William Christopher Macdonald (1831-1917) was a major donor to McGill University and its chancellor from 1914 to 1917. By the end of his life, Macdonald’s gifts and bequests to McGill exceeded $13 million, the equivalent of nearly $300 million today. Born to a wealthy family in Prince Edward Island, Macdonald renounced Catholicism and became a merchant in Boston, New York, and finally, Montreal. In 1858, he and his brother Augustine began importing tobacco from Louisville, Kentucky. In 1866, Macdonald became the sole proprietor of W.C. McDonald Tobacco Merchants and Manufacturers, rebranding with a heart-shaped tin label reading: “tobacco with a heart.” Macdonald was openly disgusted by both smoking and his business, which perhaps accounts for his persistent philanthropy.
Macdonald’s tobacco company grew from a small business into the powerhouse of the Canadian tobacco industry during the American Civil War. At this time, the vast majority of American tobacco was produced in Southern states. Wartime sanctions against the South resulted in an immense tobacco shortage in the North. Macdonald imported tobacco from the Confederacy and processed it in his Montreal factories before exporting it to Northern Union states. Essentially, Macdonald’s tobacco company provided a way for Northern merchants to bypass wartime economic sanctions and profit from slave labour. MacDonald also reportedly used unregulated and child labor in his factories, though not to an extent that was anomalous for his historical period.
MacDonald’ wealth allowed him to make countless contributions to McGill. On a number of occasions, Macdonald purchased properties surrounding McGill when commercial interests such as a hotel threatened to overwhelm the campus. He financed the pioneering nuclear physics research that earned Ernest Rutherford a Nobel Prize. Of particular importance to him was his work to improve rural education.
Macdonald joined forces with federal agricultural commissioner James W. Robertson, and together they funded and developed institutions for agricultural education in rural communities throughout Eastern Canada. This is now referred to as the Macdonald-Robertson Movement. The creation of Macdonald College in 1907 is regarded the movement’s crowning achievement, providing important infrastructure and social services to under-served rural communities. While MacDonald contributed heavily to the University’s vitalization and engaged in relatively socially progressive philanthropy, much of the wealth that allowed him to do so resulted from the exploitation and oppression of enslaved people.