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Samuel Bronfman: the man who built his own empire after fleeing czarist Russia

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Samuel Bronfman

In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.


Astute businessman Samuel Bronfman, who left a deep mark on the Canadian economy, was a notable community leader, a major philanthropist and unquestionably one of Canada’s most renowned public figures.

Born in 1889 in the Soroki region of Bessarabia in southeastern Europe, then under the yoke of the czarist Russian Empire, Bronfman was one of eight children born to parents Yechiel and Mindel. Fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms, the Bronfman family immigrated to Wapella, Sask., at the end of the 19th century. Shortly after arriving in Canada, they moved to Brandon, Man.

In Bessarabia, Yechiel worked on a tobacco plantation. Once in Canada, he quickly became aware of the harsh climate and realized it was not suitable for tobacco cultivation. Forced to explore other areas of employment, he worked as a warehouseman for the Canadian Northern Railway and then as a labourer in a sawmill.

A few years later, Yechiel and his children launched a number of business activities that proved very lucrative – selling wood for heating, a trade in frozen whitefish and a horse business.

In 1903, the Bronfman family became hotel owners. Realizing a large part of the hotel’s income was generated by the sale of alcohol, Samuel opened a store for the distribution of alcoholic drinks.

In 1922, Samuel married Saidye Rosner, and two years later, they moved to Montreal. They had four children: Aileen Mindel, who died in 1986; Phyllis; Edgar Miles, who died in 2013; and Charles.

In 1924, Samuel founded the Distillers Corporation in Montreal. Four years later, the company acquired competitor Joseph E. Seagram & Sons of Waterloo, Ont. This clever merger enabled the Bronfman family to build a powerful financial dynasty that would continue to prosper, thanks to Seagram brands that were already highly rated at the time, notably Calvert, Dewar’s and Seven Crown.

Prohibition in the United States proved to be an unexpected windfall for the Bronfmans, as the laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol had been abolished in Canada.

From Montreal, where the production of alcohol was legal during Prohibition, the Bronfmans sold large quantities of alcoholic drinks to restaurants and bars in northern U.S. cities, including Boston, New York and Chicago. Seagram sales reached record proportions at the time. Within a few years, Seagram became one of the largest distributors of alcoholic drinks in the world, with sales of up to US$1 billion in the 1960s.

Samuel radically changed North America’s view of alcohol at the time. He introduced a series of alcoholic drinks that quickly became symbols of quality, including Chivas Regal, and outdid himself by producing an even more select whisky, the Royal Salute.

READ: THE CJN’S SPECIAL COVERAGE OF CANADA’S SESQUICENTENNIAL

In 1939, when King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, made an official visit to Canada, Samuel created a prestigious whisky in their honour: Crown Royal. In developing it, he personally mixed 600 samples before finding a combination that satisfied him.

In the early ’80s, Seagram developed a strategy based on diversification. The company expanded its financial activities to other areas, notably the entertainment world.

Along with his business success, Samuel became a very generous and visionary philanthropist. In 1952, he and his wife created a family foundation whose primary objective was to provide scholarships to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in young Canadians. The Bronfman Foundation has since enjoyed an excellent reputation worldwide. Every year, it funds numerous endeavours in several areas, including educational, cultural and social projects.

In 1971, Samuel and Saidye contributed generously to the construction of the Bronfman Building at McGill University and to the building that houses the Desautels Faculty of Management.

In 1987, the Université de Montréal opened the Pavillon Samuel Bronfman, which combined the social and humanities library, the library of theology and philosophy, the loan service between libraries and the special collections branch. The donation made by the Bronfman family through the Seagram Society was the largest received from the private sector by the university during its fundraising campaign of the 1980s.

In 1993, the Bronfman family created the Canada Studies Institute at McGill, and in 2002, they donated the Seagram Building on Sherbrooke Street to the university. In Jerusalem, the archeology wing of the Israel Museum bears the names of Samuel and Saidye Bronfman.

Samuel was also one of the best-known leaders of Canada’s Jewish community. He was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1962. During his nearly quarter-century as head of the official political organization representing Canadian Jews, Samuel frequently demonstrated his great leadership, his unwavering perseverance and his visionary spirit when facing very difficult issues: the devastating consequences of World War II, a surge in anti-Semitism, the welcoming of tens of thousands of Jews who were fleeing anti-Semitic persecution.

Samuel was a Zionist from the very beginning. Immediately after the creation of the State of Israel, he gave tangible proof of his profound attachment to the Zionist cause by mobilizing the Canadian Jewish community and collecting large sums of money to ensure the survival of the young Jewish state, then being threatened by destruction at the hands of neighbouring Arab countries.

Samuel was posthumously inducted as a member of the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1982.

He died in 1971, at age 82.

Translated from French by Carolan Halpern.