Izzy Asper: me­dia mogul and hu­man rights ad­vo­cate

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - — BAR­BARA SIL­VER­STEIN

The Cana­dian Mu­seum for Hu­man Rights (CMHR), a strik­ing cir­cu­lar glass and stone struc­ture crowned by a tower over­look­ing Win­nipeg, is the legacy of Is­rael Harold Asper, bet­ter known as Izzy Asper.

The late me­dia mogul is cred­ited with dream­ing up the idea of the CMHR.

He en­vi­sioned the mu­seum as a ve­hi­cle for pro­mot­ing aware­ness and re­spect for oth­ers. The CMHR in­cludes two gal­leries that rec­og­nize Cana­dian First Na­tions is­sues and a geno­cide gallery with a per­ma­nent Holo­caust ex­hi­bi­tion.

Asper also saw the mu­seum as a way of re­vi­tal­iz­ing down­town Win­nipeg, the city he loved. He even kept the head­quar­ters of his me­dia em­pire in Win­nipeg.

Asper was a charis­matic man with a lar- ger-than-life per­son­al­ity. He had many ca­reers in his life­time: he was a tax lawyer, news­pa­per colum­nist and au­thor, politi­cian and me­dia mag­nate.

He was a deeply com­mit­ted sup­porter of Is­rael and a gen­er­ous phi­lan­thropist. Through the Asper Foun­da­tion, which he es­tab­lished in 1993, he sup­ported both Jewish and non-jewish causes in West­ern Canada. In the last four years of his life, he do­nated $100 mil­lion to char­ity.

Asper was the leader of Lib­eral Party of Man­i­toba and served in the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture in the mid-1970s.

He is prob­a­bly best re­mem­bered as the founder of the now-de­funct Can­west Global Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Cor­po­ra­tion, a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar me­dia con­glom­er­ate.

Asper, the youngest of three chil­dren, was born in 1932 in Minnedosa, Man., a small town about 215 kilo­me­tres north­west of Win­nipeg. His par­ents, Leon Asper and Ce­cilia Swet, were clas­si­cal mu­si­cians who had im­mi­grated from Ukraine in the ‘20s. In the ‘40s, they re­lo­cated to Win­nipeg and were the pro­pri­etors of a movie the­atre chain.

Asper at­tended the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba for his un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies and law school. He re­ceived his bach­e­lor of laws in 1957 and a mas­ter of laws in 1964.

He mar­ried Ruth Miriam Bern­stein – she was known as Babs – in 1956. The cou­ple’s three chil­dren, sons, David and Leonard, and their daugh­ter, Gail, all have law de­grees and have held var­i­ous po­si­tions at Can­west.

Their sons have con­tin­ued their busi­ness, le­gal and phil­an­thropic in­ter­ests, while Gail has been more fo­cused on fundrais­ing. She spear­headed the cam­paign for the CMHR, which brought in $120 mil­lion in pri­vate do­na­tions.

Be­fore en­ter­ing public ser­vice, Asper spe­cial­ized in tax law and wrote a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated col­umn on tax is­sues for five years.

He led the Man­i­toba Lib­eral Party from 1970 to 1975 and was elected to the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture in 1973. His vi­sion of the party rep­re­sented a more right-wing strain. While he did not sup­port the con­cept of the wel­fare state, he was a pro­po­nent of public fi­nanc­ing of elec­tion cam­paigns, to pre­vent po­lit­i­cal con­trol by monied in­ter­ests.

Asper left pol­i­tics in 1975 to be­come an en­tre­pre­neur. In the early ‘70s, he co-founded CKND, an in­de­pen­dent Win­nipeg tele­vi­sion sta­tion. He also set up Can­west Cap­i­tal Cor­po­ra­tion as a hold­ing com­pany for his me­dia ac­qui­si­tions.

In 1975, he made his first pur­chase, a North Dakota tele­vi­sion sta­tion.

Shortly af­ter, he bought a stake in the trou­bled On­tario Global tele­vi­sion net­work. Asper ex­panded his com­pany to cities across Canada in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and by 2000, he suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing the Global Net­work, Canada’s third full-time tele­vi­sion net­work.

That year, he also achieved his goal of me­dia con­ver­gence by pur­chas­ing the Southam news­pa­per chain, which in­cluded the Na­tional Post.

At its peak, Can­west Global Com­mu­ni­ca­tions owned Cana­dian na­tional Global Tele­vi­sion Net­work, two ca­ble net­works, a 57 per cent in­ter­est in the na­tional Net­work TEN in Aus­tralia, two na­tional tele­vi­sion and ra­dio net­works in New Zealand, the only pri­vate-sec­tor na­tional tele­vi­sion net­work in Ire­land and 11 metro dailies ac­quired through Southam.

Can­west also op­er­ated a news ser­vice, as well as a tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany that sold pro­gram­ming world­wide.

Asper died sud­denly of a heart at­tack in 2003, seven years be­fore Can­west went bank­rupt.

Busi­ness an­a­lysts con­tend that Can­west’s rapid ex­pan­sion placed a huge fi­nan­cial bur­den on the com­pany, which fal­tered un­der its heavy debt load dur­ing the 2008 global re­ces­sion.

With the dis­so­lu­tion of Can­west in 2010, its tele­vi­sion as­sets were sold to Shaw Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the news­pa­per chain was bought by the newly formed Post­media Net­work.

Asper was a big sup­porter of the Lib­eral Party of Canada and Is­rael, and he was crit­i­cized by many po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors and jour­nal­ists for in­sist­ing that his po­lit­i­cal bi­ases be re­flected in his me­dia as­sets.

Dur­ing his life­time, Asper was hon­oured by many com­mu­nity and busi­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In 1995, he be­came an of­fi­cer of the Or­der of Canada and a found­ing mem­ber of the Or­der of Man­i­toba in 2000.

He re­ceived an hon­orary doc­tor of laws and let­ters from the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba in 1998, an hon­orary doc­tor of phi­los­o­phy from the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem in 1999 and hon­orary doc­tor of law de­grees from Mcmaster Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Mon­treal in 2002.

The Univer­sity of Man­i­toba School of Busi­ness changed the fac­ulty of man­age­ment’s name to the Asper School of Busi­ness in 2000.

Asper also won the B’nai Brith In­ter­na­tional Award of Merit in 1993 and was awarded the Queen El­iz­a­beth II Ju­bilee Medal in 2002.

He was an in­ductee into the Cana­dian Broad­cast Hall of Fame, the Cana­dian Busi­ness Hall of Fame and the Win­nipeg Cit­i­zens Hall of Fame.

In April 2003, the es­tab­lish­ment of the Cana­dian Mu­seum for Hu­man Rights was an­nounced as a joint part­ner­ship be­tween the Asper Foun­da­tion, the govern­ment of Canada, the prov­ince of Man­i­toba, the city of Win­nipeg and The Forks North Portage Part­ner­ship. The Asper Foun­da­tion do­nated $20 mil­lion to the project.

Asper died sud­denly five months later, but his fam­ily, sup­port­ers and mul­ti­ple lev­els of govern­ment forged ahead and made his vi­sion of the CMHR a re­al­ity.

The mu­seum opened in 2014 and to­day it is the only na­tional mu­seum out­side of Ot­tawa.

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