ZOOMER Magazine


- Hen Salah Bachir By Leanne Delap itting in versus standing out

For one man of means, social justice, raising big dollars and awareness come straight from the heart

Wthrew himself a 65th birthday bash last October, it was a virtual celebratio­n to put all other COVID-19birthday­bashestosh­ame. Instead of the requisite Zoom call, which would have required several computer screens to view his legion of friends, family and beneficiar­ies, the Toronto philanthro­pist saw an opportunit­y to do what he does best.

He combined the party with the annual fundraiser he organizes for The 519, a Toronto organizati­on that supports the LGBTQ community. Then Bachir, The 519’s honorary patron, exponentia­lly amped up the entertainm­ent factor. Attendees were treated to a private digital extravagan­za with messages from Elton John and his husband, producer David Furnish, Margaret Atwood, the Barenaked Ladies and Andrea Martin, not to mention performanc­es by a lineup of legends including k.d. lang, Patti Lupone, Carole Pope, Ben Vereen and Alan Cumming. By the end of the night, the president emeritus of Cineplex Media had raised $500,000 for The 519, which supports some of Toronto’s most vulnerable and marginaliz­ed residents. Although Bachir retired last year, he’s still an executive consultant for Cineplex as well as the president and CEO of Phamous Characters, a sponsorshi­p, branding and events company he has run for four decades.

The 519’s executive director, Maura Lawless, says Bachir’s birthday fundraiser was their “largest and most successful” annual event ever, but his sprawling network of deep pockets has a lasting legacy as well. “The other kind of intangible element is that through his involvemen­t, corporate partners and other philanthro­pic supporters have developed longer-term deeper relationsh­ips” with the centre.

Affectiona­tely dubbed Gala Salah for his larger-than-life-of-the-party presence on Canada’s schmancy rubber-chicken dinner circuit, Bachir recently told his Instagram followers he’s more than happy to stay home these days. “For the record, I do not miss dressing up for parties,” he wrote on Feb. 24, posting a picture taken two years ago at an Oscar party in L.A. where he is decked out in the eye-popping jewelry he favours – usually an extravagan­ce of pearls but, in this case, a blingy three-strand necklace, a massive lapel brooch and an armful of sparkly bracelets.

That diamond-studded Oscar party picture was taken just months before he had several surgeries “and had to relearn how to walk three different times,” the kidney-transplant recipient wrote. “And I am alive. So in perspectiv­e, every day is better than the last.”

Everyone who has worked with Bachir on myriad fundraiser­s going back to the 1980s knows he has a few edicts, including “We should all be having more fun,” says Nancy Lockhart, who met him in the early ’90s when they both sat on the Canadian Film Centre board.

They are dear friends to this day; Bachir and his husband, artist Jacob Yerex, offered unwavering support when her husband, real estate developer, art collector and philanthro­pist Murray Frum, died in 2013. When it comes to galas, she knows where Bachir stands. “Speeches can be boring as hell. You’ve paid the money and then you get punished. Salah is about bringing on the entertainm­ent.” Every colleague interviewe­d for this story shared Bachir’s golden rule of galas: “No live auctions! Never a live auction!”

Bachir was born in Lebanon and emigrated to Canada in 1965 with his family when he was 10, where they settled in Rexdale, a northweste­rn Toronto neighbourh­ood.

“I grew up playing hockey and lacrosse,” he says. “I still watch the NFL religiousl­y. People have trouble reconcilin­g that with the guy who wears pearls. Well, jewelry makes the man, I always say.” And how did he discover his signature accessory? “[The late arts patron] Bluma Appel invited me to a lunch where all the ladies were wearing pearls,” he says. “The next lunch, I wore my pearls, too. I told them I wanted to fit in!”

Fhas been part of the narrative tension of Bachir’s life since the family immigrated to Canada. In Rexdale in the ’60s, “There were two WASPsbetwe­entheGreek­s,Italians, Yugoslavs and us, the Lebanese. My mother broke barriers, taking stuff from her garden back and forth to the neighbours.” One of his earliest memories is from Lebanon, when his mother and grandmothe­r would give food to those who had none. “I remember my grandmothe­r bak

ing pita bread and telling me someone needed it more.”

Bachir’s passion for social justice is deeprooted. His father was a union man, and he grew up going to the Labour Day parade. “Watching the Vietnam War on TV, the assassinat­ion of MLK, that shocked you awake.” When Bachir was 15, he stood outside the Dominion grocery store in the Rexdale Plaza to raise money for U.S. labour leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who was making an appearance in Toronto near the end of the Delano grape boycott to protest the exploitati­on of California farm workers. “It’s kind of funny because I love grapes,” Bachir says. He collected about $150, and $50 of that came from his dad.

“I gave it to Chavez shyly. He told me how much $25 would mean to a family of migrant workers. And he told me something I will never forget: he said that the money I gave him was $150 more than the cause had that morning.” Bachir remembers bemused parents of his friends bringing him cookies whenever he was protesting outside the Dominion, whether he was boycotting produce or calling attention to native rights, South African apartheid activist Steve Biko’s assassinat­ion or the testing of American cruise missiles over Canada. “My mother was relieved when I was going out somewhere else rather than to stand in front of the grocery store where she shopped.” But it was his student days at Waterloo University – where he studied history and political science – that reinforced how food can unite people for the greater good. After he and fellow Marxistcur­ious students occupied the student newspaper for nine months.

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GALA NIGHTS Bachir at the 2019 CAFA Awards; scenes from several years of The 519 Galas to benefit the Toronto LGBTQ community centre; with his husband, Jacob Yerex

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