Leanor and Alvin Segal have donated major sums to a variety of organizations – making a positive contribution all Montrealers

Leanor and Alvin Segal have enjoyed tremendous financial success – but it wasn’t always that way – and they remember the difficult and less affluent times of their lives. This is one of the prime motivations for their philanthropy. During our conversation, Leanor spoke of their commitment to Montreal; “Alvin and I appreciate the city, our people and the promises that could be kept.” Those last few words resonated with me for the rest of the interview; “…the promises that could be kept”.

Here are two people who use the fruits of their success to make a positive difference in the lives of others; identifying those promises – and making sure that they’re kept.

Leanor adds; “The three areas we support are education, medicine and culture. We’re pleased to be able to share our good fortune.”

Let’s back up a bit, and follow the road that led Leanor and Alvin to their activities as philanthropists.

Alvin Segal started working at Peerless Suits in 1951, one day after his 18th birthday. “I was originally from the States, and I couldn’t speak French at all. So university wasn’t an option. My stepfather owned Peerless, and I started by working in the factory.” Today, Peerless is North America’s largest suit manufacturer with 2,500 employees in Montreal; with 98% of the production exported to the United States and other world markets. “Every day we try do find a better way to do our business, one item at a time. The apparel industry is very competitive, and we try to stay ahead by constantly being innovative in every aspect of our business.”

Leanor grew up in what is now the trendy Plateau area, near the intersection of St. Lawrence and Pine. “At that time, it was an area immigrants were attracted to. My own grandmother who lived downstairs from us never learned to speak English – she lived her life in Yiddish.”
Leanor continues; “Our neighbours were Greek, Italian, Portuguese and of course French Canadian. In the street we spoke English and French.

We learned to be sensitive and comfortable with other’s cultures.”

The suit business in Canada was in very tough shape prior to Free Trade in 1989. Alvin knew that open trade with the United States would be a tremendous boost to the Canadian apparel industry, and indeed to many Canadian industries. He had worked diligently on behalf of his industry as an advisor to the Government on Free Trade issues. However, the delays in negotiations and the subsequent legislation were taking a heavy toll. “We were in a tight position before Free Trade. We had the key in the door and were ‘that’ close to closing down” Alvin ruefully comments, remembering those tough days. Then he raises his head with an incandescent smile; “Then my luck changed! Two great changes in my life. Free Trade went through, and Peerless had access to a market that was 10 times bigger. And even better…I met Leanor.”

Looking across at Alvin, Leanor adds; “It was a very tough time for the business – I certainly couldn’t be accused of marrying a rich man. But with hard work and determination our fortunes changed for the better.”

The company benefited greatly from Free Trade. All the discipline of innovation and quality meant that the company was able to virtually jump into the huge American market. “As you start being financially successful, you start looking for areas where you can help.” Alvin notes. “I’ve always had the latent interest to help others, but Leanor is able to put into words and action our desire to make a contribution. She acts as an advocate for both of us.”
Alvin has dedicated himself throughout his career for the betterment of the apparel industry, serving on a variety of provincial and national boards including: President of the Men’s Clothing Manufacturers Association, a member of the executive committee of the Apparel Manufacturers Institute of Quebec and of the Canadian Apparel Federation. He played a pivotal role in negotiations leading to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. In 1995, Alvin was inducted into the Order of Canada in recognition of his service to the industry. While most nominees often wait up to five years to be accepted, Alvin’s nomination was accepted right away.

The Segals have indeed made a positive difference in very tangible ways. “Our first was with the Yiddish Theatre at the Saidye Bronfman Centre” says Leanor. “The theatre had been supported for many years by the YMYWHA next door. After assuming the costs for the renovations to that building, the Y wasn’t able to continue with their support. We were in a position to provide the funds they required to continue, thus preserving Yiddish Theatre in Montreal, and an important venue for professional English theatre.” A promise that could be kept…

The Centre for Jewish Studies at McGill University was in danger of closing, lacking the funds to hire professors. An initial donation of $1 million from Leanor and Alvin provided the much-needed funding to save the program.

Perhaps the most dramatic undertaking was the couple’s $24 million mega-donation to the Jewish General Hospital and the funding of the new Cancer Centre. “We had participated in other campaigns for the hospital, and we were paid up,” Alvin said when asked about how their commitment was made. “Leanor and I were on our way to a meeting at the hospital, and we had decided that we had done what we could. We’d listen to their presentation – but we weren’t going any further.” Alvin continues; “We met with Johnathan Weiner, the President of the Foundation, hospital management and doctors working in the oncology field. They were embarking on a $200 million capital campaign and were looking for a lead donor. Leanor asked at lot of questions, and they had good answers for all of them.”

Leanor adds; “My parents had passed away from this terrible disease, and I guess I’m sympathetic to people working with cancer. I was touched and impressed by the compassion, knowledge and passion the doctors had for their battle against cancer. If they could still maintain their spirit and commitment while practicing medicine in Quebec – which is a difficult place for doctors – perhaps we should give them our support. These are modern day heroes – working in difficult circumstances to make people better; or in terminal cases – to help patients live their final days with dignity and grace.”

Alvin picks up the story; “We maintained our position not to commit. As we were leaving, I heard someone say, ‘I think we struck out’. Driving home, I commented to Leanor that I thought they’d turned the hospital around. I said to Leanor, ‘You know – we could do this…’ Leanor adds; “We couldn’t decide who should call – and so we ended up doing evens and odds. Alvin won.”

In less than thirty minutes, the Segals had decided to commit $24 million as the lead gift to establish the new cancer treatment and research centre at the Jewish General Hospital. Within 10 minutes of arriving home, Alvin was on the phone with Johnathan Weiner. “After I told him that Leanor and I were in – there was a silence for several seconds. I guess they really did think that we weren’t going to participate.”

Alvin continues; “When we started – I had no idea how important this was to the community. Everywhere we go; people thank us for helping to get this Cancer Centre up and running. The doctors and researchers are definitely making progress against this terrible disease.”

Leanor adds; “It’s gratifying to know that all Montrealers can benefit from the work being done at the hospital. 80% of the patients aren’t Jewish. They come from all of our cultural and ethnic communities. It’s the same with the doctors. It’s a reflection of Montreal.”

Another promise kept…

With the Segal Cancer Centre now up and running – it was time for Leanor and Alvin to re-dedicate their energies to culture. The Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre at the Saidye Bronfman Centre has been setting attendance records in recent years under the stewardship of Bryna Wasserman. The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre productions have has enjoyed success. After sold-out performances last spring in Montreal, their production of God of Vengeance toured to audience acclaim in several major European cities last fall. Recognition has also come from the Académie Québécoise du Théâtre with the English-language Production Award for last season’s production of Cabaret.

Building on this success in the performing arts, the Segals, in partnership with the Bronfman family and other corporate sponsors have committed to fund the transformation of the existing building into The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts. In addition to a second theatre, there are plans for rehearsal halls, a music academy, and a longer season of plays. Leanor is enthusiastic; “We’re in the process of helping Bryna develop her vision of the theatre’s role in the community. We hope that the Centre will continue being a vibrant cultural force in our city and strengthen its national reputation for excellence.”

Artistic Director Bryna Wasserman, noted in her introduction of the 2007/08 season; “The creation of the new Segal Centre for the Performing Arts is truly a precious gift to the arts community that we look forward to sharing with our audiences for many years to come.”

…and another promise that could be made…is kept

It’s hard to put a number on the number of Montrealers who have benefited from the Segal’s philanthropy. Is it the hundreds of teachers and students at the McGill Centre for Jewish Studies? Or the thousands of theatre patrons, actors, stage and production people at the Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre? Or the tens of thousands of patients, doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers at the Segal Cancer Centre and the Jewish General Hospital? We all benefit when talented people are enabled through the generosity of others to pursue their dreams…and to develop their talent – whether it be in education, theatre or medicine.

As our interview draws to a close, looking across at the love of his life, Alvin says; “As long as men wear tailored suits, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

“…the promises that could be kept.” Words to live by from Leanor and Alvin Segal.

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