Israel “Izzy” Asper, the Winnipeg-based media mogul who turned a single television station into an international communications empire worth billions of dollars, has died at age 71.
The founder and chairman of the CanWest Global media empire, which operated one of Canada’s national TV networks and published 11 major daily newspapers across Canada, is being remembered for his extraordinary philanthropy — he reportedly gave away more than $100 million in the past four years alone — and for his outspoken and unstinting support of Israel.
The company did not announce the cause of Asper’s death Tuesday, but unconfirmed media reports mention a heart attack.
Asper’s passing triggered a flood of tributes, including one from Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who spent an hour with Asper last Friday.
“He was a great Canadian,” Chretien said. “He will be very difficult to replace.”
An officer of the prestigious Order of Canada, Asper was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1996.
He held dozens of other awards and many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he built an entrepreneurial center. He had served on Hebrew U.’s international board of governors for more than two decades.
A former member of Manitoba’s Parliament and a leader of the provincial Liberal Party in the early 1970s, Asper remained deeply attached to his native province and its capital, Winnipeg.
His charitable gifts to the city include an arts center, park, theater, multimedia classroom, a business school at the University of Manitoba and a research institute at St. Boniface Hospital.
Asper also was a benefactor of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and founded the Asper International Holocaust Studies Program at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
He also built the Asper Jewish Community Campus, a multimillion-dollar facility.
“He went far beyond the Jewish community, but he never forgot his roots,” said Winnipeg writer Allan Levine, who wrote two books for CanWest Global in recent years.
“He was a generous supporter of Jewish causes, but his philanthropic activities stretched far and wide in support of many charitable organizations beyond the Jewish community,” observed Keith Landy, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Asper died before seeing his boldest charitable endeavor to completion. Earlier this year he announced plans for a $270-million facility, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to be built in a prime section of Winnipeg’s historic riverfront.
The proposed museum is expected to be completed by about 2007, with additional funding coming from three levels of government. It will focus on the themes of racial and religious intolerance and will include a Holocaust gallery.
“I don’t think in Canadian history has any city had a champion like Winnipeg had in Izzy Asper,” Winnipeg Mayor Gary Murray said. “One of the things we must do is ensure his dream of this museum becomes a reality.”
Though he turned over much of his business involvement to his children in recent years, Asper remained closely involved with the foundation.
“Other than my family, the Asper Foundation gives me the greatest pleasure in life,” he told Lifestyles, a Toronto-based magazine, earlier this year. “When you take a look at what’s real in life and you take away the games and challenges, you see what’s really important.”
The son of Ukrainian Jews who fled pogroms in the early part of the century, Asper was born in Minnedosa, Manitoba, in 1932, the youngest of three siblings. His parents ran a local movie theater.
After passing the Manitoba bar in 1957, he had a brief political career, then founded his company in 1977 by purchasing a North Dakota television station and moving it to Winnipeg.
Today the company operates networks and stations in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, in addition to the 11-station CanWest Global network in Canada.
It also has various media holdings in Britain and the United States.
In 2000, the company made a foray into print with the $3.2 billion purchase of the Southam newspaper group and other properties from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc.
Shortly afterward, the chain’s head office engaged in a controversial public tug of war with several member papers over control of their editorial pages and policies. The contest eventually resulted in the firing of the Ottawa Citizen’s publisher.
An articulate and energetic defender of Israel, Asper penned articles and gave speeches supportive of Israel and critical of Arab intolerance toward the Jewish state. Last year, at the height of the intifada, he led a delegation of Winnipeggers to Israel.
“I think Canadians should show solidarity with a very beleaguered people,” he said before the trip. “Israel is the only democracy in the entire region. It supports human rights.”
“The people there are feeling very isolated,” he added. “Their morale is low. They must be supported.”
Sometimes described as a ruthless businessman and tough-as-nails deal-maker, Asper held strong opinions and never hesitated to express them.
“In his battle against the many falsifications and slanders hurled at the Jewish state and the Jewish people, Izzy puts forward the facts, bravely challenging hypocrisy and political correctness,” former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this year. “This is the mark of a strong character and an independent mind, both of which Izzy Asper possesses in abundance.”
Jewish officials joined many other Canadians in paying tribute to Asper and offering condolences to his family.
“Mr. Asper’s death leaves an enormous void in the Canadian Jewish community,” said Simon Fogel, CEO of the Canada-Israel Committee. “We know that Izzy’s incredible commitment to Canada, the Jewish state and the Jewish people will serve as an inspiration to future generations.”
Asper leaves his wife Ruth, also known as “Babs,” sons David and Leonard, and daughter Gail.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.