Former senator Leo Kolber, a pillar of business and politics, dies

The Honourable Leo and Roni Kolber

Former senator Leo Kolber died in Montreal on Jan. 9, 10 days shy of his 91st birthday.

When he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008, Kolber was cited as having been an outstanding contributor to Canada’s business, political and philanthropic scenes for more than 40 years.

A former Liberal Party of Canada national revenue committee chair, Kolber served in the Senate from 1983 to 2004, during which time he was chair of the standing committee on banking, trade and commerce.

He established the Cadillac-Fairview Corporation, one of the largest real estate companies in North America, and was a member of numerous corporate boards over the years.

Kolber was associated, in a volunteer capacity and as a benefactor, with a myriad of social, cultural and health-care organizations and causes, including serving as president of the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) in Montreal from 1997 to 1999.

The hospital lauded Kolber for having taken the helm at a time of “turmoil in the health-care system. In the face of hospital closures and downsizing, he was firm in his defence of the JGH and considered access to high-quality health-care services a non-negotiable issue.”

He also held leadership positions with Combined Jewish Appeal and State of Israel Bonds, among other organizations.

Born in Montreal, where his father was a dentist, Ernest Leo Kolber graduated from McGill University’s law faculty and was called to the Quebec bar in 1952. It was at McGill in the late 1940s that Kolber met Charles Bronfman and the pair became lifelong friends.

Charles Bronfman’s father, Sam, the former CEO of Seagram Company Ltd., a Montreal-based distiller, reportedly fostered that relationship, after recognizing Kolber’s keen business acumen. Kolber has called Sam Bronfman his mentor.

In his in his 1975 book, The Canadian Establishment, author Peter C. Newman described how “Sam treated him as a son and Leo worshipped Sam as a father.”

For almost 30 years, Kolber was president of CEMP Investments, the holding company of the trusts established by the elder Bronfman for his four children. He was also chair of Claridge Inc., the Bronfmans’ private management company.

He held directorships with MGM, Supersol, Cineplex Odeon, the Toronto-Dominion Bank and Seagram, among others.

In 2005, Kolber was appointed chair of the government’s Advisory Council on National Security.

In his 2003 memoir, Leo: A Life, Kolber described himself as having been the Bronfman family’s consigliere, borrowing a mafia term for a trusted outsider.

Kolber also had a close friendship with Shimon Peres, ever since the future Israeli leader first visited Canada in 1950.

Sam Bronfman’s intuition proved correct – Kolber did, indeed, have a genius for making money. He urged the Bronfmans to diversify from liquor into real estate development. When Cadillac-Fairview, which built Toronto’s landmark Eaton Centre and Toronto-Dominion Centre, was sold in 1987, Kolber noted that he personally made $100 million, in addition to the $1.2-billion profit for the Bronfmans.

As the federal Liberal party’s chief fundraiser, Kolber frequently entertained the political and business elite at his Westmount, Que., home. Kolber developed a personal friendship with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, with whom he and his wife Sandra often travelled abroad after Trudeau left office.

Sandra Kolber, a poet and film executive, died in 2001. The two were married for 44 years.

Kolber also considered former prime minister Brian Mulroney a good friend and disclosed that he raised $100,000 for his Progressive Conservative party leadership bid in 1983.

Through his MGM board membership, Kolber cultivated relationships with many Hollywood stars and counted Danny Kaye and Cary Grant as friends. Frank Sinatra was once a guest at his home.

Despite flying in such rarefied circles, Kolber did not, it seems, take himself too seriously. In his book, he acknowledges what was long surmised by others – that he was Mordecai Richler’s inspiration for Harvey Schwartz, the social-climbing “relentless ass-kisser” and “paranoid hypochondriac” in Solomon Gursky Was Here, a novel that echoes the Bronfmans’ rise to fortune.

Kolber attributed his drive to seeing his middle-aged father unable to make a living for the last two years of his life, after suffering from a heart attack.

Kolber is survived by his second wife, Roni, and children, Lynne and Jonathan.

At the funeral at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Jan. 12, former prime minister Jean Chrétien credited Kolber with getting the Liberal Party out of serious debt, allowiing it under his leadership to defeat the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1993.

Chrétien, who injected humour into the occasion, related how, when he asked Kolber why he wanted to became a senator when he could be making more money in private life, Kolber replied that “when he went to New York, to a restaurant, and showed his card, he got a good table.”

On a serious note, he praised Kolber for exemplifying “what is best about Canada…Thank you, Leo, for a job well done.”

Mulroney and former Quebec premier Jean Charest were also in attendance.

Charles Bronfman said of his best friend of 70 years that his father Sam saw in the diligent young Leo, who had lost his father at 16, someone who would keep his two privileged sons “grounded.”

Kolber had a gruff, tough exterior but those who knew him well saw the sensitive, kind man within, Bronfman said.