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Donor Profile: McCain touches the lives of many through her gift to CIFAR

by CIFAR Jun 20 / 12

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Fifteen years ago, at a luncheon at the University of New Brunswick, the Honourable Margaret McCain, who was a guest at the event, had trouble following the conversation. “I didn’t even know enough about the subject to ask a good question,” recalls McCain, then in her third year as the first woman appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick.

But as she learned more about the topic – groundbreaking new research on how experiences are embedded in our genes by the age of six and shape our trajectory for future health and success – McCain was intrigued. The luncheon was held for Dr. Fraser Mustard, CIFAR’s founding president, who was on a cross-country tour explaining the significance of his research findings to provincial governments.

Later, when McCain, who was already an advocate against family violence, was poring over a stack of research papers from Dr. Mustard, a lightbulb turned on in her head. “I realized that the impact of family violence on young children was a huge social determinant of health – a clear impediment to healthy human development.”

This spring, CIFAR celebrates McCain’s generous gift of $1 million to support its research – a donation that reflects her long-time relationship with the Institute, which started at that luncheon in 1997.

As a social-work student at the University of Toronto, she had encountered numerous cases of young children facing incredible hardship. Later, when she moved to Florenceville, N.B., with her entrepreneur husband, the late Wallace McCain, she helped establish the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick.

Through CIFAR, McCain was exposed to compelling evidence that the brain responds, even before childbirth, to cues from the world outside, that our future health has as much to do with our early emotional milieus, independent of socioeconomic status, as it does with the genes we inherit. The research found that more than 28 per cent of Canadian children were lagging behind their counterparts socially, intellectually and emotionally by the time they reached school age. Surprisingly, those children came from families across the full socioeconomic spectrum: impoverished, middle-class and wealthy. The largest vulnerable group was middle-class.

For McCain, recognizing the scars of family violence as just the tip of the iceberg was like finding the cornerstone for her life’s work: she had found her calling. One of the first successes of her work with Dr. Mustard was persuading the Ontario government under Premier Mike Harris to commission the Early Years Study 1 – “Reversing the Real Brain Drain” – their co-authored report published in 1999. In it they showed how nurturing in the early childhood years is essential to a productive, healthy society. Among their recommendations was the creation of play-based early child hood and parenting centres that would open early and close late. One of the immediate outcomes at the time of the report’s publication was that provincial governments across Canada agreed to extend maternity leave. “Fraser was insistent on this,” says McCain. “It isn’t just about proper nutrition; touch between mother and child is equally important.”

In 2007 they produced Early Years 2, followed by a third report in 2011. Another direct result of their work was the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario. After Dr. Mustard passed away in November last year, McCain continues to advocate for early-years research. She is grateful for the work of two former CIFAR programs where the research originated – Population Health and Human Development – and also that the work motivated the creation of the U of T’s Institute for Human Development.

“What inspires me about CIFAR is that it is very unique – a virtual university without walls. It’s one of a kind in the world, bringing together brilliant researchers to have an impact on global society,” she says.

“We are fortunate to have such a passionate and intelligent partner in Margaret McCain,” says Dr. Alan Bernstein, CIFAR’s President and CEO. “Her gift supports our internationally renowned research, which includes our effort to provide a new understanding of early human development, knowledge that ultimately leads to better public policy and quality of life for people everywhere.”

Asked what advice she might give parents nowadays, McCain says, “If every child were hugged and read to, we could really create a peaceful world.”