Philanthropists, volunteers and dedicated alumni, Brian and Joannah Lawson receive U of T honorary degrees 

(image by Lisa Sakulensky)

Together, they have inspired countless others with their thoughtful leadership and generous spirit. And as donors, they like to think ahead. With an eye on future generations, Joannah and Brian Lawson have made climate change and child nutrition central to their philanthropy, including at the University of Toronto.

Today, for their outstanding service to the university as supporters, ambassadors and thoughtful advisers, and for their commitment to making a positive difference in everything they do, the Lawsons will each receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from U of T.

Raised in Toronto, Brian attended U of T, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1982, with an emphasis on economics and computer science. After graduation, he joined Touche Ross (now Deloitte) and decided to study accounting, becoming a chartered accountant in 1985.

Joannah, who also grew up in Toronto, completed a master’s degree in industrial relations at U of T in 1989. 

Brian joined Brookfield, an investment firm, in 1988 and soon moved into senior roles, including chief financial officer of Brookfield Asset Management, which he held from 2002 to 2020. In 2013, he was selected as Canada’s CFO of the year by Financial Executives International Canada, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Robert Half International.

During Brian’s tenure as CFO, Brookfield evolved into a large, global investment firm, with assets under management of US$600 billion in 2020 and operations in more than 20 countries – principally in Canada, the United States, Australia and Brazil.

Joannah Lawson looks warmly at Brian Lawson as they stand on stage together
(photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Joannah, meanwhile, worked in change management in the high-tech sector before launching a second career as a nutritionist in 2012 via her own consulting business: Appetite for Change.

She is also co-founder and president of the Brian and Joannah Lawson Family Foundation, which collaborates with other philanthropic foundations, not-for-profits, universities and think tanks to make food systems around the world healthier and more sustainable. The couple created the foundation in 2008 to advance two causes they believe in: addressing climate change and promoting healthy dietary patterns. Joannah has since shifted her focus to leading the foundation.

“Our particular emphasis is on supporting and sponsoring initiatives that improve the health and well-being of our communities [and] the environment,” Brian told the Globe and Mail in 2014

In an interview with U of T, Joannah drew a connection between healthy food and sustainability, noting that “nutrient-empty foods take a heavy toll on the planet.”

These concerns are reflected in how the couple has supported U of T philanthropically, with significant donations to establish the Lawson Centre for Sustainability at Trinity College and the Joannah and Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. 

They view their focus on child nutrition as strategic, adding that a person’s first few years is a critical window for lifelong health. “If you start changing things in childhood, you have the greatest opportunity to have a bigger impact on a person’s life,” Joannah told the Temerty Faculty of Medicine in 2017. “It’s going further upstream to get to the root of the problem.”

“It’s an inflection point for parents too,” Brian said in the same interview. “Parents often start trying to eat healthier when kids come along, so focusing on children benefits the whole family.”

“Ultimately,” Joannah said, “the number one thing we’re doing is setting out to prevent chronic disease. If you prevent chronic disease, you reduce suffering, improve quality of life and improve economic outcomes. It’s a win-win-win.”

Both Brian and Joannah have volunteered extensively with U of T. Brian is chancellor of Trinity College, co-chair of the Defy Gravity Campaign and a past chair of U of T’s Governing Council. Joannah is a past member of the Trinity College Board of Trustees and continues to serve as an adviser to the college. Together, they have served as co-chairs of the campaign cabinet at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and on the Boundless Campaign executive

Both have received the university’s Arbor Award for volunteer service, and honorary doctorates from Trinity College.

In his speech today, Brian urged graduates of Trinity and University colleges to focus their efforts on opportunities that tick three boxes: what they’re good at, what they’re passionate about and where they can make a difference. “Think of how you want the world to be – and exemplify that yourself,” he said. “People around you will notice. And that might be the greatest impact of all.”

In her speech, Joannah encouraged graduates to draw inspiration from others. “Find out who is already working on the issues you care about most, and look for ways to contribute, either directly by working with them or indirectly by building on their work.” 

And if no one else is working on the issue?  “Lead the way.”