During the 1980s, you couldn’t avoid the bespectacled face of Edgar Kaiser in newspapers and magazines. CEO of Kaiser Resources and the Bank of B.C. Owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Denver Broncos. Standard-bearer of the famous Kaiser family. Then he disappeared.
Edgar Kaiser Jr. is in his kitchen making me a cup of coffee. Two days earlier, shortly after they moved in to their modest new West Vancouver home, his wife Sue fell and broke her ankle while walking their dogs. “Go in and say hello,” he urges me with an encouraging smile, indicating the direction of their bedroom. Her leg propped up and clearly in some pain, Sue Kaiser is warm and polite. But she can barely keep her eyes open, so I make myself scarce.
A once-controversial corporate icon, at age 68 Edgar Kaiser still cuts an imposing figure as he hands me a dainty china cup with one hand and reaches for a ubiquitous Marlboro with the other. Despite his obvious concern for his wife, and the post-move detritus of unopened boxes and the clatter of men at work fixing a leak in the basement, he is solicitous and welcoming, as are his two boisterous golden retrievers, who quickly stake out a spot at his feet.
This relaxed, casually clad, still larger-than-life elder statesman is probably best remembered by those of us who toiled in downtown Vancouver in the 1970s and early ’80s as the swashbuckling, buttoned-up young mogul parachuted into B.C. by a giant U.S. corporate behemoth to light a fire under our sluggish raw-materials sector. Kaiser soon gained notoriety as much for his playboy lifestyle as his high-profile corporate exploits on both sides of the border, heading such organizations as Kaiser Resources, the Bank of B.C., the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Denver Broncos.
Although he still retains memberships in some of the world’s most exclusive private clubs so that he and Sue can stop and socialize with old friends or enjoy a round or two of golf while on the move, the trappings of Kaiser’s once jet-setting lifestyle – the oceanfront penthouse apartment in Vancouver’s West End, the fabulous 150-foot yacht Calliope, the sports franchises, the private plane and the luxury downtown offices on Hastings and Georgia streets – are now long gone. Kaiser has also shed the heavy mantle of one of the biggest industrial and health-care dynasties in American history, which included Kaiser Permanente, now the largest not-for-profit health-care provider in the U.S.
As a young high flyer, Kaiser’s face, framed by his famous owlish glasses, was front and centre in North American business magazines from Fortune to Equity. While his business and personal adventures were once great media fodder, he makes it clear that his past peccadilloes are now old news. He is, he says, a different man. Indeed, for over 25 years, Kaiser has assiduously shunned the media spotlight unless it helps raise awareness for his new life’s cause: unravelling the tangled scourges of addiction and mental illness.
In 1984, starting with a $3-million personal endowment, he established the precursor of today’s Vancouver-based non-profit Kaiser Foundation. It was one of the first organizations in Canada to lobby governments to address addiction and mental health – which together cost our economy more than $70 billion annually – as public health, not moral, issues. The foundation has promoted and funded some of Canada’s most focused research in the field of mental health and addiction. It has recognized and supported innovative community-based programs, participated in a long list of task forces and government initiatives to change policy, and produced public education materials that are currently accessed by a host of Canadian and international agencies. Kaiser has also personally lobbied governments across Canada and badgered the private sector to do its part because he believes government alone cannot resolve such health problems. In 2003 his efforts garnered him the Order of B.C.
When Edgar Kaiser calls, politicians listen. B.C. Health Minister Kevin Falcon says Kaiser was one of the first lobbyists at his door after he assumed his portfolio in June 2009: “Over the years, Edgar has contributed a great deal to policy development in the areas of addiction and mental health. These two issues affected his own family, so he speaks with genuine passion and conviction. There is no sense that he’s in it for personal recognition.”
Longtime supporters, such as B.C.’s provincial health officer Perry Kendall, say Kaiser’s efforts have been a real catalyst for change. “By facilitating a provincewide consultation process in 2001, Edgar was instrumental in convincing the provincial government to invest $10 million in the Centre for Addiction Research at the University of Victoria,” says Kendall. “It enabled us to attract high-profile researchers and do some very important epidemiological studies that are adding significantly to our understanding.”
Kaiser says he stays the course because Canada needs strong, healthy communities, where people living with addiction and mental health problems can access services that work and become productive members of society: “When I started out on this path, I wasn’t thinking about mental illness. But we now know there’s a big connection between substance abuse and mental health disorders and that because these issues are rarely treated concurrently, people are falling between the cracks. That has to change.”