At peace with death

She says she didn't marry him for his looks or his money - "you should see our wedding picture, he weighed about 133 pounds." "Wringing wet," he chimes in with a laugh. She maintains that their 56-year marriage has survived because of "mutual respect and implicit trust." Not bad for a relationship that started with a 10-cent coffee at the Palliser Diner in Truro, and quickly evolved to the point where Wallace, four years her senior, told Margaret: "You know, we're going to get married some day.

The Telegraph Journal
February 5, 2011

At peace with death
Exclusive: Last March, Wallace McCain was told he had cancer and given months to live.Today, he shrugs off his fate while giving away his fortune and working through a bucket list
Jennifer Campbell


Margaret and Wallace McCain at their home in Toronto. 'I used to say I've been married for 50-some years to more or less the same woman,' Wallace jokes. 'Then she kicks me.' Photos: Yvonne Berg/for the Telegraph-Journal

The billionaire businessman and one of New Brunswick's most impressive self-made men approached this meeting as he's approached all of life's challenges: With a pen, notepad, and a thorough request for the facts - just the facts.

The family had hoped the discomfort the then-79-year-old had been experiencing was simply a flare-up of the intestinal problems he'd endured for the previous 50 years. But it wasn't. He had pancreatic cancer - that was clear. And what he wanted from the oncologist were the odds, the prognosis, the options for treatment. That was last March.

Today, as they sit in the formal living room of their mansion in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood, Margaret describes the scene proudly - his thoroughness and eye for detail have always been among his strongest points in the business world. While his brother Harrison - with whom he famously co-captained McCain Foods Ltd. for decades - was known as the sail, the flashier of the two brothers, Wallace was always known as the rudder, the one who kept the boat on course.

As tears fill both their eyes, Wallace admits it's hard for him to even remember that March day last year when he got what for most would be earth-shattering news.

His chemo drugs and pain medication combine to make his memory "terrible" although that's not apparent during a two-hour interview. But besides that annoyance, he's actually at peace with the diagnosis. He insists it didn't change his life in any way, except that he now works a little less than he used to.

"Nothing. Zero. It's not significant. I've had illness all my life," he says.

Margaret interjects: "You know what he said to me? 'I'm 80 years old and I've lived longer than I expected to.' "

And then he adds: "I still eat and drink - I have a drink every day. I'm 80. So what the hell?"

She: "If we can maintain a reasonable quality of life, that's great."

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of a deadly disease. Most patients survive three to six months after their diagnosis. Wallace has already lived nearly a year and his latest scans show that the inoperable tumour isn't growing - it actually shrunk a bit.

"There's also absolutely zero sign of spread," Margaret says. "He's in a lot of pain, so he's on a lot of pain medication and that's why his memory isn't great."

His doctor at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital at first gave him as few as three months to live. But given the recent tests, they figure they can plan at least until summer, and maybe into fall although Margaret makes no plans she can't cancel.

Last winter, when word shot through the St. John River Valley that he was on death's door, the phone started ringing.

"The phone never stops but I can't call it a bombardment because every call is welcome," she says.

Despite the outpouring of concern, the business tycoon doesn't dwell on his fate.

"Wallace is pragmatic and realistic and he knows. But he doesn't live by it, even though he knows what the diagnosis is. We just make the best of each day," Margaret says.

It hasn't been an easy ride, she confesses, but they have been coping as well as can be expected. Chemo also contributes to the memory problems and "plays havoc with his fatigue level," she says. He's had to have periodic blood transfusions, just to keep his energy up.

"It's a daily challenge," she says.

And then, more details. Another notebook.

After the diagnosis, Wallace told his wife - he calls her "Margie" - to make a list of all the things she wanted them to do together. One year in, they've already made a dent in it but the list is still lengthy. Mostly, it involves travel.

And his list? "Hers is long enough," he laughs. It's clear his list is her list.

They went to Jamaica last Christmas with their family. Next week, they go on a cruise in the Bahamas with six other couples. The following week, they'll jet off to Saint John to see their son Scott's hockey team, the Saint John Sea Dogs, play, and then they'll loop back to the plantation-style Florenceville home where they raised their children, to spend the weekend. There will be another trip to their vacation home in Jamaica with their daughter, Eleanor, and granddaughter Laura, and then a jaunt to California to visit Margaret's 93-year-old sister. A couple of months after Wallace's 81st birthday in April, they'll head to their vacation home near Peggy's Cove. That's where they'll spend the summer.

Margaret's heart is divided between her home province of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the province where she spent 50 years raising her children and eventually rose to the position of lieutenant-governor, a thank you of sorts from then-prime minister Jean Chr├ętien. She still has relatives in Nova Scotia - "too many" by her teasing husband's count - specifically, two brothers in Truro.

Their bucket list extends as far as the end of summer but his latest test results now have them thinking Lake Como, Italy, is a possibility for autumn.

As he jokes with his wife, it's clear the French fry king of Florenceville is at peace, something that must have seemed unlikely in the early '90s when the McCain empire was being divided by a bitter feud between him and his brother, Harrison. By the late '80s, the brothers, who had always run their business as co-CEOs ("there was always lots of work to do and our feeling was 'get down to it'," Wallace says) were no longer working as the harmonious team that had been their business hallmark.

"Harrison said that Wallace was blind with nepotism," author Michael Woloschuk writes in Family Ties: The Real Story of the McCain Feud. "Wallace maintained that Harrison was corrupted by the blight of power."

It was their different philosophies on succession that really created the rift. When Wallace appointed his son Michael as CEO of McCain USA, a division Wallace had in his purview while Harrison looked after the European and Asian sides of the business, Harrison cried nepotism at the promotion he felt wasn't justified. He was also annoyed that Wallace didn't consult him before making the announcement.

Harrison pleaded with his brother to reverse the decision and when Wallace refused, he drove him out of the company by lobbying other members of the family who had voting privileges. Wallace put up a fight and sought legal redress for Harrison's move but by 1993, he'd lost and was officially removed as co-CEO. He was given the ceremonial title of vice-chairman, a position he continues to hold today, along with 33.5 per cent of the shares in the company. His sons, meanwhile, are no longer involved in McCain.

Wallace moved to Toronto after he engineered a leveraged buyout of Maple Leaf Foods and became its chairman, a position he still holds today.

But Wallace and Harrison reconciled before his death of a heart condition in 2004.

"Things returned but in a way they had to be different because I moved to Toronto and he lived in Florenceville," he says. "When I lived in Florenceville, his house was 100 yards from my house, so I saw him every day. Our relationship returned."

Margaret puts it another way. "Their sibling relationship was restored but not their business relationship," she says, and adds that their relationship with Harrison's children is "cordial but not close."

"I don't carry grudges," her husband adds. "That's not my style. It's history, history, history."

Asked about his legacy as one of the world's most astute businessmen, Wallace just laughs and offers up a bit of his legendary salty tongue. "Jesus! Where do you want me to start?"

He starts at the beginning, addressing, in broad brush strokes, how they took father A.D. McCain's small but respectable potato export business and turned it into a billion-dollar French fry and frozen foods company.

"Business culture was around the house - we were brought up with business," he says, speaking of the experience he, his three brothers and two sisters had. "Dad never talked business around the home but it was still a business environment, so I'm sure that had an influence on (Harrison) and myself.

"We started as a very small business. Just like that - from nothing. We hit some business fortunes. We were reasonable at it and we both worked hard but I think there was a lot of good luck that helped us. We worked hard and we were aggressive."

Financing wasn't Wallace's "cup of tea at all," so Harrison looked after that while Wallace worked on the operations side. After that, the division of labour just seemed to fall into place, he says.

The advent of frozen foods, something that was in its infancy in the U.S. and basically non-existent in Canada when the McCains got into it, was the bit of good luck.

"The industry was very small - peanuts. When you get in on the ground floor, a business will grow."

The high point came when McDonald's, which had a reputation for the best fries, became a customer. "They were the biggest supplier McCain has," he says. "I remember when we got the deal. That was a big one."

When he left the family business and the subsequent feud behind, it seems, he also let go of a passion for his province where, while it might have been easier to pack up and go to a bigger centre, the brothers always insisted on keeping McCain corporate headquarters.

"New Brunswick is where my home is," he says, but adds that he feels no particular pull to the province anymore. "I lived in New Brunswick for most of my life but I can't say if I'd ended up in Nova Scotia, or PEI or Toronto, I'd be disappointed."

Margaret interjects. "I do! I invested myself physically and emotionally in the community."

They agree that their feelings about New Brunswick are different for a reason. While Margaret was in Florenceville, raising their four children, playing the organ in church every Sunday and developing a close network of friends, Wallace was busy travelling the country and indeed the world, selling potatoes and securing deals.

At the same time she arrived as a blushing, 21-year-old bride, he left to pursue their fortune. But, Margaret insists, when he was in town, family figured largely in his life.

She says she didn't marry him for his looks or his money - "you should see our wedding picture, he weighed about 133 pounds."

"Wringing wet," he chimes in with a laugh. She maintains that their 56-year marriage has survived because of "mutual respect and implicit trust."

Not bad for a relationship that started with a 10-cent coffee at the Palliser Diner in Truro, and quickly evolved to the point where Wallace, four years her senior, told Margaret: "You know, we're going to get married some day." The following summer, they were. And last summer, she'd hoped to get back to the Palliser - "it's still there and the food's still good, some things never change" - to celebrate their anniversary. He wasn't feeling well enough, however, so they cancelled their outing.

"Maybe next summer," she chirps with schoolgirl excitement that is at odds, only slightly, with her usual poised graciousness.

So the balance sheet on their marriage shows respect and trust, but perhaps the biggest asset of all is in the line-item called family.

"Our devotion to our kids became a huge bond," Margaret says, and adds that they came from similar upbringings where a strong work ethic was essential, as was dedication to the church and community.

"The only thing he did in life was work hard, and be with the family. When he was home, he was around. He was totally engaged. We had dinner together as a family, around the table every night, and breakfast too. He'd come home every night for dinner, even if he had to go back in to the office later. And unless he was travelling in Europe or South America, he'd be home every weekend."

Today, all four children live within 10 minutes of their parents and they still gather around that table for dinner. Indeed, every morning, the housekeeper/chef will ask Margaret who's coming for dinner that evening. "I usually tell her to set a couple of extra places," Margaret says.

She says they've talked a lot about love since his diagnosis. "Well, you have," he says, teasing her again. "I used to say 'I've been married for 50-some years to more or less the same woman.' Then she kicks me."

But the truth is, in addition to estate planning, he's made a point of seeing to her future without him. "He told me I can't live here alone and that he was going to get me a condominium," she says. "But I couldn't deal with that (upheaval) so he did the next best thing. He asked our housekeeper and chef Jackie, whose been with us for 16 years, if she'd move in with me."

Jackie McKay, who is like a member of the family and particularly well loved by the grandchildren, agreed and construction has begun on a basement flat for her.

The time they're now spending together has been an adjustment for both of them. Until his diagnosis, Wallace had still been going in to the Maple Leaf Foods office every day. He'd leave home no later than 8 a.m. and then arrive home between 6:30 and 7 p.m.

"He wanted to do it and I wanted him to do it," she says. "It makes for a good marriage for each to have his or her own independent activities."

It was like a long work day, even for someone half his age. But he was always fit. He worked out for an hour every day, five days a week and even now, he still tries to get on the elliptical machine every morning, for 10 to 30 minutes, though there are days when he just isn't well enough.

These days, she still tries to get to the gym five times a week and he has a trainer come to the house three times a week. For medical appointments, and there are at least a couple a week, including blood tests and chemotherapy, they go together, often accompanied by at least one child.

His daily routine moves from the elliptical, to a large sunroom, complete with grand white columns, that looks out on their expansive backyard garden. Here he has a comfy chair where he settles in and reads The Globe and Mail and National Post. After that, he will look at work, sent nearly daily from the office (he rarely goes in anymore - occasionally for an hour or two), and then there are medical appointments, a long afternoon nap and dinner engagements, as well as that nightly libation.

While most of her time is spent with him, she continues to be involved in charity work, but to a lesser extent than in her heyday, when she finished her term as lieutenant-governor and moved to Toronto full-time. "I said yes to everything.

"Six or eight months after I moved here, (former New Brunswick premier) Frank McKenna asked me how many boards I was on. I counted. I was on 10. I asked him how many he was on and it was also 10. I said 'There's one difference, they pay you to be the board, and I have to pay to stay on my boards'."

Philanthropy, whether through donations of time or considerable amounts of money, has always been important to both McCains. As lieutenant-governor, Margaret donated her entire salary to the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation, which she founded to fight family violence and provide support for spousal and child abuse facilities.

"It's always been his line," Margaret says, nudging her husband, "that it's a lot more fun to give money away than it is to make it."

To the tune of $1 million a year - an amount they expect to increase after a recent estate-planning session - they fund the Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation which champions and researches early childhood programs and policies across Canada. She is chairwoman of a board, comprised of their children and three independent members. But that's just one segment of their giving. Privately, they give much more.

A recent donation of $1 million to the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto is one they're particularly happy about. Pastor Brent Hawkes is from Bath, N.B., and he conducted Canada's first gay marriage, almost one decade ago.

"It's the most loving, joyful, inclusive community I've ever experienced," says Margaret who attends occasionally and whose daughter attends regularly.

Among other things, the church plans to use the money to expand its refugee program for persecuted homosexuals around the world.

"We're really pleased about that one," Wallace says in a rare moment of seriousness.

"Do you realize that in 68 countries in the world, we could be imprisoned for having made that donation?" Margaret says. "Ten years ago, when the minister performed the first same-sex marriage, he had to wear a bullet-proof vest. Today, he wears the Order of Canada. Isn't that inspirational? Doesn't that make you proud of Canada?"

An equally rewarding recent donation was to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In that case, fundraisers were having a hard time convincing donors to allow buildings to be named after them. The McCains didn't have any issue with it.

"We've had so many grateful notes from clients," Margaret explains, while Wallace notes that their son, Michael, with whom they made the donation, was chairing their fundraising campaign and found he couldn't convince donors to link their name with the causes.

"I told him I didn't care. I couldn't care less about my name being associated with mental health and addictions," Wallace says. And now the Mood and Anxiety Building, one of the first of four new buildings of centre's redevelopment project, bears their name.

Philanthropy, like love, is something you teach by example. No teasing from Wallace on that point. Indeed it was the patriarch who came up with an idea of getting their grandchildren started early. For the past five years, each of the nine has received two gifts from their grandparents, one that's theirs to keep and the other, a cheque, that they must give away.

"The only thing they have to tell us is where they gave and why they chose it," Margaret explains. "On Christmas Eve, we always get together and talk about how they spent their money the year before."

A thought occurs to Wallace, forever the tycoon, forever the details man.

"Who gets the tax receipts for that?" he asks.

"They do," she replies.

"What? They don't have incomes!"

He then jokingly speculates that their parents are making off with the tax receipts, and makes a note to look into that.

The grandchildren's causes have varied. Little Laura wanted to give "to children who don't have homes." So her mother, Eleanor, took her to Beatrice House, a residence for single mothers, run through the YM/YWCA and founded by the McCains, where she made a cheque presentation and saw first-hand what the charity does.

One year, Jonathan gave to tsunami relief and matched his grandparents' cheque with a donation from his own money. Scott, who is studying to become a doctor, has given his to Doctors Without Borders for several years. Hannah gives hers to cystic fibrosis research because her best friend has the disease.

"They aren't big cheques - a few thousand," Margaret says. "But it gets them thinking."

Margaret and Wallace themselves have been thinking about philanthropy a lot as they work to settle where their fortune will go after they're gone. Although they won't talk amounts or percentages, "a lot of it," Margaret says, will go to charities. They will keep their own foundation running for a few years but there are provisions to then wind it down as their children all have their own causes. The rest will be donated to educational and health causes, namely to universities, mostly in Atlantic Canada, and hospitals.

It will be their legacy to a part of the world that has meant a lot to them over the years. A part of the world that has many happy memories and only a few bitter ones which they choose to forget. A part of the world they call home.

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