Spirit of Harry Leikin, a ‘pioneer of Nepean,’ lives on through family enterprise

Renowned community activist and real estate executive Barbara Farber has continued a family tradition of working hard at business while doing good work for charity
Barbara Farber is president of real estate developer Leikin Group. photo by caroline phillips
Barbara Farber is president of real estate developer Leikin Group. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

Behind every building is a story of what came before.

Take College Square, for example, a busy open-air shopping mall located on Woodroffe Avenue and Baseline Road, next to Algonquin College. It’s got your giant supermarket and home improvement retailer, beer and liquor stores, bank, restaurants and clothing stores.

But at one time it was farmland owned by a Russian Orthodox Jew named Harry Leikin. He came to Canada at age 25, on Dec. 4, 1925, to escape the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in his homeland.

For the first couple of years, Mr. Leikin did whatever jobs were available to him in Ottawa, from watchmaking to tanning, in order to afford the first-class passage to bring his wife and children to Canada, as well as his sister.

Then, he “scrimped and saved and saved and scrimped” to buy a piece of property that was, in those days, in the middle of nowhere.

“Jews had never been able to own land in Russia, and it was his dream and his passion to become a landowner,” says his granddaughter, Barbara Farber, 65, a long-time community leader and president of Leikin Group, a privately owned Ottawa company focused on real estate development and property and asset management.

At first, Mr. Leikin earned his living buying and selling cattle. He would drive out to the country in his little red truck to do business, always with a supply of candy for the farmers’ children. Out of respect for his religious dietary laws, the farmers knew he was allowed to eat eggs and would serve him a dozen hard-boiled eggs for lunch.

Eventually, Mr. Leikin switched over to dairy farming and kept as many as 300 Holsteins. A barn fire in 1969 forced him to move the dairy operation to another piece of property at what is now home to the South Merivale Business Park and RCMP national headquarters. By now, he had acquired significant real estate holdings in Nepean.

“He really was a self-made man who was a tough businessman but 100 per cent fair in every way,” says Ms. Farber. “He mellowed when he became a grandfather and more so when he became a great-grandfather, but throughout his lifetime he was honest and truthful and proud of his religion and his background.”

Mr. Leikin, one of the pioneers of Nepean, gave up some of his property for the building of Algonquin College. He started slowly selling off other parcels to housing subdivision developers.

He left his mark, though: Leikin Group and First Capital Realty own the redeveloped College Square. It opened in late 2002 and early 2003, replacing the Shoppers City strip mall built in 1961.

Ms. Farber – the eldest of the grandchildren – started working for her grandfather after graduating from university in 1972. She was 21 and newly married to Len Farber.

The discussion had taken place over a traditional Shabbat family dinner. Ms. Farber had been visiting from Toronto and was excited about meeting with management recruiters on her campus at York University.

“My grandfather listened to me and he finally said, ‘Listen, young lady, this all sounds great, but I’ve been waiting a hell of a long time for you to grow up. I need you in the business.’”

Ms. Farber took care of the accounting and made sure the farmhands got paid on time, in keeping with the biblical proverb: Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due. She still remembers rushing down to the CIBC at Rideau and Sussex to withdraw the necessary cash before the bank closed at 3 p.m.

“Some of those big galoots were the warmest, sweetest guys,” says Ms. Farber, recalling how the foreman, while still a bachelor, temporarily moved in with her grandfather to keep him company after he became a widower. She did bail a few  farmhands out of jail, though, for bar fights and minor assaults.

Ms. Farber has two sons, Steven, who’s presently working for former British prime minister Tony Blair, and well-respected Ottawa chef Michael. Throughout her career, she’s always been highly active in the community. She was founding board chair of both the Queensway Carleton Hospital Foundation and the Algonquin College Foundation. She’s on the board of the Community Foundation of Ottawa and is currently the first female chair of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation board.

“What fills my life more than anything right now is the volunteer work,” says Ms. Farber. “That is what my passion is and what it’s always been. I know it sounds like a cliché to say you get more out of it than you put in, but it really is the truth.”

Five things to know about Barbara Farber 

  1. Of all her roles, her favourite is that of bubbie (Yiddish name for grandmother). She and Len welcomed their first grandchild, Reagan Francis Rose, a year ago.
  2. Ms. Farber was the first female president of the Agudath Israel Congregation. She followed in the footsteps of her father, well-respected educator Stan Katz, and her grandfather, who was founding president. Their three-generation leadership was a first for the congregation.
  3. One of the best pieces of advice came from her mother, Libby Katz. She told her brother before his trumpet performance with the Nepean High School band: If you don’t know, don’t blow. “I think that applies for life in general,” says Ms. Farber.
  4. One of Ms. Farber’s worst moments was during the Ice Storm of 1998. The power outage meant they couldn’t operate the milking machines. It was dark, freezing and the cows were ready to explode with milk. “It was a nightmare,” recalls Ms. Farber. “My heart was aching for those poor animals. There’s an old adage: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Well, I called in every favour.” A backup generator was eventually found.
  5. Nepean High School history teacher Bob Erlandson was Ms. Farber’s absolute favourite. He was young, energetic and very cool. Years later, her son Michael brought home his future wife, Leah. Guess who her dad is? Mr. Erlandson.