The Gift of knowledge – bursary fund for Indigenous students studying science
Alumnus Tony Williams [BSc(Hons)/77] establishes bursary fund for Indigenous students studying science
Great Aunt Sally would have been pleased. It’s an idea alumnus Tony Williams [BSc(Hons)/77] could scarcely have imagined back in 1971 as a U of M dropout working a dead end job and hanging with a wild bunch from his Fort Garry neighbourhood. But because of his late aunt’s generosity Williams, now 62 and head of a successful Vancouver-based actuarial firm, went from giving up on life to giving back: both as a professional and as a philanthropist. “I wouldn’t be in the position I am without my education,” says Williams, who recently made a $100,000 gift to the U of M to establish a bursary for Indigenous students in the Faculty of Science.
Though his first foray into university was unsuccessful, Williams knew he had the smarts to try again; he just needed some help. Circumstances at home made a return to school seem impossible. “These were not very good times; both of my adoptive parents were alcoholics … I was essentially living on the back porch of their house when I was around at all.” During a year or so of “re-grouping” Williams endured the loss of his great aunt, but her spirit lived on in a life-changing gift: she left him a $1,000 inheritance with the caveat that he use it for school.
“Aunt Sally had an education herself, but had no children … so she was always interested in my education, “ Williams says of Lewis, a nurse who immigrated to Winnipeg from the United Kingdom and who had studied under Florence Nightingale.
“ The gift allowed me to go ahead with something that I was coming to the decision that I wanted to do, which was to get back to the University of Manitoba and pursue a science degree . . . . It was really kind of a selfless act that helped me out a lot, and I never really forgot that all those years. I developed an interest in maybe helping other people if I was ever able to.”
Williams re-enrolled at the U of M in 1973. He struggled to make ends meet. Even something so minor as a dental bill threatened to derail his school plans. So he applied for the U of M’s emergency bursary. The $100 award he received allowed him to continue his education. “It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it sure meant a lot to me then, as I had no financial support from my parents,” says Williams, who keeps the bursary letter framed in his home office in Vancouver.
With renewed focus, Williams turned his attention from physics to actuarial mathematics. In 1975 he married fellow U of M student Hazel McCane. She was working in agriculture for the province at the time and was able to help finance the rest of his degree program. Williams graduated from the university with honours in 1977, became fully qualified as an actuary in 1985, and spent the next two decades working at various consulting firms in Winnipeg and Calgary.
In 2008, Williams, along with two other partners working with him at the global HR consulting firm Watson Wyatt, left the company to found PBI Actuarial Consultants Ltd. through a buyout of part of Watson Wyatt’s business. Since then, PBI has expanded to more than 70 people with offices in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. While PBI’s growth is underscored by impressive numbers (its clients hold more than $20 billion in combined assets) Williams takes particular pride in one area of the business—his Aboriginal clients.
For example, in 2000 Williams was retained as an expert witness by lawyers for the Samson Cree Nation during its lawsuit against the federal government alleging mismanagement of revenues from the Alberta community’s oil and gas lands. The trial—one of the longest Aboriginal lawsuits in Canadian history—ended in 2004 with the unprecedented ruling that the government return $360 million. That money was used to set up a trust fund for the First Nation. Serving Aboriginal groups and First Nations’ land claim settlement funds have since become a staple of PBI’s business.
“They may not have that expertise themselves, so they’re relying on experts,” says Williams of his Aboriginal clients. “They may have been taken advantage of in past financial matters, so gaining their trust is very important. I would say serving Aboriginal clients are some of the most memorable client experiences that I’ve had.”
Throughout his life, Williams has followed his great aunt’s example of creating education opportunities for others. He has even included the U of M in his will. The decision to support Indigenous student success stems from Williams’s on-the-job experiences with Indigenous people as well as reflections from his childhood. “ It goes back to my days growing up in Winnipeg. I always felt that with Aboriginals, there was a certain level of discrimination that I didn’t understand or agree with,” he says.
“The [Aboriginal] people I’ve met are very smart, hardworking people; everyone needs more help … but it all starts with a good education.”
BY ADAM CAMPBELL