Burns mourned as business titan and proud Winnipegger


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James Burns may have been a modern-day captain of industry, heading Great-West Life Assurance, living in other major North American cities at times and sitting on numerous board across the country, but Winnipeg was always home to him.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/02/2019 (1390 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

James Burns may have been a modern-day captain of industry, heading Great-West Life Assurance, living in other major North American cities at times and sitting on numerous board across the country, but Winnipeg was always home to him.

Burns died on Feb. 11. He was 89.

Jim Carr, minister of international trade diversification and the former president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, said Burns’ death is a great loss.

Jim Burns in front of a Group of Seven painting (Iron Ore Country Labrador, 1938) in his office in 2014. (Sarah Taylor / Free Press files)

“It’s a loss for our community, but it is time to reflect on his wonderful contribution to his city and country,” Carr said Thursday.

“His legacy will live on for a very long time.”

Carr said he met Burns in 1974, when he was hired to be executive director of the Manitoba Arts Council, and that conversation created the foundation for a friendship which lasted for decades.

“Winnipeg benefitted from his love of the city… he was a leader who led by example, and he really was a terrific guy.”

Premier Brian Pallister said in a statement that “we are saddened to hear of the passing of James W. Burns, a proud Winnipegger and a great Manitoban.

“Jim contributed immensely to making life better in our province, each and every day. My deepest condolences to his friends and family.”

Burns was born in Winnipeg to Dr. Charles Burns and his mother Gladys, and grew up in Tuxedo. His brother, Charles, was a medical doctor who was one of the founders of Canada’s trauma system.

After graduating from Gordon Bell High School, Burns went to the University of Manitoba and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in commerce. He went to the Harvard School of Business and began working with the Great West Life Assurance Co. as soon as he graduated with a master’s degree in business administration in 1953.

Nineteen years later, Burns was president of the company. He also served as deputy chairman of Power Corp. of Canada — GWL’s parent company. He served on myriad boards and organizations, including chairman of the Conference Board of Canada, founding director of the Council for Business and Arts in Canada, chairman of the prime minister’s advisory committee on executive compensation in government, and Honorary Colonel of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

Burns also was a philanthropist who was instrumental in founding the Manitoba Museum, CentreVenture, and the skateboard park at The Forks.

Burns was honoured by receiving the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba, and being inducted into Manitoba’s Business Hall of Fame.

Through the years, Burns never forgot his local alma mater and the university never forgot him. The James W. Burns Executive Education Centre there is named after him. Burns himself created history, nursing and graduate studies awards for students as well as naming the Barbara Burns Food Innovation Laboratory after his late wife in 2006.

“Jim Burns was a great friend to the University of Manitoba,” David Barnard, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, said in a statement.

“I was privileged to have spent time in personal conversation with him, and his consistent pride in this university, and commitment to helping it do more, and be better, never failed to inspire.”

Burns was predeceased by his wife in 2003, and is survived by two sons, one daughter, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.


Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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