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Building a strong foundation

A new book recounts the legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation

By SILVER DONALD CAMERON | JAN 12 2011

It was a model of efficiency and political prowess, overcoming the steep obstacles that the creation of new federal programs often face in Canada. And, in its short life, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation funded and empowered more than a million young Canadians, recounts writer and educator Silver Donald Cameron in his new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

The book is an intimate account of the start-up, the inner workings and the accomplishments of the $2.5 billion foundation – the cornerstone project of Jean Chrétien’s government to mark the new millennium – and gives much insight into educational policy in Canada. It involves a large cast of characters, including foundation chief executive Norm Riddell, his administrative staff, federal and provincial politicians and civil servants, and an anonymous “Deep Throat” informer whom Dr. Cameron calls the “August Personage.” The book is interspersed with vignettes of students whose lives were transformed thanks to the CMSF.

In the following excerpt, Dr. Cameron takes us through some of the initial steps leading to the foundation’s creation and introduces us to Jean Monty, the colourful chief executive of BCE Inc., who served as chairman of its board of directors until 2002:

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The actual creation of the [Canada Millennium Scholarship] Foundation fell to Human Resources Development Canada. The deputy minister, Mel Cappe, assigned the file to Robert Bourgeois, who is now a vice-president of Laurentian University.

“The legislation had been drafted, but not enacted,” Bourgeois says. The Foundation’s first chairman had been appointed – Yves Landry, CEO of Chrysler Canada – but Landry died soon after his appointment, leaving Bourgeois to put together a working group of four or five people in Ottawa and begin the arduous process of selecting members and directors for the Foundation.

“We wanted to ensure that it would have buy-in across the country,” Bourgeois explains, citing the need for balance in terms of region, language, gender, ethnicity and the like. “So we had huge banks of potential nominees, which we kept trying to massage until the Privy Council Office felt that they had the right group of individuals that would be generally accepted nationally.”

By then, Bourgeois was working with a new chairman of the board – the formidable Jean Monty, CEO of BCE Inc. (formerly Bell Canada Enterprises), a towering figure in Canadian business, who took the job at the personal request of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Monty and Bourgeois then drew in Dr. David Smith, former principal of Queen’s University, to confer with an array of stakeholders across the country and make recommendations about such matters as the appropriate balance between access bursaries and merit scholarships, issues of eligibility and the definitions of need and merit. Smith presented his report in December 1998. His consultations had revealed an overwhelming consensus that 95 percent of the awards must be based on financial need. The report also identified a number of options for the Foundation to choose from concerning the determination of need, the distribution of needs-based awards among
regions, the average amounts of those awards and the criteria for awarding and administering the five percent of the funds that would be devoted to merit scholarships.

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The Foundation was incorporated in June 1998 and issued a call for tenders to manage its money. In July 1998, its endowment – $2.5 billion – was transferred to the new organization. Even that was tricky, says Robert Bourgeois, because moving such huge sums into the market can actually create a bubble of apparent demand that will influence the prices of the securities involved, “so it had to be done in stages, in ways that didn’t distort the market.

“We had some interesting debates – some good honest arguments with Mel Cappe and Jean Monty talking about whether the awards should be skewed towards practical programs, like engineering and commerce, and so on. I remember Mel arguing very forcefully that society needs poets and philosophers, and that we should not be forgetting that education is about more than just science and engineering. In the end he prevailed. I think that was a good decision. Another good decision was that the awards should be mostly devoted to access.

“Monty was a fun guy to work with,” Bourgeois says, “and he brought a lot to the process. He used his communication director in BCE to come up with the Foundation’s logo and its look and all that. I’ll never forget the day when we were sitting in his boardroom, and he brought these folks in with the mock-ups and so on, and they set them up at the end of the boardroom table. This is the kind of meeting that, if it were in government, the process would go on for weeks if not months. But Jean looked at this stuff and said, ‘Yeah, that looks fine to me, what do you guys think? Let’s vote. Decided!’ It was done in about five minutes.”

It was largely through Monty’s influence that the Foundation established its offices in Montreal.

“That was a strategic choice,” nods the August Personage. “If you’d put it in Ottawa, there would have been a question about whether it was really arm’s-length. Furthermore, it was obvious that the Foundation would have to build a bridge to Quebec – and Montreal is the headquarters of Quebec, so to speak, but not the capital. So you’re in neither a federal nor a provincial capital, and you can talk to all capitals. By the same token, the Foundation had four francophone chairs. Not an accident. Symbolism counts.”

“Jean Monty was absolutely the right person to get us going,” says John Stubbs, the former president of Simon Fraser University and a board member throughout the entire life of the Foundation. “His appointment was a stroke of genius, primarily because of his ability to pick up the phone and talk with any premier in the country and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to get onside here.’ I would love to have been a silent observer of that process.” He laughs. “I never saw anyone run a meeting like Monty. Bang, bang, bang. No repetition allowed. Sorry, he’d say, that point has already been made. Next?”

Communications director Jean Lapierre has a similar memory. He was scheduled to present his communications strategy to the board, and when the time came, “there was 10 minutes left before 12 o’clock, and M. Monty didn’t want to be there after lunch. He said to me, ‘Can you present your communications plan in ten minutes? If you can’t, you’re fired.’”

Monty may not have been joking. Alex Usher was the Foundation’s top policy officer at the time, and he remembers that Monty’s philosophy was that “the job of the board is to agree with the staff. If the level of agreement drops below 99 per cent, we get a new staff.”

As a federal agency, even at arm’s length, the new Foundation wasn’t entirely welcome in Quebec. In fact, it even had difficulty finding office space to rent. So Monty also provided the Foundation with its first offices – “a closet in Monty’s building” says Usher – and then had to explain to the other tenants in the building why the entrance to their building was, at one point, being blocked by student protesters.

“You can imagine our first couple of meetings,” says Jeannie Lea, the former PEI Minister of Advanced Education who served on the Board of Directors from the outset. “We have this superstar CEO chairing it, and we always met in the Bell building either in Montreal or Toronto. Monty was a no-nonsense guy, and you could see how he operated as a CEO. In fact the members of the board never really got to know each other then, because Monty didn’t have time for small talk and socializing. A fascinating man.”

From the book A Million Futures © 2010, by Silver Donald Cameron. Published by Douglas & McIntyre, an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Dr. Cameron has taught at four Canadian universities and was founding dean of the school of community studies at Cape Breton University.

The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, by the numbers

Over $3.14 billion in bursaries and scholarships provided to 667,333 Canadian students, 95 percent allocated on the basis of need and five percent on the basis of leadership, community engagement and merit.

  • $57 million dedicated to access-related research and experimental programs
  • 84 research publications
  • 16 policy and research conferences and two major policy summits
  • Two major international conferences on broadening access to postsecondary studies
  • 21 community pilot projects conducted in provinces from coast to coast with community partners and the launch of a national best practices network


Source: Legacy: 2009-2010 Annual Report of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

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