Recognizing Potential

Skateboard park donor gave the gift of the past to leaders of the future.

Written by Janet Walker and Arvel Gray

Posted May 11, 2021

Jim Burns spent his life giving back to his community. As a philanthropist, the Winnipeg business leader was instrumental in founding what’s now called the Manitoba Museum — a centennial project heralded in 1967 as one of the best in the country. He also supported vital educational projects like the James W. Burns Leadership Institute and the Barbara Burns Food Innovation Laboratory, named for his late wife.

But Jim’s proudest achievement was helping to create a world-class skateboard park in downtown Winnipeg. Some adults considered skateboarders to be nuisances who “carved” and “alley-ooped” on building ledges and parking ramps because there was no place else to go. Jim’s commitment to building the Plaza at The Forks — the country’s largest and best skating plaza — was an acknowledgement that young people mattered and that they deserved a safe place to practice their sport.

Jim believed young people could achieve great things if given enough encouragement and support.

He also knew that the key to creating a better future for our children is to give them the gift of history. That’s why, when Canada’s National History Society launched a new “company of Adventurers” program in 2015, Jim Burns was the first to answer the call. “Probably half the country knows little or nothing about our history,” he said.

Jim joined the “company of Adventurers” because he believed that history has the power to transform the present and to shape the future. He believed that sharing our stories with each other brings us closer together as a country — just as sharing the gift of a skateboard park can bring people closer together as a community.

A graduate of the Harvard School of Business, Jim served as president of the Great-West Life Assurance Company and, later, as director emeritus of Power Corporation of Canada. In 1989, he was invested into the Order of Canada. James W. Burns died in Winnipeg in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine, leaving a legacy of projects that shaped his country, his province, and his community.

Jim received many awards and accolades in his lifetime. But among his most treasured possessions was a box of letters, sent by people young and old, thanking him for helping to build the Plaza at The Forks skateboard park.

It opened in 2006 thanks to a gift from The James Burns Family Foundation and has since welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors. It has also inspired countless young people along the way.

Jim kept those letters as a reminder that investing in Canada’s youth can pay incredible dividends — especially if we also give them an appreciation for community and knowledge of the history of their country.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2021 issue of Canada’s History.

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