Drawing by Kagan Mcleod

Caring for her terminally ill husband at home inspired Margaret Anderson to found and lead Ian Anderson House, an Oakville-based hospice that celebrates its 25th anniversary this November.

“Mom had no background in the field of palliative care other than her own experience looking after dad, and had no experience in starting up and running an organization,” says son Stuart Anderson. “She was a risk-taker, an entrepreneur.”

Over a quarter of a century — two decades of which saw Margaret at the helm as volunteer executive director — Ian Anderson House (IAH) served more than 3,000 clients from Halton and Peel regions and their families.

“(Margaret) was a true advocate for residential hospice programs in Ontario,” says Theresa Greer, retired executive director of Heart House Hospice, who adds that she “spoke about palliative care with lived experience and true passion, and was always willing to share her insights.”

Margaret Lillian Yates was born in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), the younger daughter of Scottish immigrants John Yates, who served in the army during the First World War, and his wife, Margaret (nee Paterson). They had moved to Canada following their marriage in 1922.

In 1939, the family went on vacation to Scotland. “There were many Germans on the ship, apparently returning home to prepare for war,” says Stuart, and the Second World War did indeed begin while the family was overseas. Deciding it was unsafe to travel back to Canada, the Yates purchased a small convenience store in Edinburgh.

Working long hours, “they did a decent business during the war because of rationing,” Stuart says. But it wasn’t easy. “Air raid sirens used to go off. Mom and her sister (Dorothy, born in 1924) were supposed to evacuate to a rural area but didn’t want to go. One stray bomb hit nearby during the war.”

Though she was a good student, Margaret dropped out of high school at 15 to work at Register House, a government records office in Edinburgh, to help support the family. After the war, Margaret and her parents joined Dorothy and her new Canadian husband in Toronto.

Shortly after their arrival, Margaret met Ian Anderson, who immigrated from Scotland in 1953. The couple married in 1955 in East York, later purchasing a small bungalow in Scarborough. Margaret worked in the payroll department at Shell Oil until Stuart was born in 1959. When her son was old enough to attend school, Margaret took one night course each year, studying at the kitchen table to earn her high school diploma and, later, a BA in economics and political science from the University of Toronto.

After Ian was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 1987, Margaret cared for him until his death in 1990. “At the time, there was little support for people who wished to die at home,” says Stuart. “I don’t think anyone told us what to expect at the end. Although Mom was able to care for Dad at home, I think she realized that others in a similar situation (may) not have family members who could do the same, and would be forced to go to hospital. There was also little awareness among the general public about hospice and palliative care. She saw a gap in the health-care system.”

With the goal to provide “quality palliative care in a homelike setting and support for families,” says Stuart, Margaret established the Ian Anderson House Foundation in June 1992 and began to raise funds in 1995. “Mom spent a lot of time, especially in the early years, getting the word out in the community about the concept of a residential hospice. She spoke at events, made lots of phone calls and was interviewed by local media. She also emphasized to everyone she met that the care was being provided at no charge.”

In deciding where to open IAH, Stuart says, “she was looking for a location that would be supported by local government and that would provide a tranquil setting.” Margaret donated $1 million to IAH Foundation, enough to buy a property on the Oakville-Mississauga border and build the hospice. The Donner Canadian Foundation provided the funding required to enable IAH to open in November 1997, shortly after construction was completed.

IAH received no government funding prior to opening, says Stuart. Afterward, the hospice used community nursing services from the Ministry of Health, but contributions continued to cover all other operating expenses.

Margaret didn’t stop there. In the early 2000s, her donation to the University of Toronto established the Ian Anderson Continuing Education Program in End-of-Life Care, which trained 10,000 physicians over its five-year run.

By the mid-2000s, as Ontario began to formally fund the operations of residential hospices, Margaret was widely considered a pioneer. She received numerous awards for her efforts and, in 2006, travelled to Ottawa to accept a Meritorious Service Medal from Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, and accepted the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

An avid golfer (she was a member of Credit Valley Golf & Country Club in Mississauga for 15 years), skilled bridge player and adoring grandmother to Matthew, Margaret never formally retired from the hospice, but scaled back her day-to-day role as her health began to decline. She took what Stuart calls “a huge risk” in building IAH without knowing how its operations would be funded, or whether she would be able to run it successfully in the long term, but it was his mother’s perseverance that made her vision of a residential hospice a reality.

“She never took no for an answer,” he says, “and in the process, Margaret became a champion of palliative care.”