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Prominent Toronto philanthropist Peter Munk is making a $5-million pledge to the high-profile debates that bear the family name.

Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prominent Toronto philanthropist Peter Munk is making a $5-million pledge to the high-profile debates that bear the family name.

The pledge to the Munk Debates comes from the Aurea Foundation, which is part of the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation and supports the development of public policy.

The nearly decade-old debates were established with an approximate $400,000 investment from the foundation to engage and inform Canadians, but Mr. Munk says they were also started as a way to define Toronto as a hub for intellectual discussion.

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"Toronto has the infrastructure intellectually, financially, population-wise and, most importantly, curiosity-wise, and that has to be fostered," Mr. Munk says.

Over the years, the Barrick Gold Corp. founder says he has been asked why the debates haven't moved to other cities such as London or New York, but he responds by saying he wants it to remain a distinct Toronto event.

"Half the purpose [of the debates] was for broadening the minds of Canadians," he says. "And establishing Toronto as a place where major events can and should take place, because Toronto deserves it."

Rudyard Griffiths, chairman of the debates, says the foundation's support has allowed some of the world's most prominent thinkers – such as former British prime minister Tony Blair, the late writer/broadcaster Christopher Hitchens and former U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger – to participate in the debates.

They take place twice a year, in the fall and in the spring. The latest debate, held on Friday, saw historian Niall Ferguson square off against CNN's Fareed Zakaria on what Mr. Griffiths said might be the biggest issue of the day – whether the liberal international order is over. (Mr. Ferguson argued it is, Mr. Zakaria argued it isn't.)

"From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to the rise of the more assertive and combative Vladimir Putin, all of these things are encapsulated in that debate," Mr. Griffiths says.

The latest donation will help fund the debates for the next five years and possibly more, he says.

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"I think without the resources of Peter's foundation we could have had a good debate series, I don't think we would have had a great debate series," Mr. Griffiths says.

"As beautiful as Toronto is, these people are part of an international speaking circuit and you need to come up with internationally competitive speaking fees to bring them to Toronto."

Mr. Griffiths says the annual average cost of the debates is $1.3-million, about $750,000 of which the foundation subsidizes. The rest of the money comes from membership fees, ticket sales, broadcast rights, book rights and other content licensing arrangements.

Mr. Munk says the pledge is recognition that a two-sided debate is the sign of a healthy democracy and a way to reward the success of the event.

Friday's event at Roy Thomson Hall, which holds around 2,800 people, sold out less than four hours after tickets went on sale.

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