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Stephen Jarislowsky prior to his speech during the Millennium Speaker Series in Montreal in 2002.Andre Forget/The Globe and Mail

As a child growing up in Germany in the 1930s, Stephen Jarislowsky witnessed the carnage that comes when democracy gives way to dictatorship.

Today, the billionaire investor sees the same forces at play, with autocrats gaining strength while elected leaders struggle to deliver good government. Rather than wring his hands over the state of the world, the 97-year-old co-founder of asset manager Jarislowsky Fraser has put his considerable personal fortune behind turning out better public servants.

In June, Mr. Jarislowsky’s family foundation donated $10-million to hire professors as “trust and political leadership chairs” at five liberal arts-focused universities across the country. The money went to Acadia University, the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières, Trent University, the University of Lethbridge and Vancouver Island University.

“We’ve got schools to train doctors, engineers and lawyers. Why aren’t there degrees for aspiring politicians or civil servants?” said Mr. Jarislowsky in an interview. He said it is naive to hand political leadership to individuals with no government experience and simply expect them to succeed. “Look at what happens when someone like Trump tries to negotiate with Russia or China. Putin and Xi run circles around him,” Mr. Jarislowsky said, referring to embattled political figures Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

His vision is to create a pan-Canadian program, with students and professors across different regions linked virtually and travelling between schools to study leadership and governance. The goal is to have schools produce stronger public servants, who in turn build faith in public institutions.

The five universities pledged in total an additional $10-million to the project. The Montreal-based Jarislowsky Foundation is negotiating donations from other organizations. Bank of Nova Scotia BNS-T, which purchased Jarislowsky Fraser in 2018 for $950-million, will match additional pledges, which means the project is being launched with more than $20-million.

“Canadians cherish the rights and freedoms that make our country a beacon of light and a leader on the world stage,” said Scotiabank chief executive Brian Porter. “Now more than ever, our country requires a renewed effort to improve trust in public institutions by making those institutions more accountable and effective to the Canadians they serve.”

The five universities began recruiting the new chairs in August. Mark Skinner, dean of social sciences at Trent University, said: “We look forward to enhancing a learning environment that inspires generations of professionals in politics, government and public service with integrity and a commitment to ethics, democratic values and responsible governance.”

The schools see an opportunity to shape leaders who will play roles on the national and global stage. Elizabeth Brimacombe, Vancouver Island University’s dean of social sciences, said the professor she plans to hire “will examine ethics and governance in the areas of Canadian foreign policy at a time when the rules-based international order is being challenged.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the storming of the U.S. Capitol and the trucker protest in Ottawa all reminded Mr. Jarislowsky of events that rocked Europe in his childhood, and inspired his decision to fund university programs on leadership and government. “People need to understand historical experiences in order to prevent repeating them,” he said. “Once democracy disappears in a country, it takes years to re-establish, if it is even possible.”

If Mr. Jarislowsky’s project is successful, the long-time critic of short-term thinking in business hopes to shift the way politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, think about their responsibilities. He said: “My issue with Trudeau and the Liberals these days is they seem focused on getting re-elected, not on leadership.”

The Jarislowsky Foundation recruited a blue-ribbon advisory council to steer its growth, made of up Gordon Campbell, former premier of British Columbia and former high commissioner to Britain; Pierre-Marc Johnson, former premier of Quebec; David Johnston, former governor-general; Frank McKenna, former premier of New Brunswick; Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of Canada; Anne McLellan, former deputy prime minister; and Murray Sinclair, former judge and former senator, who served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Jarislowsky Foundation is backing universities at a time when the number of Canadians who donate is falling. A recent report from CanadaHelps, a charity dedicated to increasing charitable giving, showed 19 per cent of Canadians claimed charitable donations on their 2019 tax returns, down from 25 per cent in 2006. Total charitable giving stayed constant from 2017 to 2019 at approximately $11-billion annually, owing to larger gifts from a smaller number of older citizens.

However, CanadaHelps projects a significant decline in donations this year, because of the impact of the pandemic and a potentially deepening economic downturn. In 2021, CanadaHelps data showed gifts to educational causes accounted for 18 per cent of philanthropy, behind health, religious and social-service causes.

The Jarislowsky Foundation, launched in 1993, oversees $270-million. The fund is focused on backing excellence in education, medicine, the arts, the environment and climate change. Over almost three decades, the foundation has funded 42 research chairs at Canadian universities.

Mr. Jarislowsky has long been a champion of principled-based leadership. During his seven-decade career in money management, he co-founded the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, a leading corporate governance organization in the country.

Before becoming an astute student of markets, Mr. Jarislowsky was a political analyst. Born in Berlin in 1925, he attended schools in Holland and France before immigrating to the United States in 1941. He studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University before joining the U.S. Army, serving as an intelligence officer in Japan after the Second World War.

When Mr. Jarislowsky returned to the U.S. in 1946, he earned an arts degree at the University of Chicago, then completed an MBA at the Harvard Business School in 1949. He moved to Montreal and started a securities research boutique in 1955 with $100 of his own money and $50 from a partner; over time, the firm began to invest for institutional clients. Jarislowsky Fraser was one of the country’s largest independent asset managers, overseeing $40-billion, when Scotiabank acquired it four years ago.

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