David Cohen: A Tribute to a Canadian Immigration Icon
On May 14, 2021, David Cohen passed away at his home in Montreal while surrounded by his adoring family.
He had defeated cancer several times before but lost this battle at the age of 74. Countless friends, current and former colleagues, even competitors paid their respects to David’s family — because no matter who you are in this space, you cannot deny that David Cohen is a legend.
Talk to anyone, anywhere in the world who wants to immigrate to Canada. Chances are they are a little closer to their Canadian dream thanks to David.
He was an entrepreneur and immigration lawyer — he would be the first to say he was not a tech guy, but he understood the role technology plays in people's lives.
Initially, David launched CanadaVisa.com to attract new clients to his law firm, Campbell Cohen. Eventually he would offer free online tools that newcomers might need, such as Loon Lounge, which was labelled by the Toronto Star in 2009 as a “Facebook for prospective immigrants”. Today, CanadaVisa has evolved into something greater than a lead generator. It is its own digital ecosphere, where anyone can learn about Canadian immigration and interact with a community of like-minded individuals. It has become more influential than David could have ever imagined.
In the early 1990s, before CanadaVisa was born, David was at a crossroads in his life. He needed a solution that would allow him to balance business and family.
Along came the Internet. It occurred to David that he could attract clients to Campbell Cohen from anywhere in the world without leaving Montreal. He got home from another trip to Asia and hired help to get the ball rolling.
CanadaVisa was launched in 1994, and David’s practice shifted focus from foreign investors to skilled workers. At that time, if you wanted to immigrate as a skilled worker, you needed to speak with a government official or a lawyer to see if you were eligible. It was the dawn of the information age and many immigration lawyers thought it would hurt their business to publicize too much online.
David was the outlier, the disruptor, the forward-thinker. CanadaVisa offered a points calculator so anyone with an internet connection could assess their eligibility for immigration on their own. He also launched a newsletter in 1996 and then CIC News so he could provide Canadian immigration updates to a global audience. These initiatives became so popular that countless law firms and consultancies have since followed suit.
Introduced in 2000, the CanadaVisa Forum became an important resource for immigrants going through the process. They could ask their questions and get help from others for free, or even recommend competitors. David chose to separate the interests of the law firm from the user experience, despite some of his colleagues' advice. The point was to help as many newcomers as possible.
Helping people was an important part of David’s character. In his younger days, he stood up to bullies and mean landlords. He possessed a natural inner strength, always choosing his battles and fighting worthy struggles. His godmother was the first to say, “David, you’re going to be a lawyer.”
They were a tight-knit family. His parents, Solly Cohen and Rachel Farovitch, always lived in small two-bedroom apartments where David shared a room with his younger brother, Sheldon. They visited their grandparents every weekend, and spent Jewish holidays with their aunts, uncles, and cousins. David would hear his grandfather Sam Cohen talk about coming to Canada on a boat by himself at age 16, fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Poland. As the Holocaust took hold of Europe, he begged a Canadian immigration officer to let his sister come join him, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. After that, she was never heard from again.
David learned at a young age that government decisions have real consequences on people’s lives. Abuse of authority was his enemy. Injustice did not live in David Cohen’s world. He stood for fairness and fought for the underdog. He carved his own way in the world, where others may follow but no one could stand in his way.
As a teenager, the ever-popular David Cohen cared less about studying, and more about dating and sports. Although he was exceptionally bright, he did not always excel in the classroom. Later in life, he would brag that he once failed a course with a grade of eight per cent.
That all changed when he began studying law at McGill University in 1969. Poor performance and feedback in his first year pushed him to work harder. By the end of the program, he was one of the top five students in his class.
But he did not start practicing law right after graduation. Instead, he pursued a business opportunity in New York, selling high-end purses with Brazilian designer Carlos Falchi. He loved it. The fabric, the textures, and the colours all appealed to David’s artistic and aesthetic side. He embodied the hippy movement of the 70s, listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, and anything that had meaningful lyrics.
He began his practice in 1976, a few years before a new Immigration Act was to take effect. Canada became one of the only countries in the world to offer business immigration programs, which became the catalyst for David’s early career. The Act also introduced the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, which David put to good use in 2015. He spearheaded an initiative to sponsor a Syrian refugee family with the help of immigration lawyer David Berger, and the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. It was so successful they were able to sponsor two families in the end.
David would go on to have a 45-year career in Canadian immigration law. He fought for an immigration system that was fair and non-discriminatory when he challenged Bill C-50 in 2008. The proposed bill would allow the immigration minister to speed up certain applications. He warned Parliament and the Senate that giving the minister such discretion may allow for discrimination to seep into the immigration system. Despite his efforts, the bill was passed.
When David became a father, he connected to immigrants on a new level, for many of them come to Canada seeking a better future for their children. All David wanted was the best for his kids. He was the type of father who would step out of meetings to take their calls. He would show up to their games. Every morning he would make them breakfast, and cook each one their favourite style of egg. His children, Cassidy, Chelsea, Olivia, Riley, Ethan, and Eli, were his pride and his joy.
Some said his business was his “seventh child.” In recent years, he employed some 60 staff at any given time. He respected people who spoke their mind for the betterment of the company. As in all things he did, David pursued only excellence, nothing less. He pushed to drive CanadaVisa, and CIC News to be the most popular private-sector websites on Canadian immigration — and he succeeded.
Though he may have come off as harsh and intimidating to his employees at times, David deeply appreciated the people who worked for him. They were his dream makers. His family. Some employees called him their second dad.
If you ever had a conversation with David, his intelligence would probably strike you first. He spoke slowly. Deliberately. Each sentence had been crafted to perfection before it reached your ears. His mind, a library of unknowable volumes. Certain sections were open to the public, some were reserved for friends and family, and a few were just for him. He rarely talked about himself, preferring to remain a bit of a mystery.
Near the end, few of his colleagues knew how sick he was. He continued overseeing the company until his final day. Ask a parent to stop caring for their child — that’s what it was like telling David to stop working.
Over the course of his career, David helped millions learn about the process of moving to Canada, and created a legacy that will continue to help millions more beyond his time. Immigrants contribute to Canada’s prosperity, cultivate diversity, and uphold the spirit of multiculturalism. By helping so many in one lifetime, David has made Canada a better place to live for us all.
David also looked back at his own life with fondness.
When he felt like his life was soon coming to an end, he told Lisa Grushcow, his rabbi: “If this is it, I don’t feel cheated. I feel so blessed that this is the life I’ve lived.”
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