Peter Gilgan, SickKids, and the self-serving philanthropy of the ultra-rich

Although we’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic wane somewhat in Ontario, mostly due to the overwhelming, and somewhat surprising, ability of the general public to put their lives on hold for the common good, we are still staring into an uncertain future. We’re seeing an alarming uptick in cases, perhaps due to some apathy, but almost assuredly because our premier decided to reopen some of the most dangerous business locations (gyms, indoor restaurants, bars) too early to be able to present a grotesque facsimile of “economic recovery” to his donors and cronies.

Our biggest challenge yet, though, has just started. On September 8th (for most boards), (some) elementary and secondary schools welcomed children inside for the first time since March, with altered schedules and mask requirements. Everyone, most especially the premier and his private-school educated, weasely Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, have known this return was coming since March. They had, at minimum, five months to put together a comprehensive plan for the safe return of children to the place where they spend a plurality of their formative years. This plan needed to include dynamic online components, taking into consideration the limitations of students’ access to tech. It needed to include proper distance measures, ventilation, ample space for learning (perhaps at alternate locations), and a strong cohorting plan that would minimize contact between different sets of students and teachers. It needed to focus especially on the needs of differently-abled students, who even before the pandemic were seeing their resources dwindle.

Kids are back in the classroom, but it’s a bit different this year. From Taylor Wilcox via Unsplash.

Instead, we got next to nothing. Although, amazingly, announcements and changes are still occurring over a week after schools have opened, the plan the government released is still severely lacking in its scope. Cohorting was introduced for secondary school students only, despite ample evidence that primary school children are just as likely to spread the virus, and more likely to struggle with distancing requirements. Masks are mandatory for Grade 4 and up students only. A few more teachers are getting hired to try to offset the Herculean effort required to put together a parallel online curriculum in less than two months, on no resources or guidelines from the government. The path to success required smart decisions and clear pathways were laid out early, which was obvious to those who actually care about these things. Unfortunately, Ford and Lecce have made it stunningly clear that they do not.

I have a bias here, obviously. On September 8th, I also headed into the classroom — not as a teacher, but a student teacher, offering my time for free in the attempt to get a degree and teach as a career. And, honestly, I’m more than happy to help out the full-time teachers, most of whom dedicate more time than you could possibly imagine to ensuring students get the best education they can, despite constant roadblocks. But, as someone who exists in the liminal space between educator and general public, the opaqueness, lack of direction, and obstentiousness that I see ooze from Lecce or Ford when they speak on these topics is unfathomable and dangerous to teachers and students alike.

But really, the reopening plan isn’t what I want to focus on. There are plenty of people and organizations out there, all smarter and more well-versed in this issue than I am, who have put together competent reopening plans and offered thoughtful criticism of the narrative we’re being fed. OISE has offered up a smart overview of what a proper reopening plan could look like. David Fisman is an excellent follow if you would like to understand the nuts and bolts of how infections in schools could occur and their severity. Caroline Alphonso reports for the Globe and Mail (ew), and yet still manages to produce and aggregate quality content regarding the policies and structures of school reopening in Ontario. I want to focus here on a more general issue, one that goes mostly unnoticed in Canada, and one that, although the school reopening problem spurred my thoughts on the issue, is somewhat delineated from that although still connected in important and unnerving ways.

When asked about the school reopening plans that he’s presented to the public, Doug Ford wants to make very clear who’s responsible for them: “I think SickKids has come up with an incredible plan” Ford said recently. And again, when asked about the reopening plan: “Well, first of all, it’s not our plan. We went with some of the brightest minds in the world, not even Canada, not even Ontario – the SickKids medical team that’s advising us, along with CHEO and UHN and our health team, they’ve come up with a plan.” The TVO article below does a great job articulating why it is, in fact, Doug Ford’s plan despite his claims to the contrary, but that’s not what I’m worried about either – shifting the blame in an attempt to get in front of public backlash is a tried-and-true move for any politician.

No, the truly bewildering aspect of this ordeal is the fact that SickKids put together a panel of experts to produce a set of recommendations for school reopening in Ontario, and they came up with something so severely lacking, and were so unwilling to budge on their positions after new information regarding transmission came to light, that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t done deliberately (note: they did recommend reducing class sizes in elementary schools, which has been, at the time of publishing, stymied by the Ford government). SickKids, for those uninitiated, is the brand-name for The Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto affiliated research hospital — the hospital is famous, according to Wikipedia, “for its advertisement campaigns and the largest amounts of donations received for any Canadian hospital.” There are many possibilities as to why a panel drawn from one of Canada’s premier hospitals created such a poor return-to-school plan — perhaps it’s simply ego and an unwillingness to accept the fact that they are ignorant in some areas since they are experts in one. Maybe the assignment was scoped too narrowly, or governmental pressure was applied such that only a certain set of conclusions could be reached. All of these scenarios are not exactly far-fetched. However, we shouldn’t forget the Wikipedia quote given above, especially the second bit: “the largest amount of donations received for any Canadian hospital.”

We are trained from youth to assume that philanthropy is necessarily good — we raise money for charities and organizations in school by selling cookies, or walking some kilometers, or collecting pop tabs. Nothing is wrong with any of this, of course, but no one ever talks about the shortcomings and difficulties of philanthropy — the use of private donations to paper over holes in governmental services, misallocation and abuse of funds (we’re seeing this play out in real time with the ongoing WE scandal), and the use of massive donations to influence personnel and policy decisions. It’s that last point that I want to focus on. In Canada, unlike the US, we’re lucky enough to have laws in place that prevent the ultra-rich from directly influencing lawmakers by limiting the amount that they can donate to candidates and political parties, but that certainly does not bar all the pathways that lead to the ears and minds of policymakers or others who have undue influence in our society. These pathways aren’t convoluted, nor do they require any sort of special skills, unless you consider the ability to buy a Maserati in cash a skill — it’s just that instead of giving money to political figures directly, you either give to organizations that influence the public — advertisers or media companies — or you give to organizations where you feel you can both generate public goodwill and, more importantly, peddle influence within the organization itself.

This is all just a long-winded way of saying that I believe that an under-discussed possible root cause of the SickKids reopening plan debacle is that some entity with interests that are counter to a safe school reopening gave SickKids enough money that their hand was forced into submitting something they knew was sub-par.

Now, to be clear, I have no proof that this was the case, but to not even bring it up as a possibility, which I’ve not seen from any mainstream outlet, is negligent. And while I don’t have any proof, or even a guess as to who would be motivated to prevent a safer school reopening, I do have an example of this type of influence that I feel is illustrative of the problem at hand.

Peter Gilgan is the founder of Mattamy Homes, the largest residential home-building company in Canada. Because of this, Peter Gilgan is also a billionaire. Peter Gilgan likes to use his billions of dollars in various philanthropic ways — in 2011, he gave $15 million to Ryerson University which they used to create the Mattamy Athletic Centre. In 2015, he donated $5 million to Parks Foundation Calgary for development of paved pathways, which was used to create the Rotary/Mattamy greenway. And, most importantly, Peter Gilgan gave money to SickKids — $40 million in 2013 to create its Centre for Research and Learning and an astounding $100 million (the largest ever single donation to SickKids) in 2019, which made him the largest healthcare benefactor in Canada. Objectively, this is at least partially A Good Thing. Brushing aside the idea that donations of this calibre shouldn’t be possible due to proper taxation of obscene wealth, which can then be properly distributed to health, education, and infrastructure projects based on the demands of the populace, rather than plunked down by some sneering Smaug certain that they know what’s best for the unwashed masses, these donations represent massive opportunities for the institutions to which they went.

And yet. Along with the massive opportunity that comes with receiving a donation whose size rivals the GDP of some Pacific Island nations, it may well be that certain obligations arise as well. Although it would never be said aloud, one may assume that the person who held the pursestrings of a nine-figure donation has some political capital within the organization to which he’s donating – that these donations may not be fully out of the kindness of a billionaire’s heart (lol) but are a method to gain purchase in an area in which they have a vested interest, whether that interest is monetary, political, or any other lever of power which can be easily greased by money.

To reiterate, I have no idea if the money donated by Peter Gilgan played any role in the eventual release of SickKids school reopening plan. In fact, I would hazard a guess that Peter Gilgan has little use for public education one way or another, unless it’s to gobble up real estate left vacant by closing schools to erect more depressing photocopied McMansions. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that the only mention of education I came across in my research is from this puff-piece on Gilgan’s son Matt’s (Gilgan’s second child is named Amy, hence Mattamy – just as creative as his home designs) confoundingly ugly “green” home in Oakville (I’d love to see the carbon footprint associated simply with the delivery of what the article calls a “$25,000 soapstone fireplace”). At the end of the article, Matt notes that he is working on getting his children into The Green School, a private school in Bali, Indonesia, where admission fees alone cost nearly $5,000 CAD and tuition can get up to almost $25k per year, in order to further their knowledge of green living. Perhaps sending your children to a boarding school halfway around the world isn’t the greenest way to do education, but what do I know! Moving past this aside, though, it was probably not Peter Gilgan who decided it was in his interest to push for a rushed and incomplete school reopening plan. But SickKids didn’t receive the largest amount of donations of any Canadian hospital through just one person — plenty of other money we will never hear about has been funneled into the SickKids ecosystem, from the rich and non-rich alike. (Disclosure: I’ve done fundraisers to raise money for SickKids! But raising $500 from my parents and grandma is a bit different!)

That’s not to say, though, that Peter Gilgan does not have his personal interests in mind when he’s making donations. As I mentioned above, individuals and corporations in Canada cannot donate millions of dollars directly to political parties. That doesn’t mean, however, that one cannot donate to a cause which directly supports a political party, and that’s precisely what Peter Gilgan has done through his support of Ontario Proud. For the uninitiated, Ontario Proud started out as a Facebook page, posting deeply boomer-fied right-wing memes (such as this, or this, or this) in the lead-up to the Ontario election which saw Doug Ford (Ontario Proud’s preferred candidate) win the premiership. The ‘Proud’ ecosystem now encompasses multiple provincial pages (BC Proud, Alberta Proud) and a national page (Canada Proud), all committed to the election of ultra-conservative MPs, premiers, and prime ministers (they have strongly promoted Erin O’Toole during his successful Conservative Party of Canada leadership bid). During the race, Ontario Proud’s page was viewed 67 million times, more than any other party, union, or political group page. During this time, it also faced accusations of removing any criticism from its Facebook page, becoming essentially a propaganda wing for the Ontario Conservative party. If you look past the part where 95% of the Ontario Proud ecosystem is just kids from my high-school who never left town shrieking in agony over the gays being allowed to marry and/or the 4PM dinner crowd muttering about Communism and being resolute in their commitment to never grasp the concept of a reply thread (despite being glued to Facebook for at least half a decade), you start to see how easy it would be for someone with a bit of money to launder their agenda through a purportedly grassroots organization eager for pageviews and little else.

Peter Gilgan realized this too. Although Jeff Ballingall, founder of Ontario Proud and former CPC staffer, insists in a short yet insane (I suggest you read it, but my favourite answer includes the line “I didn’t like the way teachers lectured us about how evil Mike Harris was […] I wanted to know the opposite side, to be countercultural”) interview with Toronto Life that the group does “really well with $25, $50, $100 micro-donations,” the numbers tell a different story. Per Canadaland and CBC, Ontario Proud received around half a million dollars in donations in the lead-up to the Ontario election in 2018. Of that, $460,000 of it, a full 89.7%, came from corporate donors — $50,000 from Merit Ontario (an anti-union construction lobbying group), $50,000 from Nashville Developments (a home developer), $225,000 from 19 corporations mostly related to real estate development, and finally, $100,000 (over 20% of the total donations received) from the man himself, Peter Gilgan. And before you begin yelling about how his Ontario Proud donation is literally 0.1% the size of his SickKids donation, know that 1) I am not listening to you and 2) if $100,000 gets you the access you need, why would you donate more? And if it’s $100,000,000 you need, well, that’s just the price of doing business.

There’s not much to parse here, mostly because Peter Gilgan has no qualms about laying out his reasoning for donating to a candidate who is currently working to destroy public education in the province. In another soft-focus interview by the Globe and Mail, Gilgan states that he would like the government to “get the hell out of the way and let us bring more product to the market,” which is a rather docile way of saying that he’d like to pave over the Greenbelt — something that Ford hinted at allowing during the election run-up and then walked back after a secret meeting with developers regarding the topic was leaked. “Our belief was that further awareness needed to be built regarding the lack of housing availability in Ontario” Gilgan also stated, surely entirely aware that those in our province needing to be housed are not in the market for a Mattamy Home.

When you’re donating to Ontario Proud, you’re essentially forced to show your hand, and that’s exactly what Peter Gilgan did. When you’re donating to SickKids, or higher-education institutions, or parks projects, you’re never asked to. You simply bask in the glow of adulation that comes from shedding some insignificant amount of your undeserved wealth — to inquire about the unwritten obligations tied to gifts of such largesse, well, that’s just bad form. If entangling yourself in public institutions comes with some level of authority over them, that’s just a benefit of the business, baby. And while we’ll never know exactly what Peter Gilgan is extracting from the various entities he’s funding, whether it’s simply public goodwill or prime development acreage or something more sinister, through his donations to Ontario Proud we know he is committed to furthering his own agenda, accumulating wealth and building ugly homes, at the expense of the environment, oppressed groups, and education.

I urge you to cast a critical eye when you see news of unfathomably large donations. And when an institution like SickKids produces a report that runs counter to the ideals that they preach, squint that critical eye a little more — pride, incompetence, or meddling are easy to assume as causes, but inordinately vast sums of money work swiftly to alter a conclusion in the giver’s image. The billionaires will not save us, don’t let them pretend that they want to.

Update: Sometime between the point when I started writing this article (a long time ago, this has been a journey), SickKids have undertaken a study to determine whether the guidelines laid out in the governments report (mask-wearing, hand-washing, distancing) would hold up in a real school environment. Unsurprisingly, they found that it was pretty much all impossible! Students crowd around before and after class, despite teachers best efforts, they lose masks, and they are unable to distance properly within the classroom, as the 15-person class size limit is routinely broken (anecdotally, I’m currently sitting in a portable with 17 students and a teacher; the class I had prior had 19 students). None of this is the kids’ fault! They’ve been placed into an impossible situation without support from people who make the decisions. In any case, although they’re not saying it directly, I suppose it’s good that SickKids has cast a critical eye back to their recommendations, and have at least tried to understand that what works in a sterile lab setting almost certainly will not when it’s applied to a school. It’s too late, and probably too little, but it’s something.

Postscript: After all of this depressing speculation, let’s lighten the mood a bit and return to music. Recently, Phoebe Bridgers and Arlo Parks did a beautiful piano-and-vocal performance for BBC. Their coordinated skeleton-themed outfits are extra-enjoyable due to the church setting, and the performance itself is astounding, with Parks providing sombre piano and backing vocals while Bridgers injecting some vibrato into her already powerful voice. Here’s the video of their cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees:”

writin about music mostly | contact me alex.ml.toth@gmail.com

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