Quebec society, including a decline in philanthropy.

Religious practice is strongly correlated with the propensity to give. In Canada, the average donation of practicing religious individuals is three times that of non-practitioners. Still today, Quebec has the lowest religious involvement of all the provinces. While nearly 40 percent of the money raised in Canada for charity, amounting to more than $4 billion (CDN), can be attributed to religious organizations, this percentage is only 20 percent in Quebec. This difference largely explains why the average amount of annual donations in Quebec is half that of the rest of Canada.

The decline of religiosity in Quebec goes a long way to explaining its lower levels of philanthropic engagement and institution building compared with the rest of Canada, but the history of Quebec philanthropy has always been at variance with that of the rest of Canada. For example, in the decades following the Second World War, religion played a central role in Quebec, while the welfare state was developing in the other provinces. Another long-lasting consequence of the Quiet Revolution was the institutionalization of strong relations between the government of Quebec and the community-based nonprofit and voluntary sector. Consequently, foundations that want to play an important role in Quebec do so by building collaborations with these two actors, rather than trying to replace them. Even in the discourse of the largest private foundations, the state remains the central pillar of collective solidarity in Quebec.

Acknowledging multiple histories

At first blush, the histories of foundations in Canada and the United States can be viewed with a celebratory lens because the light of analysis so frequently shines on accomplishments and new initiatives. Yet our analysis of modern-day philanthropy, emerging from the excesses of industrialization and social and economic inequalities reveal not one, but three philanthropic histories in Canada: An Indigenous history of reciprocity in the face of erasure and displacement; a settler colonial history of foundation growth and development; and, in Canada, a distinct Quebec history of solidarity and state welfare. While our book Philanthropic Foundations in Canada focuses on philanthropic histories and futures in Canada, we hope it also acts as an invitation for scholars and foundations in the United States to embark on their own comparative analysis of distinct philanthropic histories.  

-Peter R. Elson and Sylvain A. Lefèvre

Peter R. Elson and Sylvain A. Lefèvre are co-editors (with Jean-Marc Fontan) of Philanthropic Foundations in Canada: Landscapes, Indigenous Perspectives and Pathways to Change (PhiLab, 2020). Elson is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Public Administration, University of Victoria and co-director of PhiLab. Lefèvre is Professor at the École des sciences de la gestion (ESG), Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) and the Director of the Centre de recherche sur les innovations sociales (CRISES). He is also a research member of PhiLab.

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