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A conversation with Leonard Schein: independent cinema founder and philanthropist

Tides Canada donor Leonard Schein

Tides Canada donor Leonard Schein

You may recognize Leonard Schein as the former owner of much-loved independent cinemas in Vancouver, including the Fifth Avenue Cinemas, the Park Theatre, and the Ridge Theatre. Or, perhaps you know him as the founder of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). But there are a few things you may not know about Leonard Schein.

Originally from Los Angeles, Leonard arrived in Vancouver in 1973 after a two year detour in Regina, Saskatchewan where he received his MA in Psychology. In Vancouver, he taught psychology at multiple local community colleges. After a few years of teaching, Leonard decided to take a risk and follow his passion for film by leasing the Ridge Theatre in Kitsilano in 1977. He went on to lease several independent cinemas across the city and founded VIFF in 1982, which has grown to be the second largest film festival in Canada.

When he retired in 2014, Leonard announced that he would be re-focusing his efforts on another life passion—philanthropy.

In addition to donating to Tides Canada and a selection of charities through his familys Schein Foundation, Leonard volunteers his time as Chair of the Canadian Cancer Prevention Centre Foundation and the board of directors for Inspire Health, Coast Mental Health, and Ecojustice. In October 2015, Leonard received the City of Vancouvers Mayor’s Arts Awards for Philanthropy for his contributions to arts and culture, as well as philanthropy, in the city.

Tides Canada is honoured that Leonard is an ongoing donor and supporter of our work. We recently had the opportunity to ask him about why he gives and his perspective on why philanthropy matters. 

Can you tell us about how your love for philanthropy developed?

I was born in 1948 right after World War II. I grew up Jewish and my parents made me very aware of what had happened to Jews in Europe and the six million [who perished]. I also grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s and San Francisco in the 1970s where there was the big Civil Rights movement followed by the Anti-Vietnam War movement. And so, from an early age I was aware of inequality in society and racism.

This is why when I opened up the Ridge Theatre. One of the things I wanted to do was show movies to educate people on issues – in terms of feminism, racism, the military-industrial complex, and things like that. I did choose a lot of films throughout my film history that I thought were progressive and showed how people wanted the world to be better. I was very lucky that my theatres were very successful and so I did have money to give back.

Why do you support Tides Canada?

What I appreciate is that Tides Canada is multifaceted in what it does, not only addressing environmental issues but socio-economic issues. And I think, besides climate change, the biggest issue facing society right now is inequality between the top 1% and the bottom 99%. Tides Canada has a good understanding of these key issues. It was one of the first organizations that was dealing constructively with climate change and engaging in social impact funding. One size doesnt fit all. Tides Canada is good at looking at different models to tackle problems and is unafraid to do things differently.  

There are many good organizations that one could give to, but it would take a lot of time and energy for an individual to figure out how to do it and proportion it. For somebody who isnt familiar with specific organizations, Tides Canada is a good organization to donate to because you know it will go to something good. You dont have to do all the homework yourself.

When you donate to Tides Canada you are combining one individuals money with another individuals money so that it can have greater impact.

Why do you think it is important to support charitable work in general?

Well, everyone is aware of how important climate change is and how we have to reduce our carbon footprint. If you live in Vancouver, you see the homelessness problem. I dont know how one can live comfortably and ignore all of those problems.

As an individual there are a limited amount things you can do – you have your time, you have your money, and you have your vote. We can all do something. You can bring up your children well with good values, you can treat people well, and you can give your extra time and money.

What words of wisdom would you share with people who are interested being philanthropic, but dont know where to start?

The first thing is to find out what you are interested in and what bothers you most about whats not being done. We are pretty lucky now that there is so much online you can look up depending on your particular interests, whether it is education for women in Africa or getting kids involved in sports. You have to start with something that you think is important. Follow your heart and your pocketbook with that.

What do you hope to accomplish as a philanthropist?

To make things better for people. To make the world better. Im one individual and Im not as wealthy as some. But with what I do have and while Im alive, I want to have my money do things I really believe in. 

At Tides Canada, we share Leonard’s vision of making things better for people and building a better Canada. You can help us tackle tough environmental, social, and economic issues by making a donation to our Uncommon Solutions Fund. The impact of your gift will be doubled from now until the end of the year as a result of a $1-for-$1 match from another generous donor.

Thank you to Leonard and to all of our donors. With your support, we will continue to work hard for a healthy environment, equality, and prosperity for all Canadians.

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