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Avie Bennett, ‘patriot’ and publisher, dead at 89

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Avie Bennett died in Toronto on June 2, at the age of 89.

Avie Bennett, who died in Toronto on June 2 at the age of 89, was remembered as a canny businessman, publisher, real estate developer and philanthropist who had a passion for Canada and its story.

Bennett tallied a long list of charitable endeavours, including the United Way of Greater Toronto, the National Ballet of Canada and its school, the Luminato arts festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario and higher education.

He was York University’s chancellor from 1998 to 2004.

“He was extraordinary in his generosity to York, and I don’t mean that in just a financial sense,” said former York University president Lorna Marsden in a statement. “He took a special interest in students, convocation ushers, faculty, staff members – everyone he met. He touched every part of the university.”

Marsden noted that at convocation, Bennett would deliver a “rousing” speech that “delighted” graduates and their families.

“He had one speech – it was a great speech – and he probably delivered it more than 20 times over the years,” said Marsden.

In 2006, York’s Student Services Centre was renamed the Bennett Centre for Student Services.

In the world of books, Bennett was best known for his purchase, in 1985, of respected publishing company, McClelland & Stewart, “rescuing it from the brink of financial disaster,” declares the Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Under Bennett’s 14-year management, he published and nurtured such authors as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, among others.

In 1991, he acquired Hurtig Publishers of Edmonton, publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia, and in 1995, he bought Tundra, a Montreal-based publisher of children’s books.

In 2000, Bennett donated 75 per cent of McClelland & Stewart to the University of Toronto, which would use the revenues it generated to establish an endowment in support of Canadian culture.

Bennett was active in the Jewish National Fund. He was the Negev Dinner honouree in 2000 and funded a recreation area on Mt. Shaul in Israel’s Gilboa mountains.

Avram Bennett was born in Toronto on Jan. 2, 1928, to Archie Bennett, who had come to Canada from Russia in the early part of the century, and Sophie, who was from Quebec City. Raised in Kingston, Ont., Archie Bennett graduated with a degree in philosophy from Queen’s University and later served as editor of the Canadian Jewish Times in Montreal.

A regular contributor to several Jewish publications for decades, A.B. Bennett, as he was known, was “the dean of Canadian Jewish writers,” according to A Century of the Canadian Jewish Press by Lewis Levendel.

In 1919, he was among the delegates to the first assembly of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and later served as president of CJC’s Ontario region, involved in refugee work, resettlement, community relations and the war effort. He died in 1980, also at the age of 89.

“My father grew up in a house that, during the war, was a reception centre for Jews coming to Toronto,” Avie’s son, Paul Bennett, told The CJN. “They had salons and anyone could come on Friday nights.”

Avie Bennett attended Forest Hill Collegiate Institute and was one credit short of a degree from the University of Toronto when he entered the family’s commercial real estate development business.

Bennett was credited with pioneering the retail plaza concept in Canada, “opening the nation’s first strip malls in Toronto in the early 1950s,” states his profile on the University of Toronto’s website.

His early projects still thrive: Sunnybrook Plaza at Bayview and Eglinton avenues, and Lawrence Plaza at Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue.

Bennett served as chairman of Historica Canada (creator of the Heritage Minutes), which was the result of the merger in 2009 of the Historica Foundation of Canada and The Dominion Institute.

“Avie was a patriot. He believed in Canada. He wanted to celebrate Canada. He believed in our culture and wanted to celebrate our history and devoted himself and his resources to that,” recalled journalist Andrew Cohen, who was president of Historica Canada from 2009 to 2011. “He was tough.”

Entertainment lawyer, agent and producer Michael Levine, a longtime friend, recalled their rich relationship:

“I admired him greatly because he was unequivocally a man of his word,” Levine told The CJN. “He had a wonderful, ironic sense of humour. He had a passion for the country and he was just the genuine article.”

Bennett was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto in 1995, the University of Ottawa in 1997 and York University in 2004.

He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1991, promoted to officer in 1997 and promoted again to companion in 2003.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Beverly (née Shapiro), six children and 10 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister, Norda.