Harvest what has been sown, philanthropist tells grads

When Ignat Kaneff came to Canada from his native Bulgaria almost 60 years ago, he landed without local language skills or higher education. Kaneff’s journey from those first steps on Canadian soil to being one of the nation’s leading real estate developers and philanthropists was hard fought. It was formative, he told graduating students of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, and played a pivotal role in shaping both his business ethic and his dedication to promoting equal opportunity through higher education.

“When I arrived, I had no money or friends,” Kaneff said. “And by no money, I mean to say that I had five dollars when I first arrived in Toronto, and by the time I took a taxi east of Yonge on Queen Street, my five dollars was gone. I slept in a garage for four months.”

A lifetime since that taxi ride, Kaneff was centre stage on Wednesday, Oct. 13, to receive an honorary doctorate of laws degree during York’s 2010 Fall Convocation ceremonies for his role in building Canadian communities and accessible education.

Ignat Kaneff

In 1956, Kaneff founded his own home and land development business, Kaneff Properties Limited, and since that time has built thousands of homes, buildings and world-class golf facilities. With his strong belief in the community, Kaneff has also contributed generously to many charitable organizations and initiatives across the Greater Toronto Area, as well as York University and Osgoode Hall Law School.

During those early days, Kaneff told graduates, he was no different than many other immigrants, and it was partly through their efforts that Canada is now a leader among world nations. “I was in good company,” he said. “With passion and vision, we the immigrants – many of them your grandparents – built this nation into the mature and respected economic force it is today.”

While the country is rich in human and natural resources and forging ahead in scientific research and building intellectual capital, there is still much to be done, he told graduates, to improve the quality of life for all Canadians. “Unfortunately many children go to school every day on empty stomachs. One in 10 Canadian children lives in poverty. That’s 637,000 girls and boys who start their days hungry.”

Kaneff highlighted infrastructure problems as another area that requires leadership and action. “Our infrastructure system has turned major roads into big parking lots,” he said, “and instead of spending quality time with their families people commuting to work are forced to spend unnecessary hours on the road.”

The answer to these problems, said Kaneff, lies with the graduates of York University: “You are the answer.”

Above: From left, York Chancellor Roy McMurtry, Ignat Kaneff and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

He recounted returning to Ontario, in 2005, after visiting his daughter who had just started her MBA at Harvard’s business school. The beauty of the Harvard campus stood in stark contrast to what he described as the “bleakness” of Osgoode Hall Law School.

“I asked Dean [Patrick] Monahan how Osgoode expected to attract foreign students and he answered that there was no budget for renovations,” said Kaneff, who suggested a fundraising campaign. He offered to participate and donate to the effort to rebuild and renovate the law school’s aging facility because “it takes teamwork to get things done.”

Halfway through the fundraising efforts, assistance came from the provincial and federal governments through the Federal-Provincial Infrastructure Program. That teamwork, vision and imagination, said Kaneff, are seeds that have been sown.

“Your parents and grandparents cultivated and seeded the land,” he said. “Now you must help harvest it. You must become the leaders and managers of the greatest country in the world.”

Canada, said Kaneff, needs determination, effort and commitment from its new graduates. “More than that, we need to ensure that we have planted in you the desire to succeed.”

Now is the time for the University’s graduates to invest in their country and communities, said Kaneff, who urged the law school’s grads to give back with time, energy and financial support to hospitals, libraries, art galleries, school programs and their alma mater.

He asked grads to remember their roots and to strive to make a difference. “Your grandparents have built the foundation, but it is you who will construct the mansions and towers on their legacy of hard work and knowledge.”

York’s 2010 Fall Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Kaneff’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.