Mr. John Derek Riley was born into one of Winnipeg’s most esteemed families in 1922. He went on to become an Olympic athlete, a war veteran, a businessman, and a philanthropist of the highest order.
In 1943, he completed his commerce degree from the University of Manitoba, in absentia, while serving as an officer of the Royal Canadian Navy aboard a Destroyer during the Second World War. He married his university sweetheart, Polly, during a one-month leave at home. After the war, in 1949, he completed his chartered accountant degree at the University of Manitoba. He took a job at the Hudson’s Bay Company and quickly established himself as chief financial officer of their fur trade division.
Mr. Riley competed as a rower in the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, and rowing has remained a passion throughout his life. He led a campaign to build a new clubhouse for the Winnipeg Rowing Club, which now bears the Riley family name, and chaired the rowing venue for the 1967 Pan Am Games. He competed in Masters events until the age of 75.
In his own words, Mr. Riley likes to keep busy and solve problems. He saw challenge and opportunity in Dominion Bronze & Iron Limited, whose leadership was struggling. Over the course of 25 years, he turned the firm into a highly profitable architectural metal company as president and CEO.
In 1987 at the age of 65, Mr. Riley became a founding investor and first chair of the North West Company, and was instrumental in brokering its purchase from the Hudson’s Bay Company. As part of his new position, he toured the North extensively and was shocked by the lack of opportunity for young Indigenous peoples in many of the communities he visited. He made a transformational gift to the University of Manitoba to support bursaries for Indigenous students coming from remote communities, as well as mentorship, educational and cultural programs for children and teenagers in these regions.
Mr. Riley’s unassuming generosity has improved the lives of Manitobans through organizations such as the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, United Way, Winnipeg Foundation, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Mr. Riley is a member of the Associates of the Asper School of Business. He was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Order of Canada in 2014.
The University of Manitoba is proud to award a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, to Mr. Derek Riley for his business acumen, his outstanding philanthropy, and his commitment to Indigenous education and success.
John Derek Riley