Israel Harold Asper, O.C., O.M., Q.C., LL.D., Ph.D.

Israel Harold Asper

In 1999, Israel Asper made a gift of $1,000,000 through the Asper Foundation towards the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship for the University of Manitoba’s business school. In 2000, he made an additional gift of $10,000,000 and the school was renamed in Israel Asper’s honour. These major gifts have helped advance the School’s commitment to continuous improvement and will ensure that the I.H. Asper School of Business will continue to produce some of Canada's outstanding leaders of tomorrow.

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From the days when, as a youth, he delivered mail to the posh houses along Wellington Crescent, to the morning on Oct. 7, 2003 when he died in a Winnipeg hospital, aged 71, Israel Harold Asper never stopped believing in himself and his responsibility to others. In 2000, after giving the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Management $10 million with a promise of more, Izzy, as he was known, insisted, “all of us need to enter the trenches and become protagonists.”

Asper was always the protagonist in the dramas he created, fighting for his city and country, and his Jewish heritage. For more than 40 years, the boy from Minnedosa waded through politics and business, never hesitating to lead when good leaders could not be found. His musician parents, Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to rural Manitoba in 1926, taught their three children that hard work, pursuit of excellence, and selfless dedication to one’s people and country were essential. Asper, the youngest child, consistently demonstrated these values. He worked for pay since age 14 and in Grade 10 at Kelvin High School he started his own newspaper, buoyed by a vocational test that revealed his interest in law and journalism. At the University of Manitoba, he enrolled in philosophy, history, government and music courses; on the side, he wrote a music column for the Manitoban and participated in student parliament and the students’ union. In 1953, Asper and schoolmate Ron Meyers composed music and lyrics for the annual Varsity Varieties show. Two years later, Asper directed the show.

A popular and cheerful youth, Asper married Ruth (Babs) Bernstein, his high school sweetheart, and proceeded to law school, where he earned top honours as a student and debater. He graduated as class valedictorian in 1957. Later, while pursuing a Master’s degree, he formed his own law firm, Asper, Freedman and Company, just as he started raising a family. Asper built a lucrative career as a tax lawyer and consultant but attracted widespread attention with a weekly syndicated tax column in the Globe and Mail, which he wrote from 1966 until 1977. A bout of hepatitis in 1969 did not slow him down – in six weeks, he wrote a best-selling book on taxation. Believing that public service was the highest of all callings, Asper easily won leadership of the provincial Liberal party in 1970 and spent the next five years advocating tax incentives for businesses, a bill of rights, and rural development among other issues. Though he did not become Premier, as he had hoped, Asper retained his legendary confidence. In 1975, upon resigning from politics, he told the Winnipeg Tribune, “I’m like the race horse trained to run . . . I’m still looking for a forum.”

Asper found his forum in broadcasting. Dreaming of a Winnipeg-based company that “would make things happen,” he bought in 1974 a struggling television station, KCND, in Pembina, ND, renamed it CKND and moved the equipment to Winnipeg, where he began one of the few independent television stations in Canada. Later, he bought out Global TV, which became the hub of CanWest Global Communications, Canada’s largest media company that now extends into Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In 2000, Asper bought the Southam newspaper chain and the National Post. Some knew him as abrasive and litigious but also incisive, dynamic and unconventional – a politically incorrect chain smoker who lived and worked in Winnipeg where others in his place might have moved to larger centres.

A Manitoba favourite son, Asper gave millions through his foundations to local hospitals, a park, theatre, arts centre, Jewish cultural centre, and the University of Manitoba. Asper was the university’s most generous individual supporter. In 1999, the university received $2 million from Asper to establish the Asper Chair in International Business and Trade Law. With his help, the university also created the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship and in 2000, renamed its Faculty of Management the I.H. Asper School of Business - which Asper described as the greatest recognition he had ever received. He also supported programs in Israel and the Jewish - Canadian community and spearheaded plans for a Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. Throughout, he was devoted most of all to his family - wife Babs, sons David and Leonard and daughter Gail. All three children are left to run the media empire.

For his exceptional achievements, Asper was rewarded with honorary degrees from the University of Manitoba, McMaster University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His many awards include the Edmond C. Bovey Award for Leadership Support of the Arts, the North American Broadcasting Association (NABA) International Achievement Award, the B’nai Brith International Award of Merit, the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award and the University of Manitoba International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award. Asper was a Member of the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba, and was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Other significant donors: