The following are some notes drawn from a speech I made at the Tamarack Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa, May 6.
John Wilson McConnell, who in 1935 established the Foundation for which I am privileged to work, was born in 1877 to Irish immigrants who had arrived in Canada that same year, illiterate and bankrupt. Like many in those days, and millions more since, his family came hoping to find a better life here.
We now know that the promise of plenty that brought families like the McConnells to Canada – often with the offer of free or low-cost land – had devastating consequences for others. The colonial/settler era resulted in the systematic displacement and marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
Nevertheless, it is striking to consider that, starting out from such humble beginnings, by the time he was 50, McConnell had become, in all likelihood, the wealthiest person in Canada. How did that happen?
The advantages of coming of age in the 20th century
McConnell attended public school, and even in those days, Ontario’s schools were world class. As his biographer notes, “At the Paris Exhibition of 1887, the Ontario Department of Education won awards in six categories – more than Britain and the rest of the empire put together.” When his family moved from their farm in the Muskokas to Toronto – from rural to urban poverty – McConnell found work in the bookkeeping department of a dry goods trading company. He also took night courses at the YMCA. In this way he learned about business, and he soon began trading wood, wheat and other commodities.