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The endowment from Charles and Margaret Juravinski, called the Juravinski Research Centre, is one of the largest legacy gifts in Canadian history.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

An Ontario couple who grew up in poverty during the Great Depression and became self-made millionaires have pledged to donate the bulk of their estate, totalling more than $100-million, to create a new health-research institute in Hamilton.

The endowment from Charles and Margaret Juravinski, called the Juravinski Research Centre, will be a joint partnership between McMaster University, Hamilton Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. When it is up and running, the endowment fund will give $5-million every year indefinitely to fund research projects.

“We think it’s a way of giving back. We think it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Juravinski said in an interview.

The endowment is one of the largest legacy gifts in Canadian history. Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the faculty of health sciences at McMaster, said the gift will help transform how health research is conducted and has the potential to lead to important clinical developments. “There’s no question, it will be a game changer,” Dr. O’Byrne said.

Tom Stewart, chief executive officer of St. Joseph’s Healthcare, said the funds will help Hamilton continue to grow as a hub for health research and innovation. “This will create energy in Hamilton that will start to catapult it further forward,” he said. “It will also act as a magnet for retaining and recruiting the brightest in the world.”

The Juravinskis, who have lived in Hamilton for most of their lives, have previously donated more than $50-million to several organizations in the city, including the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre at Hamilton Health Sciences.

What makes the new gift different is that it won’t fund a physical structure but instead will be focused on advancing research.

Mr. Juravinski said the couple is particularly interested in research projects focused on the “staples,” such as the heart, lungs and brain. But, they are placing no restrictions on research parameters; he said he could even see some money going toward cannabis research. “So little is known about cannabis.”

Born in Saskatchewan in 1929 as the world was coping with the massive stock-market crash that would lead to the Great Depression, Mr. Juravinski moved to Hamilton as a child, where his future wife lived. Both were raised impoverished and eventually made their fortune as owners of Flamboro Downs, a racetrack.

In an open letter to the residents of Hamilton, the couple wrote about the “humiliation and hardship our parents endured trying to raise their families, at times without any apparent resources at all.” Their success and wealth are things their parents “would never have dreamed possible.”

Mr. Juravinski said the couple was inspired to start giving after a friend donated a large sum to McMaster. It requires courage to give money away, Mr. Juravinski said, but they quickly realized the incredible feeling that comes from helping others.

“Simply put, nothing feels better than to help others feel better,” the couple wrote in the open letter.

They are hoping their act of charity will inspire others to do the same.

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