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Peter Munk: turning gold into good

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Peter Munk, right, at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa in 2012.

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

If Peter Munk had an ear for business – and few would doubt he did – it’s because he actually started out selling high-end stereos.

The man who would later become a gold-mining magnate as founder and chairman of Barrick Gold, co-founded Clairtone Sound Corp. in Toronto in 1956, at a time when sound systems were called “hi-fi’s.” The company made high-end consoles that included radios, turntables and, later, televisions. In their day, they were recognizable and prized.

But mounting losses forced Munk and his partner out of the company and the duo decamped for Fiji to invest in a hotel. They would turn that into the Southern Pacific Hotel Corp., which at its peak consisted of 54 resorts in the South Pacific.

He returned to Canada in 1979 and formed the privately held Barrick Resources Corp., which invested heavily in oil and gas. But after racking up numerous losses, Munk decided to focus on gold and his company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in May 1983.

Munk never looked back, and Barrick Gold Corp. became the largest gold-mining company in the world, producing 5.5-million ounces in 2016. He stepped down as CEO in 1998 and today serves on the company’s international advisory board.

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

He probably came closest to fulfilling the Jewish immigrant’s dream of living in the goldene medina (the Promised Land).

Munk, who will turn 90 this November, was born in Budapest to well-off Jewish parents, Katherine Adler and Louis L. Munk. While Munk was still a teenager, the family fled the Nazi invasion of March 1944 aboard the famous Kastner train, which carried 1,684 Jews to safety in Switzerland. It was arranged by Rudolf Kastner, who was assassinated in 1957 in Israel, after a court there accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis.

Munk graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in electrical engineering in 1952. The electronics line turned out to be a natural entrance to the business world.

He was also founder, chairman and CEO of Trizec Properties, which was sold in 2006. Among the company’s vast holdings was the infamous Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Munk’s name is now associated with a host of charitable endeavours. The Peter Munk Charitable Foundation was founded in 1992 and has since disbursed approximately $100 million to a variety of organizations in the fields of health, education, public policy and the arts.

In 2006, Munk announced that he would donate $37 million to the Toronto General Hospital, the largest gift ever to a Canadian medical institution. The donation would help support the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, which Munk helped create with a $6-million donation to the hospital in 1997.

‘This is a country that does not ask about your origins, it only concerns itself with your destiny’

In 2010, he cemented his reputation as one of Canada’s foremost philanthropists with a $35-million donation to the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The donation enabled a dramatic expansion of the Munk Centre for International Studies that he helped create a decade earlier and funded the creation of the Munk Debates.

He also donated to the Technion-Israel Institute for Technology.

Munk was invested in the Order of Canada as an officer in 1992 and promoted to companion in 2008 as “one of Canada’s great entrepreneurs who is equally renowned for his philanthropic work in Canada and abroad.”

Munk loved this country. “He has regarded being Canadian not as a taken-for-granted act of citizenship, but as a badge of honour that he had to earn – and then keep on earning,” wrote fellow Jewish immigrant Peter C. Newman in his book, The Barrick Story.

Canada is “a country of peace, law, justice, freedom and free education,” Munk told the Globe and Mail in 2010. “We have the largest multiracial society in the world. “Canada is as good as it gets.”

As he once told the Canadian Club: “I arrived in this place not speaking the language, not knowing a dog.… This is a country that does not ask about your origins, it only concerns itself with your destiny.”