Remembering Bill McNeill (1936 – 2018)

Tribute by Ian Smillie

Bill McNeill, a pioneer in Canada’s international development efforts, died in Victoria on March 25th in his 82nd year.

Bill’s work in international development began in 1964 with a CUSO posting in Nigeria, where he taught at Santa Crux Secondary School at Umuahia, in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria. In 1966, he became the organization’s first full time field staff officer in Nigeria, expanding the program to all parts of the country. In 1968, he returned to Canada to manage CUSO’s growing West Africa Program, later becoming CUSO’s manager of Canadian Operations. During those years, Bill was instrumental in professionalizing CUSO, stabilizing its finances and in seeing it through difficult Canadian debates about the Nigerian Civil War and the liberation struggles in Southern Africa.

In 1974, he left CUSO to head WUSC, moving from Canada’s largest NGO to one of its smallest. At the time, WUSC had only three staff sharing a small office on Ottawa’s Chapel Street. Using skills and knowledge he had gained with CUSO, and his commitment to creating development opportunities for Canadians, Bill reinvigorated WUSC, building its presence on campuses across Canada and creating a volunteer-sending program whose numbers soon outstripped those of CUSO. He initiated a student refugee program that to date, has brought more than 1,700 young scholars from almost 40 countries to Canada, and he created development programs funded by the Canadian government and other donors in almost two dozen countries around the world.

At CUSO, and later at WUSC, Bill hired and mentored many who would themselves become leaders in Canada’s international development efforts, sometimes using his cordon bleu culinary arts in the process. In 1968, I was called to Freetown from my CUSO posting in Koidu, Sierra Leone, for a field staff interview with Bill. After what seemed like an inconclusive discussion, Bill asked me to help make dinner at the CUSO staff house. He said, “You make the starters.” I was no cook, but understood that he was, so I found a recipe for vichyssoise–essentially cold potato soup–and made that. It couldn’t have been very good—no leeks—but to this day I’m sure that’s what tipped the balance of the interview in my favour.

Many years and dinners later, Bill prepared a special meal at his home in Ottawa for alumni of WUSC’s annual International Seminar, which he had rejuvenated. Among those present were Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Solicitor General Robert Kaplan, both participants in the 1957 Ghana seminar. Other notable guests included Senator Eugene Forsey and additional cabinet ministers Donald Johnston, Warren Allmand and Marc Lalonde. In fact, that night, half the federal cabinet was dining at Bill’s place. None of them was obliged to make starters.

Bill left WUSC in 1991, and some years later moved with his lifelong partner, Robert Sterling, to Victoria. Their departure was a loss for their many friends in Ottawa, but Bill will be fondly remembered by an entire generation of people whose careers in international development began with the first interview they had with him.

Click here to read Bill’s obituary, and here for a tribute in the Globe and Mail.