Our Mission...

Endowed by Willis S. McLeese, the organization has a concise mandate: Get more students across Canada involved in debating. Based at Upper Canada College in Toronto and working with the Canadian Student Debating Federation (CSDF), McLeese Debate is charged with finding opportunities to teach youth the art of argument.

Debate is practical education at its best. As said by Willis McLeese “If students are given the skills and confidence to speak publicly and advocate positions, it will serve them well later in life” this vision that led him to create McLeese Debate. Since then countless students have been encouraged to develop their leadership and communication skills through the Opportunity Fund managed by the CSDF. Annually student gather in a different province or territory every year to showcase their debating skills and meet like minded peers, McLeese Debate is a proud supporter of the Canadian National Debate Seminar. 

A tribute to Willis, written by CSDF Founder Tom Lawson


This is the story of the most important phone call I have ever made. The year was 1971. We had been building a national student debating program for about 5 years, and were planning for the first full scale National Student Debating Seminar to be held in Edmonton. The issue of the weeklong Seminar was to be The Free Market vs The Planned Economy, and we wanted a formal adult debate to kick it off. I had had no trouble dragooning prominent advocates for The Planned Economy, but could not, for the life of me, find a business leader willing to take part. Someone mentioned the name of a Toronto businessman who he thought might be willing to do it. His name was Willis McLeese.

I got his number, picked up a phone, and called him. I told him who I was, and what we were trying to do. "I'm asking you", I said, "to fly to Edmonton at your own expense .... (We have no money)....and to debate on behalf of the Free Market in an open public broadcast debate in front of 70 brilliant teenagers from every corner of the country". And then I played my ace card: "You'll do it", I said, "if you love kids".

Well, he took the bait! That was a debate I would never forget, a superb example of civilized disagreement between highly informed advocates of diametrically opposed views. There were still a dozen kids with questions at the mikes an hour after it was supposed to end!

On the way to the airport he asked me what he could do for us. I answered "We need a Treasurer". "You've got one", he said.

Well, for the next dozen years, Willis McLeese's superbly staffed and equipped office in downtown Toronto was at our disposal. We were, after all, a bunch of high school teachers with very limited business sense or skill. Our rapid growth was a recipe for collapse. With infinite patience, he taught us how to conduct an Annual General Meeting, how to keep minutes, how to incorporate, how to raise funds.  Over those years he personally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for us, and whenever we were backs to the wall, he came through with five or ten thousand dollars to keep us afloat. He attended, in person, Seminar after Seminar in every corner of the country, steering us through one crisis after another, enabling us to reconcile as many conflicting agendas as there are provinces. Finally he established a two million dollar foundation to provide us with a permanent staffed national office.

Over the years, countless thousands of great young Canadians have participated informal, structured debate at both junior and senior levels in district, provincial, national, North American, and world competition, learning the basic skills desperately needed for effective citizenship in a democratic society: integrity in research, articulate persuasive speech, acute listening powers, open mindedness, and a keen interest in issues of common concern to all Canadians. I believe we have made a significant contribution to the quality of publlc life in Canada. I also believe none of this would have come about but for the never failing generosity, knowledge, infinite patience, and buoyant good humour of this remarkable man. I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have known, as a mentor and friend, a great Canadian.

I shall not see his like again.


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Willis S.Mcleese Award 

The Canadian Student Debating Federation Willis S. McLeese Award is a special award named to recognize the immense contribution that Mr. McLeese has made to Canadian student debating.

Mr. McLeese was treasurer of the CSDF for over ten years, personally ensuring that the Federation received the funding necessary to keep its programme alive.  Established in 2002, the Willis S. McLeese Chair in Canadian Debating is funded through an endowment with the Upper Canada College Foundation provided through the generosity of Willis S. McLeese and Dr. Adelaide McLeese.  Additionally, the endowment provides for an annual McLeese Opportunities Fund that, together with the Chair, supports and advances student debate and public speaking through the development of outreach programs and access to resources and training workshops for coaches and students throughout the country.
The Willis S. McLeese Award may be awarded annually by each province and territory, to a person who has made an outstanding contribution to debate in its jurisdiction.  This year’s nominees will be recognized at the National Student Debating Seminar