Winnipeg community, CIJA to honour Asper family

Gail Asper

WINNIPEG — Over the last 30 years, the Asper family, through their generosity in giving of their time as well as their financial support, has become the dominant philanthropic family both within Winnipeg’s Jewish community as well as the community at large. 

Their impact is reflected in the Asper Jewish Community Campus, the Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program, the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, the I. H. Asper Clinical Research Institute at the St. Boniface General Hospital and the Lyric Theatre at Assiniboine Park, named after late family patriarch Izzy Asper’s family-owned movie theatre in rural Manitoba in the 1930s and ’40s, and – the pièce de résistance – the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened last September.

On Sept. 9, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is partnering with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg to recognize the many contributions of the Asper family and the Asper Foundation to the economic and social well-being of Canada.

Elaine Goldstine, interim CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, said some 800 tickets have already been sold. 

“We would like to have 800 to 900 people in attendance. This is an event not to be missed,” she said, adding, “The Asper family is committed to community. It is wonderful how generous they have been with their money and time.”

The Words & Deeds Awards Dinner is different from annual events and awards, Goldstine said. “It is a special honour for very special people,” she said.

Speaking for the family, Gail Asper said she and her brothers, David and Leonard, are delighted to receive the recognition. 

“It’s very meaningful coming from our Federation and CIJA, because we all respect and value the contributions those organizations make and really hope the dinner raises significant funds for them,” she said. 

“I have enormous respect for past recipients like the Richardson family [the last Words & Deeds honorees in Winnipeg eight years ago] and recent honoree [Ontario] Premier Kathleen Wynne. To be included with them is indeed an honour,” Asper said.

“We have all been influenced by our wonderful parents, for whom philanthropy and tikkun olam were an integral part of their daily life. Dad always reminded us not to take up space in this life, but to try to leave the world a better place than the way in which we found it. 

“And of course he was passionate about ensuring we understood the concept of being fair-share donors to our community. If we benefited from a healthy society, we had to ensure we were helping that society to flourish.”

The late Izzy Asper was a leading Canadian tax lawyer who became leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba and later a Canadian media mogul. 

After leaving politics in the mid-1970s, he and a couple of partners bought a small TV station in North Dakota and moved it to Winnipeg. Asper built that single station into CanWest Global Communications Corp., a multi-billion dollar media empire. 

One of Asper’s guiding philosophies in life was giving back to his community. He founded the Asper Foundation in 1983 for that purpose and stepped down as CEO of CanWest in 1997 so that he and Babs, his wife and partner in philanthropy, could concentrate more of their time on giving.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights was his last great vision. Asper died in October 2003 and Babs Asper passed away four years ago. 

Following her father’s death, Gail took up the campaign for the museum and through her tireless fundraising and lobbying efforts over the course of a decade, managed to bring her father’s vision to fruition.

 In recent years, Gail has been the most visible member of the family in the Jewish and general community in Winnipeg. She co-chaired the CJA campaign for two years and is a prominent supporter of the arts here. 

Goldstine said the funds raised from the dinner will be divided evenly between the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s endowment fund and a CIJA project of the Asper family’s choosing.