Ignat Kaneff arrived in Canada in 1951 with $5 and was worth more than a billion dollars when he died last month at 93. A man who had to leave school in Bulgaria after the seventh grade, he gave tens of millions of dollars to universities, in particular the University of Toronto’s campus in Mississauga, the city where he built his fortune, and York University.
“He saw education as important and he saw Mississauga as important,” said Robert Prichard, a former U of T president. “He was a supporter of Erindale, as it was then called, but is now the University of Toronto Mississauga.”
Mr. Kaneff, known to his friends as Iggy, taught himself everything from carpentry to how to run a large business and always kept learning and reading, said his wife, Dimitrina Kaneff. He built large parts of the city of Mississauga, starting small and ending with a vast real estate empire.
Ignat Kaneff was born in a remote Bulgarian village, Gorno Ablanovo, on Oct. 6, 1926. There was no electricity, so no radio. Water was fetched from a well. He recalled seeing a car or truck only a couple of times a month. His family – father Hristo, mother Mita and their six children – lived in a house shared with cousins and a grandmother, a total of 18 people.
“Despite the sheer density of Kanevs [the original spelling] per square foot, privacy was never an issue because I was unaware the concept existed,” Mr. Kaneff wrote in a book published in 2019, Becoming a Somebody: The Biography of Ignat Kaneff.
In 1936 he helped his father build a house just for their family. It was his first construction project. After finishing grade school, he worked on the farm and then at a local co-op, where he discovered he was a born salesman. He also started a small egg business, buying from farmers and selling at the co-op.
Bulgaria was on the German side in the war. Ignat’s father encouraged him to work at a market garden in Austria, figuring it would keep him out of uniform. The 14-year-old travelled on a train for the first time through Serbia and Hungary to Austria. He soon picked up some German and was working as a salesman rather than in the fields.
As the war intensified, a bomb blew the roof off the barracks where he bunked. One day Adolf Hitler visited the Austrian town, and one of the young Bulgarians with Ignat was almost beaten for not raising his arm as commanded – he could not speak German. On his 17th birthday, in 1943, Ignat went back to Bulgaria for a short visit. He wound up staying for five months because the military had eyed him for service. His father helped him buy his way out, and he was back in Austria in 1944.
After the war, he stayed in Austria and built a successful market gardening business. Bulgarians all over Central Europe were doing the same – people used to say they were “going to the Bulgarian’s” when shopping for veggies.
Mr. Kaneff knew the Bulgarian government, now part of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, wanted him back for military service. He managed to sell his business and buy tickets to Canada for himself and his first wife, Katarina, in a private cabin, and arranged to have $6,000 (about $60,000 today) sent to Bulgarian contacts in the United States – only to lose it all because of currency restrictions. He arrived in Toronto with just $5, which he blew when a taxi driver took him on a long trip to a friend’s apartment that was only a few blocks from Union Station.
He and Katarina stayed with a friend while he washed dishes and worked at just about any job to eke out a living.
By chance one day he went to Toronto Township – then with a population of 10,000, today, as the city of Mississauga, with a population of 800,000 – and landed a job as a labourer with Shipp Construction. He soon moved up to carpenter, using skills he had learned in Bulgaria and Austria when he helped rebuild bombed-out buildings after the war.
For a short time, he and his wife lived in a garage. He then bought a lot and built a 725-square-foot house with the help of friends.
He borrowed $4,000 from a woman whose garden he had helped keep tidy. When he tried to repay her, with interest, she refused. So that money partly replaced the grubstake he hoped to use to start his business. Ten years later, he paid to build her a house.
Early in his building career, Mr. Kaneff pledged $2,000 to the Mississauga Hospital, promising to pay over a couple of years – then the largest donation to date of the hospital’s fundraising campaign. Grenville Davis, a Brampton lawyer and father of future Ontario premier Bill Davis, asked: Who is this man Kaneff? He then sent potential home buyers Mr. Kaneff’s way.
Kaneff Construction prospered. It went from building houses in subdivisions to apartment buildings, office towers and other commercial real estate.
In 1968 he returned to Bulgaria for the first time in 24 years. He was shocked by the way his family was living. He built his parents a house, bought his brother a Mercedes and, over the years, built community buildings in his hometown, as well as supporting education in Bulgaria. He was always a proud Bulgarian, and his daughters, Anna-Maria and Kristina, said they spoke Bulgarian at home with their parents.
There was one business Mr. Kaneff did not do well in: A General Motors car dealership that sold Cadillacs. He was amazed at the complexity of the business and how hard it was to find good workers. Early on, his manager spent the annual advertising budget in bowling magazines. Mr. Kaneff knew that people who frequent bowling alleys didn’t buy Cadillacs. He sold the dealership after a few years to concentrate on real estate.
He got hooked on golf after playing a few rounds with friends. He went to one private course and asked about joining. The pro laughed and said they didn’t take Bulgarians as members.
He joined another club and later would build his own golf course, Lionhead, on Mississauga Road, but because of the way he’d been treated many years earlier, he made his course public so anyone could play.
Mr. Prichard played with him often, making small bets on the round or individual holes. ”He played every day, he knew every inch of his courses – and he loved to win,” Mr. Prichard said. “In the 30 years I played with Iggy, I never took money home at the end of a golf game.”
Mr. Kaneff received honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, York University and the University of Ruse in Bulgaria.
(Despite his lack of formal education, he encouraged his two daughters to pursue higher education. Anna-Maria went to Georgetown University and Harvard Business School; Kristina attended Columbia University, Oxford in Britain and Osgoode Hall Law School.)
He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2016. The citation read: ”Ignat Kaneff is a builder in every sense of the word. Since establishing his own construction company over 50 years ago, he has built homes, highrises, plazas, office towers and golf courses, serving as a major driver of economic growth in the Peel Region. Yet he is also known as a community builder who is often the catalyst behind initiatives in education, health care, the arts and social services. His generous philanthropy has enriched the lives of residents in his city and in Bulgaria, his country of birth.”
When he came to Canada in 1951, he planned to stay a while, make some money and return to his market gardening business in Austria – once the Bulgarian government stopped looking for him, as arrest and extradition remained a possibility. At his daughter Kristina’s wedding in February, he said: “Canada is the greatest country in the world. Canada is great – but you have to earn it.”
Mr. Kaneff died at home in Mississauga on July 12.. He leaves his wife, Dimitrina; their two daughters, Anna-Maria and Kristina; a daughter, Heidi, from a previous marriage; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A son from his previous marriage, Daniel, predeceased him.