Toronto
5 min

High life & good works

Giving till it feels great

SHOW ME THE MONEY. Philanthropist Salah Bachir wants your money for the 519 Community Centre's capital campaign. "I believe in it so much," says Bachir in a surprise announcement, "I am going to give $750,000 to it." Credit: Guntar Kravis

Salah Bachir’s eyes are twinkling as he works the room. He’s got a secret. Sallying forth in a billowing black suit adorned with a single sparkling brooch he offers an air kiss here, a glad-hand there. Bachir encounters June Callwood and dips into a curtsy as he kisses her hand.



As co-chair of the capital campaign at the 519 Community Centre, Bachir mounts the podium at the campaign launch earlier this month. He gets in a few laughs and a few digs while making introductions. When presenting Alison Kemper, The 519’s executive director, he teasingly reveals that she is an ordained United Church minister. Taking the mic, Kemper asks the audience, “Does anyone have any dirty little secrets about Salah?” MPP George Smitherman heckles from the audience, “Who doesn’t?”



Salah Bachir is in his element.



As the reigning bad boy of charitable causes, entrepreneur Bachir can always be counted on to wrest plenty of other people’s money into the coffers of needy causes. But when it comes to fundraising, Bachir can also be counted on to put his own money where his mouth is.



And therein his secret is revealed – Bachir intends to donate three-quarters of a million dollars of his own money to the 519 Community Centre. As Bachir said earlier, “I believe in it so much I am going to give $750,000 to it.”



The 519 is in desperate need of more space. So popular are its programs that rooms are booked for three different events in one evening. Bachir and co-chair Michelle Douglas are officially launching the $5-million, three year building campaign that will see available space increase by 70 percent.



With his donation Bachir has brought the campaign 15 percent closer to its goal. But for Bachir, fundraising and charity work are a way of life. He has dedicated himself to causes such as the Waladi Foundation, Casey House, The Inside Out film festival, Buddies In Bad Times Theatre and the Art Gallery Of Ontario among others. Both the Variety Club and the Metropolitan Toronto Community Church have given him merit awards for his efforts.



Entrepreneur Bluma Appel, chair of the Canadian Foundation For AIDS Research (CANFAR), says, “Some may know him differently in other situations but my experience is that Salah is the greatest, nicest, sweetest personality. I am in love with him. Without him we wouldn’t have CANFAR. The only thing I have against him is he promised me a lunch and hasn’t delivered.”



“I used to think he was a fundraiser,” says artist Stephen Andrews, a close friend for the past decade. “For years I didn’t know what he does.” Bachir’s day job is president of Famous Players Media which produces the magazines and commercials found in that theatre chain.



Bachir sums up his efforts simply, “Different things are embedded in you since childhood. I don’t believe in God. That being said, I have a problem with people who are quite religious who say, ‘You can suffer all you want, you’ll be fine in heaven.’ For me it’s all about now, what can we do now? Fine, let’s have heaven as well, if it’s there.” Although an agnostic, Bachir can count the MCC, the Eastern Orthodox church, as well as several churches back in his native Lebanon on his list of charities.



Bachir is the fourth of five children. His family emigrated to Rexdale in 1965 after his father foresaw the approaching troubles in Lebanon. Both parents are still firmly entrenched in their Rexdale community. “They won’t ever leave. It’s the same house we’ve been in forever.” His family still maintains an olive oil business back in Lebanon (bottled, it’s called Salah’s Gold).



The Bachirs spoke French at home. “The Christian Lebanese taught French in school. It was their way of saying, ‘We’re not part of the Arab world,’ among other things,” says Bachir. He later attended the University Of Waterloo, studying history and political science.



Bachir still visits Lebanon twice a year and has a home there. And although he greatly enjoys time spent at his other house in Paris, Ontario, he calls his Toronto condominium home base. Overlooking Lake Ontario, it is a royal tomb of art treasures.



“I have always loved art. It has always been around. Doesn’t being gay and art go hand in hand?” says Bachir. From the famous, Picasso and Warhol, to those who will soon be famous, Bachir’s walls are encrusted with art. Instead of skeletons, his closets contain even more art.



Which brings us to Bachir’s other passion – supporting and collecting art. His friendships with artists extends to patronage. “My life has benefited from knowing him,” says Andrews. “It is really great when there are people on the ground supporting you in some way. Salah is more like a producer, making sure that you can do what you do. He is involved in a dialogue with the creative process. He’s open to things. He’s there right out of the gate.



“Salah participates in the culture. There is this myth of corporate funding of the arts, but there is only a handful of those who do it – and he is one of them.”



Bachir shoots straight from the hip when describing himself. “I am pretty forthright, I think. And I know what I want and I think I’m not someone that is afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. At the same time I do take great care, I think, that I don’t necessarily want to step on someone to get somewhere. I am not one of those people.”



But some have described him as elusive. “I am not slippery or elusive. I think I am more guarded. I am out there when I want to be, in the different ways I want to be.



“I may be not be fitting into anyone’s pattern of what I should be doing or should not be doing. A few years ago at Fashion Cares I was dressed as a bride. I was described by Jeanne Beker as having the elegance of a bride with the arm of a quarterback.”



Obviously, he is having great fun being Salah Bachir.



And stories of Bachir’s exploits apparently need no exaggerating. Although Andrews declines to illustrate his friend’s adventures, he will say, “Sometimes I live vicariously through Salah. He is definitely a bachelor.”



Bachir’s “out there” public persona is balanced by honest self-perception. “I am 47. I have earned every fucking day. I have no problem with age. I have no problem with weight. I have no problem with who I am. If there wasn’t a bear movement, I would have invented it. I take such advantage of it… about 70 extra pounds of advantage.”



Mixing the high life with good works, Bachir isn’t easily intimidated. Raising money for CANFAR, he was put on the spot when a woman once asked him, “What if I don’t give you the money?” His response? “I laughed and said, ‘I’ll get it from some other bitch.’ And she looked at me and she gave me the money.



“I don’t think there is a difference between people as such – some people can write a cheque for $50,000 and someone else can knock on doors and get you the things you need. Or someone can volunteer at a function. People should contribute whatever way they can.”



* For info on the 519’s capital campaign, goto www.the519.org or call (416) 392-6874.