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John and Marcy McCall MacBain at the McGill University Faculty Club in Montreal on Feb. 12, 2019.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

A new $200-million scholarship fund set up by a Canadian couple who made a fortune reinventing classified ads will allow students from coast to coast to pursue higher learning at McGill University that otherwise may have been out of reach.

John and Marcy McCall MacBain used scholarships and student loans to get the higher education that helped him build the Trader Classified Media empire and her to become a fellow at the University of Oxford. The couple now aim to open doors for young undergraduates with leadership potential by providing money and mentorship to students who may not see a path to a McGill masters, medical or law degree.

The scholarships to be announced in Montreal on Wednesday will cover tuition, fees and a living stipend for 75 students every year – 50 from across Canada and 25 from around the world – and will aim to reward good citizenship and leadership qualities above academic achievement.

“We will be looking for the jewels living across Canada and around the globe, the kind of person with leadership potential who may not even be aware they warrant such an award,” said Dr. McCall MacBain, who teaches evidence-based practices in medicine at the University of Oxford.

The scholarship will heavily emphasize outreach, looking for students who haven’t even applied to McGill and creating a community where alumni will support newcomers. The couple will help set up selection committees across Canada to find people off the radar.

“We want students from the University of Northern British Columbia to Memorial to know they can consider this scholarship,” Mr. McCall MacBain said. “We want to give opportunities not just to students in big cities whose parents are doctors, but to students in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and Chicoutimi.”

The couple previously used $120-million from their foundation to expand the global reach of Rhodes Scholarships. McGill University chancellor Michael Meighen called the scholarship fund “the largest philanthropic gift ever in Canada,” and said “the couple have cemented their place in modern history as great educational visionaries and philanthropists.”

Mr. McCall MacBain, a McGill graduate and Rhodes Scholar from Niagara Falls, Ont., was 29 years old in 1987 when he left a marketing job at Power Corp. and, with his then-wife Louise Blouin MacBain, bought Auto Hebdo, a small Quebec classified ad magazine.

They expanded that business into a global publishing and advertising network best known in Canada as Auto Trader, but with major operations all over Europe, Asia and South America.

Mr. McCall MacBain bought out his ex-wife some years later and in 2006 sold the business, leaving the McCall MacBains with a net worth of at least $1-billion. They set up the foundation and vowed at the time that at least 80 per cent of their fortune and future income would go to charity. The couple have children aged 8 and 13, along with Mr. McCall MacBain’s three grown children from his previous marriage. The family lives in Geneva.

When the couple set up the foundation 12 years ago, Mr. McCall MacBain said he wanted his children to make their own way, instead of inheriting a massive fortune or business. The children are steeped in a culture of education and understand the value of philanthropy, he said.

Mr. McCall MacBain’s father, the late Allister MacBain, a Liberal member of Parliament in the early 1980s, was the volunteer head of charitable organizations in Niagara Falls.

Dr. McCall MacBain, a farmer’s daughter from Huron County, Ont., was the volunteer tap dancer when her parents would play the violin at the local seniors’ home. “It’s the whole ‘raise the barn’ thing when someone’s barn burned down. We just grew up with that,” she said. “It’s a core family value.”

Dr. McCall MacBain said she was fortunate to have friends and teachers who believed in her and steered her into scholarships and learning opportunities that led from the hamlet of Walton, Ont., to McMaster University, the London School of Economics and, finally, Oxford.

“I had school loans when I came out of my undergraduate, so I know what it means to have that hanging over you,” she said. “It’s something that can change your decisions, especially when it comes to expensive degrees. It is an important moment in a learning journey. We want to help people be more limitless in these decisions.”

Read more: McMaster University receives $15-million donation for its commerce program

Read more: Labatt family donates $20-million to U of T for depression research

Editor’s note: (Feb. 13, 2019) An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for the McGill chancellor. This version has been corrected.

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