Wilson was well-known as Canada’s finance minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; as a Canadian ambassador to the United States; as a former chancellor of the University of Toronto; and as a stalwart champion for ending the stigma of mental illness. At UCC, Wilson is also remembered as the College’s inaugural Old Boy of Distinction, a tireless volunteer, a generous donor and a member of the Board of Governors.
The memoir, recently published by the University of Toronto Press, will help keep his memory alive at UCC as a service-oriented leader who exemplified the school’s values.
Geoff Wilson ’86, Michael’s son, says that his father’s book is designed to be a legacy for his grandchildren, “a book about how decisions are made and how and who he was. He wanted it to serve as a role model for his grandchildren on what it means to be a leader in the community and how leaders can impact a lot of people.
“My father started the memoir about a decade ago,” says Geoff, “and completed the manuscript five or six years ago. He got an agent, began shopping it around and, ultimately, decided it would be better if it were rewritten by a professional writer to make it more appealing to a broad audience.”
Writer John Lawrence Reynolds rewrote the manuscript, and, after his father passed away in 2019, Geoff finalized it with the author, ensuring that the facts and timelines were correct and deciding which photos to include.
“Some of the stories were obviously familiar and some government dealings were reported in the press, but some things occurred before I was born and stories about his early business career weren’t things he could tell us at the time,” Geoff says. “He kept on giving speeches and, while he didn’t invite me to all of them, when I sat in the audience, I would hear stories I hadn’t heard before and would wonder if I’d find them in the book.”
One humorous item Geoff remembers is that his father would always say he had graduated from Branksome Hall, as well as from UCC, because the former had a preschool that he attended before coming to the Prep.
“He did a lot of work with UCC, sometimes in a formal capacity, but sometimes informally,” Geoff says. “He was very much involved in the search for the current principal and in installing Sam McKinney.”
Although Geoff knows how proud his father was of national policy achievements such as bringing the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) into being and making government debt part of everyday conversation, he believes his father’s most impressive accomplishment was “overcoming the stigma surrounding mental illness and making it easier for people to talk about it.” It was a cause close to Michael Wilson’s heart, because his son, Cameron, suffered from the stigma, which was likely a factor in his death by suicide. Once Wilson retired, he poured a great deal of energy into the mental health cause.
“Greatness wasn’t my father’s goal and he wasn’t born into it, but he made a lot of decisions along the way that when taken together, form an impressive career,” says Geoff, understated like his father.
Without great fanfare, Michael Wilson worked quietly, firmly and with decency toward causes in which he believed.