Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation’

A Million Futures

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

August 29, 2010

When Hamoon Ekhtiari came to Toronto from Teheran in 2001, he was just 17 and he spoke only Farsi. By January, 2009, he found himself speaking to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien at a large dinner at Power Corporation’s headquarters in Montreal. Hamoon was enrolled in a master’s degree program in mathematics and chartered accounting at the University of Waterloo, and he was already working in human capital consulting at accounting giant Deloitte. What he wanted to say to the former Prime Minister — on behalf of dozens of other students in the room, and thousands more elsewhere — was, “Thank you.”

A decade earlier, Prime Minister Chretien had been contemplating the millennium. As he said in his own inimitable way that evening, “The millennium, it’s something that comes only every one thousand years — so the next one, we might not be ‘ere.” To commemorate it, said Chretien, the government concluded “that we would create a programme de bourses, a bursary program. We would invest in the brains of the young people. And when I see the results today, that decision gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

The programme de bourses became the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and its results were people like Hamoon Ekhtiari. The Foundation began with a $2.5 billion endowment and a 10-year mandate. It eventually gave out $3.3 billion — it had invested shrewdly — to more than a million needy and deserving students. It also did some trailblazing research on the obstacles that keep students out of post-secondary education, and about 5% of its funding went into a Millennium Excellence Awards program. One of the Excellence Award winners was Hamoon Ehktiari.

When Hamoon arrived in Canada, he had just finished Grade 9, and he was excited. He hadn’t wanted to move to Canada, but “if I’m here I want to get the most out of it,” he said. “I want to know what it is to live in Canada. I want to know what it means to be Canadian. So I chose the path of dropping myself, in my entirety, in every possible aspect, into the country. It was do-or-die having to take history and English.” He laughs. “And as an elective, I decided to take French. So I was sitting in a class where a teacher was teaching a language I didn’t know, in another language I didn’t know.”

After high school, he wanted to plunge deeper into his new life, so he applied to universities from UBC and UNB to the University of North Carolina to study anything from philosophy to architecture. He also applied for a Millennium Excellence Award, since his parents had made it clear that they couldn’t support him at university. To his surprise, he won the scholarship, and was drawn deeply into the other benefits that Millennium laureates were offered — national conferences, regional meetings, a national network of other student leaders, and backing from a superb group of young scholarship administrators.

“They recognize, they support, and they encourage, and they don’t stop doing it,” Hamoon said. “The money is important, nothing after it would have happened without the money, so that support piece is absolutely crucial. But the recognition and the encouragement is priceless. These people don’t give me the answer. They help me to ask the question. The lessons I’ve learned from some of these people in mere minutes have been worth more than spending months upon months in a classroom.

“And now, if you ask me where I’m from, I will tell you I’m from Toronto. I’m Canadian. If you ask me where I was born, I will tell you. But what I feel is, I’m Canadian, and this is my home.”

In 2008 I was asked to write the history of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It’s a fascinating story, and the book — A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation – has just been published. The joy of the project was meeting so many fantastic people that I couldn’t get them all into the book. Hamoon is not in the book. But through the Foundation, Canada has shaped him and the leaders of his generation. Now they are shaping Canada. We will be a better, brighter country because of them.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s book, A Million Futures, is published by Douglas and McIntyre. It is available in bookstores, or online at

Beyond the Teapot Theory

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

– 30 —

To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site,

A High School in Quebec

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

JULY 12, 2009

It feels like Hollywood: the presenter at the mike, the announcements, the spotlight on the recipients as they make their ways to the stage while the audience hoots and claps.

But this is the auditorium at a high school called Polyvalente La Samare in Plessisville, Quebec. And this is an awards night. The trim, youthful man on the stage is Stéphane LeBlanc of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, who is presenting Millennium Excellence Awards to Sophie Boutin, Cloé Marcoux and Mathieu Samson. These awards recognize not only academic achievement, but also citizenship and leadership.

Stéphane now reveals that over the past decade, this rural school has produced more than 50 Excellence Award laureates more than any other public high school in Canada. Indeed the only school of any kind to win more awards is Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, an exclusive private school in Victoria. La Samare has captured as many as eight Millennium Awards in a single year.

What is its secret?

An intense relationship with the whole community, says Danielle Béliveau, La Samare’s directrice, or principal. Plessisville is a small town of about 9000 people, “so the school becomes the centre of the community,” constantly humming with non-credit courses, meetings of clubs and associations, festivals, fundraisers. The school operates from early morning till late at night, seven days a week, and that very fact draws people in. The janitor, for example, seeing the students and teachers working on projects together late into the evening, was moved to volunteer. He now coaches the basketball team.

La Samare’s philosophy, says Mme. Béliveau, is that it’s everything outside the classroom that makes students love school, so the school provides a huge spectrum of extra-curricular activities. That’s where students learn the skills of citizenship and leadership and that’s why La Samare has a drop-out rate of 5% to 6%, as opposed to the typical rate of of about 25%.

With just over 1000 students, La Samare is the perfect size, says guidance counsellor Patricia Bourque large enough to offer any activity, but small enough that people know one another very personally. Because roughly 80% of the teachers were also students here as were the local doctors, lawyers and business people, as was Patricia herself they fully grasp the tradition of community involvement. And they know its effect on the students.

“When I first came to an awards ceremony at La Samare,” says Stéphane LeBlanc, “I noticed that parents, grandparents, siblings and community mentors and volunteers all participated. All the students mentioned the immense support they received from their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors.

“Actually, I had already seen that support. Back at the beginning of the program, I used to get phone calls from a teacher here named Majella Lemieux. He’d have questions about the criteria, and about the application form. We’d talk, and he’d thank me very politely and then these great applications started to come in from Plessisville.”

Majella Lemieux is a slight, intense, good-humoured man, now retired. For him, the essence of a teacher’s calling is to know the students profoundly, not just as “students,” but as unique individuals with passions and problems and to support them fiercely.

“Kids can do marvellous things, but you have to push them,” he says. “And if you push them, you have to support them, you have to be there. Many student organizations meet after school, and I liked to be ready for the next day, so I didn’t leave until 5:00 or 5:30. They were just down the corridor, so I’d look in on them, see how they were doing, help them if they needed it.

“And if you’re there, and they have personal problems or whatever, they come to talk to you. And that’s when you get them! After that you can work with them.”

And that’s where the scholarships come from, says Patricia Bourque. Students think they aren’t special but a teacher urging them to fill out an application makes them reflect on what they’ve actually done, and teaches them how to present themselves. If the school has given them opportunities to flower, the application will reveal that.

The students will appear to be special. And that’s because they are.

–30 –

Author note: Silver Donald Cameron is writing a book on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Next week he reports on a remarkable youth organization in Plessisville which complements the work of La Samare.

Ben Barry’s After-School Project

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

May 31, 2009

Greetings, all:

Because I need to finish the book I’m writing on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, I’m taking a leave of absence from the Herald for the month of June. I won’t be filing another column after this one until July.

This column — like several other recent columns — is actually a shortened section from the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Ben Barry’s After-School Project

“I started my business when I was 14, in Grade 9,” says Ben Barry. “My company was focussed on trying to challenge status quo beauty, and create a fashion industry that celebrates beauty that’s authentic, beauty that’s in everyone and that really works to empower, and develop positive self-esteem.”

It started when a friend at Ben’s Ottawa high school took a modelling course — and was told to change her appearance, and lose some weight.

“I thought she was beautiful, and she shouldn’t have to change herself,” Ben remembers. “So I sent off her picture to magazines and local companies, and got phone calls back from people that wanted to hire her, and assumed that I was her agent.”

His first model was delighted that Ben had found work for her, and began sending other friends to him. He found work for them too, and soon he was hanging between the two worlds of fashion and high school — and making some interesting links between them.

“I was learning about the strict criteria the fashion industry has for models and their narrow idea of beauty — and I was seeing that my high-school friends and their families certainly didn’t look like the models in the ads. In fact, looking at these models day after day was negatively impacting their sense of themselves. The culture is so visual. You have images on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, on buses, on university campuses — and every image is essentially the same. So inevitably that one ideal seeps into your system.

“So I just wanted to have my friends and their families represented. We’re not trying to replace one ideal with another. What I wanted to see was body variety, and age variety, and cultural background variety, so that you see a plethora of different shapes and forms and sizes and ages and backgrounds represented in the images.”

After high school, Ben Barry got a Millennium scholarship and headed off to the University of Toronto to study business. He quickly realized that he already knew a good deal about business, and thought he should broaden his horizons by studying something else. He chose Women’s Studies, and it was “the best decision possible. It changed the whole way I thought about my business.”

He concluded that it was not healthy for his models to work full-time as models, because in modelling “they’re solely valued for how they look. And in fact they’re more successful and more creative when they bring their varied life experiences to bear on their modelling. So the models we represent are artists, students, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and we really encourage them to reveal their personalities and their character and their attitude in their work.”

Does this remind you of the surprising array of beautiful and varied women in the Dove soap “Campaign for Real Beauty?” Yes? No wonder. Ben Barry consulted with Ogilvy Mather, the advertising agency behind the campaign, and also provided some of the models. And how did the campaign succeed in the marketplace? Within six months of the first installment of the campaign, Dove’s sales increased by 700%.

Which proves that the consumer is ready for a different approach to modelling and beauty, right?

Well, maybe. Other companies and agencies remained wary. The Dove campaign, they said, was a fluke. It worked for Dove, but where was the research to support this wacko notion that consumers would respond well to real models?

If the research didn’t exist, Ben would create it. He signed up for graduate studies at Cambridge University, winning an M.Phil. in 2007. Now he’s running focus groups and surveys in Canada, the US, the UK, China, India and Brazil, testing “whether viewing models of the age, size and cultural background of the consumer increase purchase intentions more than using a model that reflects the current Western beauty ideal.” When he’s done, he’ll have a PhD.

Meanwhile, the Ben Barry Agency has grown to represent more than 300 models — all of them beautiful, every one unique. It employs 30 trusted people who keep it humming while Ben commutes between England and Toronto, running his life from his laptop. The agency is 12 years old now.

And Ben Barry is 26.

– 30 —

The Advance of the Aylwards

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

April 26, 2009

“After the three of us got the scholarships, I think Mom and Dad adored going out to parties,”says Erin Aylward, “because they were always being asked, ‘So what did you guys do?’”

Good question. Geoff and Elaine Aylward live in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, a suburb of St. John’s. All three of their children Stephen, 21, Erin, 20,and Meaghan, 19 have won merit scholarships from the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Erin and Meaghan both attend Memorial University. Stephen is at McGill University in Montreal. What accounts for such success?

“We’ve been really really blessed in our parents, and our grandparents,” says Erin. “Speaking for myself, I’ve been surrounded by unconditional love and support my whole life, and it’s been a major factor in my gaining confidence and taking initiatives.”

Meaghan agrees and adds a further ingredient.

“Between the three of us there was always a lot of support for all of our different projects,” she says. “If Stephen was having a bottle drive, for instance, then Erin and I would both go.”

All three feel fortunate to have done French immersion, and then the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Holy Heart of Mary High School. Newfoundland’s largest high school, Holy Heart is one of the few that offers English as a Second Language, which gives it an unusually diverse student body. The school is a power in sports as well as academics Erin is a rugby player and its chamber choir, which won an international gold medal in Vienna some years ago, regularly competes and tours overseas.

Holy Heart has a long-standing Social Justice Committee, which all three Aylwards chaired in their senior years. Steve Aylward was also devoted to the school’s Amnesty group, a commitment suggested by his grandfather, a retired judge.

“I remember watching the evening news one time with my grandfather at about 13 or 14, and I was just horrified by a shot of some tanks rolling into a city somewhere,” Steve says. “I asked my grandfather what could be done to prevent all the suffering in the world, and he suggested that I look into Amnesty International.

“So I became quite involved with Amnesty in St. John’s, and then later here in Montreal and in Germany, in Freiburg, where I was on exchange last year. I went to Mexico in 2007 as a youth delegate for Amnesty International Canada, and I’m going to to Ottawa in two weeks for a meeting of the international strategy committee.”

Meghan works with Oxfam and with the World Health Organization’s program to eradicate polio an effort headed by her uncle, who operates out of Switzerland. Erin almost accidentally took a course in Spanish at Holy Heart, and fell in love with the language. She has visited Argentina, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and is deeply involved with a campaign to inject more awareness of global issues into Newfoundland’s school system.

So what did Geoff and Elaine Aylward actually do?

Two things, say their children. First, unconditional love. Second, the Aylwards always portrayed post-secondary education. as “a stepping-stone to all kinds of opportunities,” as Elaine puts it. They had created Registered Educational Savings Plans for all the children, and Elaine spent a lot of time researching scholarships.

“I think that’s part of that unconditional support,” says Meaghan, “because looking for scholarships online is really daunting, and even when I looked at the Millennium application, I thought, ‘Uhh, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.’ And having Mom there to say, ‘Nope, you are’ was a huge factor for us.”

Elaine is amused at the memory, but she says she was already looking farther ahead, “trying to line up as many resources as possible to fund not just the undergrad program, but whatever might lie beyond that in terms of a master’s degree or a doctoral program.”

Erin is doing political science and Spanish, Meaghan political science and psychology and Stephen is just finishing his degree in political science and philosophy. So what does lie beyond, for him?

“I’m going to study law at Oxford next year,” he says. “I was selected as the Rhodes Scholar for Newfoundland for 2008-2009.”

And no one, I’m sure, was surprised.

– 30 —

A Summer in Nepal

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

April 5, 2009

Colin Macdonald’s trip to Kathmandu started with a conversation at a breakfast table in Montreal. His friend Mishuka Adikary was contemplating volunteer service in Nepal with an organization called Volunteer Abroad. Colin didn’t know where Nepal was, but he was captivated by the idea.

Colin and Mishuka — “Mish,” as she’s known — are Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation “laureates,” whose scholarships are based on leadership and community service as well as grades. The two had become chapter co-ordinators, organizing events for the laureates in their regions and participating in national conferences and workshops.

Among the features of the merit scholarships is a $2500 Millennium Project Grant designed to support laureates doing summer work with Canadian non-profit organizations. Mish had been awarded one, and in January, 2007, at a co-ordinators’ meeting in Montreal, she mentioned the Nepal idea to her friend Natalie Poole, from Saskatchewan. Natalie instantly offered to go along, as did four other students at the table. Two were from Prince Edward Island, Mary Ann McSwain and Colin Macdonald.

The group grew to eleven students, from all across Canada. Mish set up a Facebook page so that everyone could participate equally in the planning. When they presented themselves to Volunteer Abroad, the organization looked for a project that could utilize the whole group. It chose the Grace Home/St. Grace School, a non-profit organization in Kathmandu which gives a home and provides an education to vulnerable and orphaned children. It also takes in disabled and destitute elders, who can learn skills and help with child care in return for food and lodging.

During a five-week stay, what can eleven Canadian students do for an orphanage in Kathmandu? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

“It’s an orphanage and a school for about fourteen children who live there, and an additional six to ten from low income families who just attend school there,” Colin explains, sitting in a coffee shop in Halifax, where he now studies education at Mount St. Vincent University. The Grace Home, he says, was little more than “four brick walls and half a roof, almost like a compound, and the ground was covered in broken bricks.

“We lifted up all those broken bricks and laid new bricks, and painted all the walls. We added a classroom with a roof which provided a place where the children could distinguish home life from school life. Before we did this, the children were being taught in their bedrooms, because there just wasn’t anywhere else.”

The Canadian students built playground equipment — swings and slides — and redecorated all the bedrooms. Because the school’s water supply produced rusty water, the Grace Home had been forced to buy expensive drinking water. The students passed the hat among themselves, raised a little money, and erected a small water tower with a proper filtration system. They also started a composting system and a small organic garden in the school yard.

Nepali tradesmen don’t normally work much during the rainy season — but the Canadians only had a few weeks, so they stretched tarps over the work sites and kept on working, which made a real impact on the neighbours. Before the project, says Mish, local people hadn’t paid much attention to the orphanage — “but now, here were all these volunteers working in the rain to help these kids,” which greatly raised the profile of the orphanage within its own community.

“I was interested in education, but I wasn’t sure if it was really for me,” Colin says. “Well, while we were there, I was able to teach throughout the mornings at the school. I have a theatre background, so I got the children learning English through theatre. We did health and medical checkups, nutrition, health and hygiene how to wash your hands, how to brush your teeth, things like that.” They also enlisted local doctors, and started a proper system of medical records.

Colin believes that the Nepali kids got a lot out of the project — “but I got a lot more out of it. And there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about the school, and the children, and that amazing country.”

The Tenacity of Larry Baillie

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

March 22, 2009

On May 29, 1990, Larry Baillie was driving without a seat belt when he was pulled over. Slipping the belt on before the policeman got to his car window, he congratulated himself on avoiding a ticket.

Baillie was then a travelling salesman on the Prairies.  He sold stuffed animals. He had previously served in the armed forces at a remote radar station in Saskatchewan. To relieve his boredom, he had taken up oil painting, emerging as one of western Canada’s top young artists. Later he sold newspaper ads and photocopiers. He was married and had a son.

On May 30, 1990 — the day after avoiding the ticket — Baillie was driving without a seat belt  near Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, when a pickup truck ran a stop sign. He hit the pickup at 100 km/h, flying out of his seat and smashing his head into the windshield.

The resulting brain injury left him unable to stand, speak clearly or control his emotions. He was forgetful, unable to concentrate, and in constant pain. He was adjudged “a-vocational”   — unable ever to work or study again, permanently consigned to a CPP disability pension.

No, said Larry. He promised himself to recover well enough to run a marathon, go back to school and get back to work.

He soon learned that the major gains in rehabilitation from brain injuries occur within two years of the injury. Because the health system was too slow, “I put together my own program and followed it.”

He started swimming at the YMCA, and cut his weight from 300 pounds to 170. Stretches and exercise partially revived his sense of balance. For  hand-eye co-ordination, he played short-court, a game “similar to squash except  it hurts less when you get hit.”

Three years after his injury, wearing air casts on his legs, he ran a half-marathon. A year later, he ran a full marathon. A wilderness canoe trip inspired him to paint again, this time in water-colours. In 1997, the March of Dimes used a painting of his on a card, distributing more than a million copies across the country.

He became a Scout leader and a performer, appearing in costume as the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Energizer Bunny and Wes Lee Coyote, the mascot of the University of Winnipeg football team. He visited hospitals as a clown called Dr. Bubbles, a forgetful physician. He learned magic stunts,  using humour to fill in the gaps when he momentarily forgot what he was doing.

“Face it, pace it, and get on with it,” Larry says. “That’s my motto.” He still struggles with memory, speech, concentration and balance, particularly when he’s tired. He was once thrown off a bus because the driver though he was drunk.

In 2003, frustrated that potential employers “saw my disability before they saw the person,” Baillie enrolled in Red River College, winning A+ grades. Two years later, he entered the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Manitoba. In 2007, stung by a classmate’s taunt that he’d gotten into university “through the back door,” he applied for two national merit-based scholarships, including the Canada Millennium Scholarships.

“I was really excited about Millennium because they had three levels of awards,” he remembers, “and I thought maybe I could qualify for the lowest one.” He won the top one, a National In-Course Excellence Award. He was stunned and thrilled. It was “like winning the lottery.”

“It was the recognition that mattered,” he explains. The award “was based on merit and leadership. It was one of the first times in my life that I’ve been seen for my ability, and not my disability.”

Larry was awarded his BSW last year. At the graduation ceremony, he stood beside the stage and cried. Then he found a job, and asked CPP to terminate his pension. It was the first such request that the CPP officials had ever encountered.

“I sometimes tell people that my brain injury knocked some sense into my head,” Larry jokes. Well, no. But it did provide him with the opportunity to become a brilliant example of courage, determination and intelligence –  and not just for the disabled, but for all of us.

– 30 –