Metropolis businesswoman leaves nation’s biggest-ever particular person donation to Winnipeg Basis – Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg businesswoman Miriam Bergen was not one for the spotlight, but had an extraordinary life.
The daughter of prominent apartment developer Martin Bergen, she took ownership of the family business and spent her life using her wealth to help others, often anonymously.
When she died suddenly earlier this year at the age of 66, no one could have guessed her final act of kindness would be leaving approximately $500 million — the largest donation from an individual made to a Canadian charity in history — to The Winnipeg Foundation.
Miriam Bergen (Cole Breiland / Winnipeg Free Press files)
“I was stunned by the generosity,” foundation board chair Tom Bryk said Tuesday.
“The number was, quite frankly, unimaginable.”
The Winnipeg Foundation announced the massive donation at the Fairmont Hotel Tuesday morning. It comes in the form of shares in Appleton Holdings Ltd. — it employs more than 200 people and operates as Edison Properties — which Bergen owned and served as president of before her death.
The Winnipeg Foundation was established in 1921. It is Canada’s first community foundation, a public charitable organization built through gifts of all sizes that are pooled and permanently invested. The interest earned generates a sustainable source of support for local projects.
Survived by three pets she loved dearly and her partner Louise Redekop, Bergen had no heir to pass on the company to. Years ago, she contacted the foundation to discuss how she could donate and keep her family company’s legacy alive.
In many ways, the staff at Appleton Holdings were her family, too, Bergen’s cousin Doris Gietz said. Ensuring the Bergen legacy wasn’t sold off and dissolved after her death was one of her final wishes.
“Once she knew that the foundation would work whatever they needed to do — because I don’t believe it’s been done before — to ensure that it could stay as an intact business, then she knew that she’d made the right connection in terms of looking after those family members, they were family for her, and finding a way to give back to the community,” Gietz said.
Sky Bridges, with Tom Bryk (centre) and Doris Gietz, Bergen’s cousin, said where the money will go remains to be seen. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
It’s the first time The Winnipeg Foundation has received a donation in the form of private shares. After being contacted by the executors of Bergen’s estate a few months ago, the foundation began working with Appleton Holdings management to transfer ownership of the company, which could take up to another year. In keeping with Bergen’s wishes, Appleton Holdings, which owns and manages 27 properties around the city, will continue operating as usual.
The funds are unrestricted, meaning the foundation is free to use them as it sees fit, and will be distributed over a number of years. Where the money will go remains to be seen, foundation CEO Sky Bridges said, but the gift will be factored into the organization’s upcoming four-year strategic plan and Vital Signs 2022 report, a Canada-wide program meant to assess the needs of cities across the country. A more detailed plan for how the finances will be used will, ideally, be released in February.
“This stunning support from Miriam Bergen and her love for our city for all who live here will help us address Winnipeg’s most-pressing needs and challenges today and in the future,” Bridges said. “And our strategic plan will give an indication of how we will achieve this.”
Bergen was not a fan of the glamorous lifestyle some in her tax bracket would be quick to align themselves with. Intensely private, Gietz joked the very event held to announce her donation would be one she’d be likely to skip.
A photo of Bergen as a child with her father, Martin, and mother Ruth. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
She was unassuming in nature and found joy in simple, inexpensive hobbies. She would wait patiently to photograph the birds in her backyard, particularly chickadees. She loved the discography of ABBA, Frank Sinatra and Cher. She put her whole heart into family connections both near and far — she loved Halloween and would sew costumes for her cousin’s children — and used her interest in her family’s genealogy to trace relatives across the world and hold a large family reunion. She collected stamps, pennants, pins, coins and memorabilia from the 1939 film Gone With the Wind.
A lover of both the Winnipeg Jets and Blue Bombers, she was often found in box seats, but her down-to-earth attitude shone through — before one Jets game, when she realized she had a spare ticket, she invited a stranger she had met outside of Canada Life Centre to join her.
Her father was born in Schoenhorst, Ukraine and immigrated to Canada from Germany. He and his wife Ruth Bergen, also an immigrant, were businesspeople who founded a painting and decorating business out of their basement before getting into apartment development. Raised poor, Martin Bergen became involved in philanthropy after founding Appleton Holdings (formerly called Marlborough Developments) and supported multiple charities before his death in 2017.
Miriam Bergen’s father was a strong influence in her life both in trade and philosophy. She would help out as a child by collecting change from the laundry machines in her parents’ buildings and learned the business by his side. When she took over, she kept her parents’ devotion to community service front of mind.
The Winnipeg Foundation received approximately $500 million donated by the late Miriam Bergen. From left: Tom Bryk, on the board of directors of The Winnipeg Foundation, Doris Gietz, Miriam Bergen’s cousin and Sky Bridges, CEO of The Winnipeg Foundation, at Fairmont Hotel. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)
While some saw her as a wealthy business owner and a generous — if not mysterious — donor, Gietz said she held their relationship as a “sisterhood” dear to her heart, particularly in the final decade or so of Bergen’s life. She was a wonderful person — to be able to single-handedly transform the giving power of the city’s community foundation spoke to the kindness she exhibited every day.
“I think that’s amazing to be able to accomplish that, and then on top of that, to be able to realize a way that she could financially support people in need in the city,” Gietz said. “That to me is just — you think about philanthropy, and the root is in humanity and love for humanity — and she had a love for humanity.”
The Winnipeg Foundation distributed $84.9 million to about 1,100 charitable organizations in the city in 2021.
The first “large” donation The Winnipeg Foundation received was $10 million from the Asper family in 2000. The next year, the Moffat family sold its media holdings and donated $100 million. The overall donation of $150 million from the Moffat family to The Winnipeg Foundation is the second-largest individual donation ever received by the organization.