How the Killam Family 'Invented' Canadian Culture

Once upon a time, Izaak Walton Killam was the richest man in Canada, although he guarded his privacy even more carefully than he stockpiled his profits. He died in 1955. His wife Dorothy was almost the opposite — an American, a bit of a social butterfly, and even more keen, in the decade after her husband's death, to expand the family wealth. In the end, the Killams basically bankrolled the Canada Council, and created the Killam Trusts. To this day, very few people know much about them, although their considerable fortune was fundamental for the mid-20th century flowering of the arts and sciences in this country.
Dorothy J. Killam and Izaak Walton Killam, philanthropists and the founders of the Killam Trusts. (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Once upon a time, Izaak Walton Killam was the richest man in Canada. But he guarded his privacy even more carefully than he stockpiled his profits. His wife Dorothy was almost the opposite — an American, a bit of a social butterfly, and in the decade after her husband's death in 1955, even keener than he was to expand the family wealth. In the end, the Killams basically bankrolled the Canada Council (with nearly $50 million), and created the Killam Trusts. To this day, very few people know much about them, although their considerable fortune was fundamental for the mid-20th century flowering of the arts and sciences in this country.

For several years, Paul Kennedy has been hosting an annual celebration of the Killam Prize winners. On more than one occasion, he's also been the recipient of scholarships or other forms of support from the Canada Council. In the late autumn of 2017, when he was moderating a public forum sponsored by the Canada Council to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Killam Prize, it suddenly struck him that he had no idea who the Killams were. It was even more surprising that he wasn't alone. None of his friends — most of whom are writers, or artists, or academics — did either. Paul's attempt to learn more about an intensely private couple was the inspiration for this documentary.
 


What Paul found out was extraordinary: Dorothy Killam's will stipulated that she wanted the trust fund "to increase the scientific and scholastic attainments of Canadians; to develop and expand the work of Canadian universities; and to promote sympathetic understanding between Canadians and the peoples of other countries". It's hard to imagine such an initiative now.

Another astonishing fact: the Killam Trust is bigger than the Rhodes Trust, which funds the world-famous Rhodes Scholarships. Nowadays, the Killam fortune funds five annual prizes for career achievement, valued at $100,000 each. They're awarded in the disciplines of Engineering, Humanities, Health Sciences, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences, and as such shines a bright light on Canadian creativity and innovation. Some of the recipients have even gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Little wonder that the Killam Awards are often referred to as "Canada's Nobel".

Guests in this episode:

  • Eliza Killam is a relative of Izaak Walton and Dorothy Killam​.
  • Maud Killam is a relative of Izaak Walton and Dorothy Killam.
  • Art Macdonald is a Queen's University astrophysicist who won Canada's first Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • Bernie Miller is the Managing Trustee of the Killam Trusts.

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