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Izzy's Way will be easy to find

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Izzy Asper

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Izzy Asper

Winnipeg's city council will soon be asked to consider a request to rename a portion of Waterfront Drive in honour of the late Izzy Asper, one of the city's great citizens who was responsible for at least $100 million in funding being poured into the community through his foundation, corporate donations and personal gifts.

Mr. Asper was also the visionary who developed the idea for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and who secured federal support for the project in the early years of its development. The museum is probably his single greatest contribution to Winnipeg and the nation, so it is only right and fitting that the street in front of the towering edifice bears his name.

It should be a simple decision, despite the fact the city doesn't like to rename city streets, particularly if it involves changing an existing historic name, or if the change would cause an expense to businesses that would be required to change their letterheads. Other considerations include safety issues -- name changes can be a problem for emergency services -- and GPS systems also depend on reliable and consistent street names.

None of these concerns are relevant in this case, however, because there are no businesses on Waterfront Drive in The Forks and the existing name is relatively new. Nor would police or firefighters have any trouble finding Izzy Asper Way, directly in front of the museum.

The museum's CEO, Stuart Murray, requested the name change last May, but the wheels of city hall have been slow to turn. The delay means there probably will not be enough time for a name-changing ceremony on Oct. 7, the 10th anniversary of his death.

The request appears to have been delayed because the city prefers to use honorary name changes, similar to the installation of Mahatma Gandhi Way on York Avenue between Main Street and Waterfront Drive.

That was an appropriate decision for a variety of reasons, including the fact York is a historic name, but a mere honourary title for Mr. Asper would be an insult to his legacy.

Winnipeg is one of the few major cities that names streets after its outstanding citizens -- mayors, premiers, long-serving councillors, philanthropists and business people. The names Bannatyne, Ashdown, Luxton, Garry, Donald, Smith and Hargrave all stem from this tradition of paying tribute to the people who made a difference or played an important role in the life and success of the city.

Most cities use a numbered system, which may be a lot more convenient. Winnipeg tried that method briefly in the 1890s, but eventually decided it preferred a city with character. It got rid of the numbers and reinstalled the old names.

Mr. Asper's name already adorns numerous buildings and institutions in Winnipeg, but there has been no official recognition of his importance since his death.

His contributions, moreover, are not relegated to the past, as was the case with so many of the people whose names are remembered on street signs. The Asper Foundation, which he created in 1983, is one of the largest private foundations in Canada. It hands out millions of dollars every year, including $100,000 to the United Way.

His children, Leonard, David and Gail, have also carried on the tradition and each manages their own private foundations on behalf of the community.

In that sense, Izzy Asper is the gift that keeps on giving, and will in perpetuity, since the Asper Foundation was established as a permanent institution. As he told his children before his death, the foundation was to be regarded as his fourth child.

Renaming a street is not enough, but there will be time for more honours in the future.

For now, rather than delaying the process, city council should consider how it can speed it up in time for a major announcement on Oct. 7.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 A14

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