10 years ago, composer Ann Southam bequeathed $14M to the Canadian Women's Foundation. This is how it helped

The composer, who died in 2010, 'cared passionately about making a positive change for women and girls,' says Paulette Senior, the foundation's president and CEO.

'She cared passionately about making a positive change for women and girls,' says the foundation's president

Canadian composer Ann Southam was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2010, the year of her death at 73. (Supplied by the Canadian Women's Foundation)

On Nov. 24, 2010, Canadian composer Ann Southam died at the age of 73. It was big news in Canada's classical music community at the time; Southam had been a composer of distinction, known especially for her intricate pieces for solo piano.

Months later, Southam's death would have an impact on another community when it was revealed that, in her will, she had bequeathed $14 million to the Canadian Women's Foundation.

"It was, and still is, the largest single donation a Canadian women's organization has ever received from an individual," explained Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women's Foundation, when CBC Music contacted her to reflect on the 10th anniversary of Southam's death.

While Senior was not with the organization at the time, she had heard all about Southam before accepting the presidency of the Canadian Women's Foundation in 2016.

"When I take the time to ask a colleague who'd met and worked with her — the way that person lights up, it just gives me tingles and makes me feel all warm inside," said Senior, adding that Southam had been an enthusiastic supporter of the foundation's activities for a number of years.

"She would pick up the phone and call the CEO at the time or one of the senior staff to basically say, 'Have you read this article? Can you believe this? And what are we going to do about it?' It was always about what we could collectively do. She also sat on our Girls Fund ... so, she not only talked about what was right and what should be done, but she also did it, she lived it, she walked it."

Senior described Southam as "an unassuming person, not someone you would ever know would have that level of wealth."

A testimonial on the Canadian Women's Foundation's website provides some context:

Though she was born into the Southam newspaper family, Ann wasn't a fashionista or a materialist. She devoted her life to both making music and making a difference — particularly when it came to advancing gender equality. She is recognized as one of Canada's first prominent female composers — a trailblazer in the male-dominated classical music world, who went on to become a Member of the Order of Canada.

The Canadian Women's Foundation, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2021, raises money and provids grants to break down barriers to gender equality for women and girls in Canada. The foundation focuses on four main pillars, according to Senior: addressing gender-based violence, supporting women's economic development, providing leadership opportunities for women, and building confidence among girls.

As a composer who'd risen to prominence in a male-dominated field, Southam espoused the expression, "When women have power, girls can dream," and her gift enabled the Canadian Women's Foundation to double its Girls Fund.

"It means that more organizations were able to have programs in communities across the country to reach more girls," said Senior. "It's about this kind of grassroots way of working with girls that was so critical when you talk about the larger picture of advancing gender equality."

Girl Power

One such program is the Speak up arts program in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose goal is to empower girls through dance, drama, literary arts, music, new media, urban art, and visual art.

Another is DAWN, the Disabled Women's Network of Canada, which teamed up with Montreal's Rock Camp for girls and gender non-conforming youth to create a special workshop on ableism. "Something I learned is, not only should you be there to help and support friends with disabilities, it's also important to not speak for them, but to give them the space to speak for themselves," said one participant.

Girl Power, a program in Sturgeon Lake, Sask., receives funding from the Canadian Women's Foundation's Girls Fund. In this video, participants share some of the challenges of life in their community.

In all, the foundation has funded programs that work to change the lives of women and girls in more than 1,900 communities across Canada.

But perhaps most importantly, Southam's gift had no strings attached. "It really gave us the freedom to invest the funds where they were needed most and in a very responsible and accountable way," said Senior. "Some funds were dedicated to look into certain types of violence against women in terms of putting together a task force, and we were able to operationally function in a much healthier way, financially."

In addition to boosting Girls Fund, the foundation established the Ann Southam Feminist Legacy Circle, where "donors find a home at the foundation of like-minded gender equality supporters," she said. "Having that kind of legacy gift was our kickstart in actually creating a legacy circle. In fact, over the past year or so, we've been very grateful that Ann's brother Kip has become part of our family and is working closely with us on that."

Senior says Southam's gift has been pivotal. "As we go through the ebb and flow of fundraising, and as donors either come to us or take on other causes, [gifts such as Southam's] are critical in terms of our ongoing ability to operate the foundation and to fund programs. Unless we bring in the funds, we won't be able to do the grant-making that's so critical for gender equality. So, Ann's gift takes much worry off us to be able to do that on an ongoing basis."