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If the voters of Manitoba had been kinder, Izzy Asper might have ended up as premier of the province - and ultimately faded into retirement as a jazz-loving elder statesman of the Liberal Party.

Instead, he built one of Canada's major communications companies, ignited a firestorm of controversy over media diversity and left a long string of fierce friends and bitter foes in his considerable wake.

Mr. Asper, who died yesterday aged 71, is a case study in how peculiar twists of fate, blended with the intelligence and nerve of a larger-than-life personality, can leave a huge imprint on a country's cultural and political life.

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As Liberal leader of Manitoba, he lost the 1973 provincial election to the New Democratic Party, setting in motion a chain of events that got him involved with the troubled Global Television station.

Global became the key building block of today's CanWest Global Communications Corp., his vehicle in the $3.2-billion takeover of the Southam newspapers in 2000, the media-convergence thrust that made Mr. Asper a household name.

"He was abrasive, litigious but also brilliant and charming," said Allan Slaight, a former partner in Global who, like many other people, fell out with Mr. Asper. He went on to acquire radio giant Standard Broadcasting Corp.

Mr. Asper was a man of prodigious appetites who chain-smoked Craven A's, feasted on fast food, loved martinis and worked far into the evening, listening to his beloved George Gershwin tunes until the early morning. His children worried about his health - he underwent bypass surgery 20 years ago - and in recent years leaned on him to lose weight.

Jim Sward, a former president of Global Television, said many spectacularly successful people are obsessive about their work, but Mr. Asper had a capacity for balance. "He had an interest and a passion for music, for Canada, for the West, for Winnipeg, for Israel."

Despite the constant battles, he was the kind of person who could shift into a rock-solid calm when the going got tough, as it often did.

Right to the end, Mr. Asper, who was desperately afraid of boredom, was making waves, often indirectly through his deputies and his family, particularly his three children, whom he no doubt considered his greatest legacy.

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Indeed, his combative world view was clearly at work in his son Leonard's recent scathing critique of CBC reporter Neil Macdonald's coverage of Mideast politics, another focus of the father's take-no-prisoners personality.

It also reflects how inextricably the Asper persona was defined by being Jewish, not in a lip-service way, but in every fibre of his being, including his philanthropy. (Izzy always saw his charitable foundation as a kind of fourth child that should receive about a quarter of his lifetime wealth.) Combined with an intensely chauvinistic attachment to Winnipeg and Western Canada, it fostered a sense of being an outsider to the Canadian media and social mainstream.

That nose-against-the-window estrangement - some called it paranoia - was the wellspring of the incessant drive to express his opinions, setting off outrageous tiffs against what he saw as an Eastern Canadian establishment.

It wasn't unheard-of for Mr. Asper to be conducting four lawsuits at a time, and he tilted at prominent adversaries, such as moviemaker Robert Lantos or former business partners Paul Morton and Seymour Epstein. He was a mentor of buyout tycoon Gerald Schwartz, with whom he quarrelled and, later in life, made up again.

The irony was that this self-styled outsider from Winnipeg became the country's biggest insider: the most powerful media baron, the owner of the second-biggest private television network, the major newspaper tycoon and himself the target of charges that he was using this immense podium to suppress diversity. What's more, he was a powerful Liberal with a pipeline to the political leadership of the country.

Mr. Asper once said that this idea of being an outsider driving his ambition was a bit of a media joke. But he acknowledged a vow he had made that if he became successful, he would never leave Winnipeg for the bright lights of Toronto, as many of his friends had done.

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"I think that's negative for nation-building," he said. By staying in Winnipeg, he felt he was contributing something to the concept that Canada is not one little triangle consisting of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. If that led to the view that he was some kind of chauvinistic westerner, he felt, so be it.

"I have contempt for arrogance wherever I find it," he said. He particularly hated the not-invented-here syndrome that he found in Toronto or New York. "I don't resent it philosophically; I smile and laugh at it. But to the extent it gets in the way of where I'm trying to go, yeah, then I battle it and I battle it openly."

Mr. Asper's parents were both classical musicians, childhood sweethearts from Ukraine, who fled with their families after the Russian Revolution and reunited in Canada in the early 1920s. Leon Asper, a conductor, and Cecilia Zevert, a pianist, were married in 1924, and began performing across Western Canada, sometimes in the pit orchestras that accompanied silent movies.

The emergence of talkies compelled the Aspers to settle down in Minnedosa, Man., to run the local movie house, the Lyric Theatre, and there they raised three children, Aubrey, Hettie and Israel, known as Izzy.

The family moved to Winnipeg, where Izzy was clearly a prodigy, as a musician, a student and a zestful imbiber of all that life had to offer. He was a newspaper junkie whose great lifetime dream was to own the Free Press, the larger Winnipeg paper. (Ironically, hometown Winnipeg is the major English-language market where he did not own a newspaper property.)

Like many entrepreneurs, he had an uncomfortable relationship with his father, who wanted him to take over the family's small chain of theatres. To some extent, Izzy thought he lived in the shadow of brother Aubrey, who took on a teaching career. In his father's eyes, the law was not the high calling that he had envisaged for his son.

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Izzy became a renowned tax lawyer in Winnipeg, a move that took him into journalism as a columnist for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and as the author of a best-selling critique of Liberal finance minister Edgar Benson's tax reform of the early 1970s.

Conrad Black, who sold the Southam newspapers to Mr. Asper's CanWest, enjoyed Mr. Asper's colourful stories about how he came to infiltrate the WASPish Winnipeg establishment as a young lawyer.

"He was the anti-establishment figure but not in a nasty way, a chippy way," Lord Black said yesterday, adding that Mr. Asper was "always the outsider but with a happy ending."

Fascinated with public life, the young Izzy concocted a plan to become head of the provincial Liberal Party and present a right-wing alternative to the tax-and-spend New Democrats, thus winning the hearts and votes of the majority of Manitobans.

He won the leadership, but the NDP coasted to victory in the general election, leaving Izzy with a four-vote win in his riding. That led to his oft-repeated one-liner that he became known as Landslide Asper.

The idea of life in opposition didn't appeal to him, so he turned his attention to business, specifically broadcasting, winning federal approval to establish an independent TV station in Winnipeg. In fact, to get rid of a looming rival, Mr. Asper and his partners bought the assets of a North Dakota station and moved the gear to Winnipeg on a Labour Day weekend, where it became CKND.

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He was drawn into the consortium that assumed control of troubled Ontario super-station Global, creating a partnership with Mr. Morton, a Winnipegger, and Mr. Epstein and Mr. Slaight, both easterners. After a tense period, Mr. Slaight exited through a shotgun clause in the partnership agreement.

The other two partners stayed but later split bitterly with Mr. Asper, who felt they were blunting his restless ambition to create a third TV network in Canada to take on CBC and CTV. Even so, Global was a huge financial success with its controversial formula of buying lowbrow U.S. programming hits.

In the early nineties, Mr. Asper won control of Global in an auction with the Epstein-Morton team - against the best wishes of wife Babs, whom he once promised that he would spend only 10 years in business and the rest of his life in public service.

It was not to be. The children, all lawyers, had started to join the company, first Gail, followed by David and Leonard. With the $800-million acquisition of Vancouver-based WIC Western International Communications in 1999-2000, he finally got his national TV network.

Thoughts of legacy, succession and the future of CanWest in a maturing conventional TV market were big factors in Mr. Asper's embrace of the untested idea of media convergence, sparking his $3.2-billion deal with Lord Black.

Through it all, Mr. Asper remained closest of all to his wife. "He and Babs have been each other's greatest partner in life," Mr. Sward says.

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Like many people who incite extreme reactions, Mr. Asper won great loyalty from people who worked closely with him.

Peter Viner, who was Mr. Asper's deputy in a raft of jobs, including National Post publisher and president of CanWest, said yesterday: "I'm a bit melancholy. I've fought many campaigns with him. It's the passing of the era. I'm a little stunned. We're all a bit stunned." With reports by Keith Damsell and Richard Blackwell

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