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Izzy Asper: Media mogul and human rights advocate

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Izzy Asper

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

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 larger-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.

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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 philanthropical 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 a 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.

Izzy Asper, left, at Hebrew University.

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.