All About Estates

When Philanthropy Offends

Colonel Rueben Wells LeonardRueben Wells Leonard was an early Canadian tycoon straight out of central casting. He was a pioneering philanthropist whose views created controversy in life and after death.  His story is a key part of Canadian philanthropic history, and it contains some relevant lessons for today.

The Man

Born in 1861 and trained as a civil engineer, Rueben Wells Leonard struck it rich in 1904 after finding a massive silver deposit in Cobalt, Ontario. This discovery, which came out of a willingness to pay a rival’s court fees in a disputed claim, led to the creation of Coniagas Mines Limited.  An excellent biography of Leonard, Unforeseen Legacies: Rueben Wells Leonard and the Leonard Foundation Trust, by legal scholar Bruce Zive was published in 2000.

Leonard was one of about 60 Canadian millionaires of his age. He was a social Darwinist and unbridled capitalist. He was patriotic, controlling, full of high-minded noblesse oblige, Anglican by religion, and committed to Canada as a branch of the British Empire.  He promoted the education of women and the poor, and firmly held racist views.

From Springbank, his seven-acre estate in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, he and his wife served on college and university boards, as well as countless other social and religious enterprises. Prime Minister Borden appointed Leonard chairman of the National Transcontinental Railway Commission, an entity that was responsible for completing the Canadian railway system. Leonard did so on time and on budget.

As Leonard’s wealth and influence grew, he gradually turned his attention to philanthropy.  To this day several universities and charities remember his name publicly. It was through his philanthropy that R.W. Leonard became a notorious figure in the development of the charitable trust in Canada—inadvertently, after death.

The Major Donor

In 1913, on the cusp of World War I, Leonard made his first serious foray into “major gift” philanthropy when he offered Queen’s University a student residence for 200 men. At that time Queen’s had no residences.  It was a project at the top of the university’s “priority list”.  Leonard bought the land and pledged up to $600,000 for the construction, approximately $25 million today. There was even an offer from the federal government to invest in facilities on the site (which would be spun as matching funding in the current context).

Leonard also wanted a hand in directing the operations of the residence via its board. But he had a particular vision for the residence: it would house military trainees to prepare Canada to assist the Empire in times of need.

The campus was divided by Leonard’s offer, as campuses tend to be.  Newspapers from across the country weighed into the debate. On campus it wasn’t just the military agenda that was controversial. It was the issue of control over the residence and the precedent it would set. Leonard and the university’s Board of Trustees came to blows on the issue of the composition of the residence board, specifically the inclusion of the Commandant of the Royal Military College. The Board of Trustees turned down the gift, and Leonard withdrew his offer in a huff, despite repeated attempts by sympathetic deans to try to mediate. The campus dissolved into name-calling.

The residence was a classic first gift by a brash mid-life tycoon exercising his wealth and power. Leonard’s grand vision and desire to be involved with execution is reminiscent of the current crop of philanthropists. In the arc of his philanthropic career, Leonard first became an active volunteer, then he began to give modest but important donations, and finally he made major donations. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Leonard really began to mature as a philanthropist. He made a $290,000 gift to purchase and restore Chatman House in London, England to house the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Then he established his Foundation. During his philanthropic years, 1923 to his death in 1930, he made a series of large gifts to diverse organizations. During this period Leonard was declining with Parkinson’s disease, which increased his generosity significantly. Interestingly, in 1923 he gave Queen’s the property he had purchased for the residence with no strings attached. To this day, there is a residence in his name on campus.  He has not (yet) been cancelled.

The Leonard Foundation

The Leonard Foundation was to be his primary legacy and recipient of a major bequest.  Established in 1923, the Foundation provides university scholarships.  The Leonard Foundation Trust preamble baldly states that “the White Race is, as a whole, best qualified by nature to be entrusted with the development of civilization and the general progress of the world along the best lines.” The preamble asserts the triumph of Protestant Christianity and the British Empire. It is easy to label Leonard’s values as heinous, as many did in the public debate surrounding the Trust beginning in the 1950s and leading up to the start of litigation in 1986.

In 1990, after five years of legal proceedings, the Ontario Court of Appeal made a landmark decision that amended and broadened the terms of the trust to eliminate the discriminatory provisions.  It was a key case expressing the radical idea that the charitable trust was contrary to current public policy, and should not be ruled by the dead hand of the settlor. The decision forever limited the type of restrictions Canadian donors could make when establishing scholarships, especially at public institutions. Public policy trumped the wishes of the donor.

At the heart of this very Canadian story is how values and legal underpinnings evolved over the 20th century. Leonard’s world privileged private property rights over equality. His trust and its property became the servant of his views. But time passed; attitudes changed. Equality and multiculturalism emerged as cherished Canadian values, tempering private property rights and putting limits on trust and charitable law. Bruce Zive’s book neatly and engrossingly captures this transition in our society and its legal instruments.

The Leonard Foundation still exists.  It has a new website that conveniently avoids all the messy stuff –  like racism and the court case.  The most recent public filing for the Foundation report assets of $2.7 million in 2022.  Initial capital was approximately $2.0 million in 1930, the year Leonard died.  Lacklustre performance for a perpetual foundation, which is probably a function of the concept of perpetuity as much as trustee competence. Expenses are 7.6% of capital, a burn rate that suggests that the foundation is slowly spending down. The Leonard Foundation may have outlived its usefulness.



About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


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