Winnipeg Foundation willed $500M, largest gift to a Canadian charity by an individual

Doris Gietz, Miriam Bergen’s cousin, holds a photograph of the late philanthropist at Tuesday's announcement. (Warren Kay/CBC - image credit)
Doris Gietz, Miriam Bergen’s cousin, holds a photograph of the late philanthropist at Tuesday's announcement. (Warren Kay/CBC - image credit)

The Winnipeg Foundation says it has received the largest gift ever made to a Canadian charity by an individual — a $500-million bequest by a local business owner who died earlier this year.

"It is with immense gratitude I am here today to announce a gift that will be transformational for our community," board chair Tom Bryk said at a news conference Tuesday.

The money was left to the foundation, which distributes grants to charitable organizations in Winnipeg, in the will of Miriam Bergen, who died in January.

"Many of you may not necessarily know Miriam Bergen or the Bergen family," Bryk said, calling her a "quiet philanthropist."

Their name, however, is now part of "an incredible legacy that will have a positive impact on our city for generations to come," he said.

Prior to Bergen's gift, a $150-million endowment from the Moffat family, owners of a cable and broadcasting company, was the single largest gift ever given to the Winnipeg Foundation.

Bergen was owner and president of Appleton Holdings, a privately held company that carries on business as Edison Properties.

"We are honoured and humbled by the trust she has placed in us and for her love of our community," Bryk said.

The announcement was made on Giving Tuesday, an annual campaign designed to celebrate charitable acts.

Touted as a "global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world," Giving Tuesday follows the year's most frantic shopping weekend, bookended by Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Greg Thompson, the research director with Charity Intelligence, says Giving Tuesday isn't nearly as big in Canada as it is in the U.S. Canadians made an estimated $44 million in donations on Giving Tuesday last year, but that only amounted to a small portion of the $18 billion they donated in total in 2021, he said.

But Thompson said the donation to the Winnipeg Foundation, which he's been told will be an endowment fund, with about $25 million given out annually, is huge.

"It's a wonderful amount of additional funding going into Winnipeg charities and I truly hope that the Winnipeg Foundation will be able to give that money out to very high-impact charities in the Winnipeg area," he said during a Tuesday interview with CBC Manitoba's Up To Speed.

Bergen's gift is also unique in that there are no strings attached to how the money can be spent, says Susan Phillips, who teaches at Carleton University's school of public policy in Ottawa.

"It signals an interest in ensuring the gift is distributed in a knowledgeable way, for which the Winnipeg Foundation has a very good reputation," Phillips said.

Major gifts are more commonly dedicated to a big project like building a hospital or funding medical research, she said.

She believes previously, the largest gift given by an individual in Canadian history of $117 million was made to the Calgary Foundation in 2013.

A 'visionary for our community'

Appleton Holdings was founded as Marlborough Developments by Bergen's parents, Martin and Ruth Bergen. Appleton owns and operates residential and commercial buildings in Winnipeg under the Edison Properties brand, many of them in the North Kildonan neighbourhood.

Those properties will now support the Winnipeg Foundation's work, as Bergen's gift includes the shares of Appleton.

Doris Gietz, Miriam Bergen's cousin, reiterated what Bryk said about the philanthropist's preference for anonymity.

"Miriam was intensely private. It's quite possible that she would have chosen to skip this type of event," Gietz said.

"She was an unassuming person and did not like the spotlight. Today, however, I feel it's important that we should shine a light."

Bergen loved dogs, photographing birds and attending every Blue Bombers home game, both Gietz and the philanthropist's obituary said.

She collected a variety of things, including stamps, coins, pennants, pins and memorabilia from the 1939 film Gone With the Wind.

Bergen was also interested in genealogy, tracing her family's roots at a time when it took more effort — well before Google — then connecting with a number of relatives around the world and organizing a large family reunion.

"Miriam Bergen will be remembered as a visionary for our community," said Winnipeg Foundation CEO Sky Bridges.

"This stunning support from Miriam Bergen, and her love for our city and all who live here, will help us address Winnipeg's most pressing needs and challenges today and in the future."

The Winnipeg Foundation is Canada's oldest community foundation, created in 1921 by William Forbes Alloway and his wife, Elizabeth Alloway.

In 2021, it distributed $84.9 million to approximately 1,100 charitable organizations in the city. In the past 100 years, the foundation has granted more than $780 million.