You've probably noticed that Canada's rich are giving away fortunes.
Prospector Stewart Blusson handed $50-million he made from finding a diamond mine to the University of British Columbia. Cable magnate Randy Moffat of Winnipeg pledged $100-million to needy kids. Gold tycoon Peter Munk plowed $37-million into a cardiac centre at a Toronto hospital. Gifts on this scale seem to be in the headlines each week.
This is giving on a scale Canada has never experienced. Entrepreneurs are helping good universities become great, grafting new wings on hospitals, getting opera houses built. It's all because of a simple change in the way the rich are taxed, a change that came about because investment banker Donald K. Johnson wouldn't take no for an answer.
The Globe and Mail's Nation Builder for 2007 is a fellow from small-town Manitoba whose tireless, 12-year campaign for more generous tax treatment on charity donations has opened the philanthropic floodgates from coast to coast.
As a Bay Street deal-maker, Mr. Johnson spent his career convincing chief executive officers that he could help build their companies. But he spent almost as much time convincing a series of skeptical finance ministers that a particular tax break for the wealthy could be good for all Canadians.
Now, as billions pour into charities, those finance ministers are staggered by what he has wrought.
In honouring Don Johnson - who at the age of 72 still goes to work each day in crisp blue shirts with white collars as an adviser to BMO Nesbitt Burns - The Globe and Mail is not just saluting what he has achieved on the philanthropic front. It's also serving notice on the unimaginable benefits his generation's gifts can bring to other Canadians.
"Don Johnson opened the door to a new perception on charitable giving. He's redefined what charity means in our society," said one-time doubter Paul Martin, the former finance minister and prime minister.
It all started in 1994 because Mr. Johnson wanted to please his wife, Anna McCowan Johnson. They'd first met in 1981 when, after an amicable split, Mr. Johnson's first wife introduced her to him as their younger daughter's ballet teacher. Now the National Ballet needed someone to lead a $12-million campaign fundraising for its new home.
Ms. McCowan Johnson and her friend Karen Kain (then a principal dancer with the National, now its artistic director) coaxed Mr. Johnson into the job.
That is when he realized there was a problem: Like most people, he spent the bulk of his cash income each year. Like most wealthy people, he was sitting on a whack of stock - Bank of Montreal shares he had acquired when the bank bought the investment dealership he co-owned. He wanted to donate shares to the National Ballet.
Americans don't pay capital-gains tax on such gifts, a tax break that has fostered, among other things, the billion-dollar endowment funds that support great universities, such as Harvard and Yale. Canadians, on the other hand, would trigger punishing capital-gains taxes when they gave away shares. So no one donated stock to charities.
Across this country, rich folks funded philanthropy out of their income, not their investments. Mr. Johnson thought that was bad policy. "I realized if you changed the policy," he says, "you would open the door to all kinds of donations from entrepreneurs, whose wealth was tied up in the companies they owned."
Ottawa bureaucrats were opposed from the start. Mr. Johnson says there were two main reasons: "The bureaucrats objected to any tax cut that would cost the government revenue. And they really objected to a policy that would see wealthy individuals directing taxpayers' money to their favourite charities, at the expense of other worthwhile causes."
Without the support of Finance Department mandarins, the politicians seemed unlikely to hand a tax break to the rich.
"The argument against Don's policy had merit," Mr. Martin says. "The fear was you would have a situation where Hospital A in downtown Toronto would be better able to attract donations than Hospital B in a small, poor town."