The agony and the ecstacy

Sam Katz, Winnipeg's first Jewish mayor,
expressed mixed feelings
on election night


H e's Winnipeg's first Jewish mayor. But for Sam Katz, winning the mayoralty race in one of Canada's biggest cities June 22, 2004 prompted mixed feelings.

"It's agony and it's ecstacy," he said of his landslide victory, as media and supporters swarmed around him at his election night celebration at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. "It's ecstacy because of what you said - the first Jewish mayor. And it's agony because neither of my parents are here to see this - and I know what this would mean to them."

Katz was born in Rehovot, Israel, in 1951. His parents, Holocaust survivors Chaim and Zena Katz, emigrated to Winnipeg with him and his older brother David when Sam was four months old.

The family started their new lives on Dufferin Avenue, in the city's fabled old North End, and Chaim ("Hymie") worked as a baker.

Chaim was a simple man, notes a 1998 Jewish Post & News profile of Sam. He never learned English, but spoke six or seven languages, and Sam and David grew up, speaking mainly Yiddish at home.

"We called each other all sorts of names in Yiddish," Sam recalled in that 1998 interview, chuckling about arguments he had with his mother.

Zena Katz was the go-getter in the family. She taught herself English, and had lots of drive and business skill. The family moved to West Kildonan when Sam was 13, and he graduated from West Kildonan Collegiate. Zena encouraged Sam to go to dental school, partly because Jewish doctors and dentists were spared in concentration camps, a June 24 Winnipeg Sun story recalls.

He completed one year, tired of it, and majored in economics instead, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba.


Katz started his working career by opening a clothing store in Brandon, sold it for a profit, and opened another in Winnipeg, on Kennedy Street.

He followed that with some real estate ventures, and ventured into the entertainment industry, buying the former Indian and Metis Friendship Centre on Stradbrook and turning it into the Manitoba Recreation Centre, where held socials, as a business.

A few years later, he founded Showtime Productions, organizing concerts, and booking acts ranging from the Rolling Stones to Tina Turner. Katz also played a key role in converting the former Odeon Theatre to its early- 20th-century glory as the Walker Theatre, since renamed the Burton Cummings Theatre, staging Broadway musicals and other events there.

In the early 1990s, he starting working to bring professional baseball back to Winnipeg. Katz became president and CEO of the Winnipeg Goldeyes Baseball Club, part of a new Northern League, reviving the name of a past local pro-baseball team. Operating out of Winnipeg Stadium, the team won the league championship, in its 1994 inaugural year.

After meeting considerable resistance from City Hall, he arranged for the building of Canwest Global Ball Park, which opened in 1999, and often plays to sellout crowds in its 7,500-seat downtown stadium.

Katz has received a wide variety of awards over the years for his volunteer work and fundraising for community causes, ranging from the YMHA Builder of the Century Award to the Order of Manitoba and the Queen's Jubilee Medal.

Asked what triggered his decision to run for mayor, weeks after other candidates, Katz told The Jewish Post & News he didn't initially intend to join the contest to replace Glen Murray, who stepped down to run (unsuccessfully) in the June 29 federal election.

"I wasn't planning to join before I decided to join, which was a day before I announced." He married Baillie Burke, another Jewish Winnipegger, in 1998, and they have a three-year-old daughter, Ava Beaudry.

"My family was a major factor, and the fact that I had really good staff at the Goldeyes," he said of his reasons for joining the race. "I knew they could run the operation," he said of Goldeyes staff. "And on top of that, I started believing I could do a much better job than the politicians that were running."

"It had nothing to do with the fact that if I wanted, I could be the first Jewish mayor. That wasn't even in my mind...I believed I could be a good mayor and I wanted people to be treated fairly.

"I don't care anything about your background. If you have a good idea for the city, then you should be treated for respect, and they should be embracing your idea.

"And you know what else? I got tired of everybody criticizing everything, but nobody doing something. And my philosophy is, my parents taught me, if your life is good you give back to your community.

"And number two, you're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution. If you stand around and do nothing, you're part of the problem. I wasn't going to stand around and do nothing any more."

Katz offered Winnipeg's Jewish weekly a sample of his wit, when asked how it feels to be Winnipeg's Jewish mayor, immediately after Glen Murray, Winnipeg's first gay mayor.

"How do you know he was the first?" Katz snapped back. "You don't know."

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