The son of a dentist, Leo Kolber grew up in Montreal. He attended McGill University beginning in the late 1940s. It was there that he met and became lifelong friends with Charles Bronfman. Kolber was also mentored by Charles’s father, Samuel Bronfman, who reportedly admired Kolber’s business smarts. In his book The Canadian Establishment (1975), Peter C. Newman wrote that “Sam treated him as a son and Leo worshipped Sam as a father.” As Kolber wrote in his 2003 memoir, “My relationship with the Bronfmans has been compared to that of Tom Hagen’s consiglière to the Corleone family in The Godfather — I was a surrogate son and adviser to the father and a friend and counsellor to the sons. I was brought into the family as an outsider and became privy to its secrets.”
Kolber was the founding chairman of the Cadillac Fairview Corporation, one of North America’s largest real estate companies. It was responsible for developing Toronto’s Eaton Centre and Vancouver’s Pacific Centre, among many other ventures. He also chaired Cemp Investments and Claridge Inc., two companies that administered the Bronfman family trust.
A long-time advisor to the Bronfman family, Kolber was instrumental in the Bronfman family’s acquisition of MGM in the 1960s. He reportedly opposed Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s decision to sell Seagram’s 25 per cent share of DuPont in order to purchase MCA-Universal Studios, a move that ultimately led to Seagram’s downfall.
Kolber was well-connected politically. He was friends with former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres since 1950, and had close ties to Canadian prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, among other prominent figures. Kolber was reportedly instrumental in helping Mulroney become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1983. Kolber was also Chairman of the Liberal Party’s National Revenue Committee under both Pierre and Justin Trudeau, making him the party’s chief fundraiser for many years.
Kolber was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1983. He served on the Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce for many years and was its chairman from 1999 to 2003. In this role, he was the driving force behind the Chrétien government’s decision to cut the capital gains tax. Kolber retired from the Senate in 2004 and was chair of the Advisory Council on National Security from 2005 to 2007.
Kolber’s memoir, Leo: A Life, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2003. He died at the age of 90 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Leo Kolber was married to Sandra Kolber (née Maizel) for 44 years until her death in 2001. Sandra Kolber was a writer and film consultant. She served as director of the board of the CBC and vice-president of the Executive Committee of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. She was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and received a Governor General’s Award for voluntarism in the performing arts in 1994.
Leo and Sandra had two children together, Lynne and Jonathan. Jonathan Kolber is a private equity investor who has served as chairman, CEO or director of more than 60 companies in North America and Israel. Leo Kolber was married to his second wife, Ronith Hirsch-Kolber (née Gandell), from 2013 until his death in 2020.
Leo Kolber was a member of many corporate boards, including for MGM and SuperSol Supermarkets. He was also chairman and director of the board of Cineplex Odeon Corporation (1998–2000), the president of the board of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and the director of the boards for the Seagram Company Ltd. (1971–99) and the Toronto Dominion Bank (1971–98).
Charity and Philanthropy
With his first wife, Kolber founded the Sandra and Leo Kolber Foundation. He also established the Senator Leo Kolber Fund for Parkinson Biomarker Research and the Sandra and Leo Scholarships for cinema at Concordia University.