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Power Corp. founder was one of Canada's most powerful figures

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MONTREAL -- Paul Desmarais, who took over a near-bankrupt family business to build a multibillion-dollar empire with political connections on different continents, has died at the age of 86.

The Ontario-born businessman remained a staunch Canadian federalist after he moved to Quebec, where he became one of the country's wealthiest and most powerful figures, whose influence straddled the worlds of business, politics and philanthropy.

His family said he died peacefully Tuesday evening at his country estate northeast of Quebec City surrounded by his family, including his wife and four children.

His Power Corp. was not only one of the country's largest conglomerates. It was a pipeline into the Prime Minister's Office, with Desmarais acting as business partner and mentor to several of the country's top politicians and, in the case of Jean Chrétien, he was even a member of the family.

His business empire included two Winnipeg-based financial-services-industry giants -- Great West Lifeco and IGM Financial Inc. -- as well as London Life and Canada Life, the oil company Total S.A.; the Pernod Ricard liquor company; and the Gesca newspaper chain, with its flagship Montreal La Presse.

Former Great-West chairman and CEO Ray McFeetors, who had known Desmarais since the 1970s, described him Wednesday as "arguably the best entrepreneur this country has ever produced."

He said Desmarais played a key role in the growth and success of Great-West Lifeco and IGM Financial.

He recalled one dinner in particular that was interrupted by a call for Desmarais from the president of France.

'(Desmarais was) arguably the best entrepreneur this country has ever produced'

¬-- former Great-West chairman and CEO Ray McFeetors

"That was the kind of circles he moved in."

One of Desmarais' other former employees, who went on to occupy 24 Sussex, recalled his efforts to protect national unity.

Paul Martin said his old boss played a key role in the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign, telling other business leaders to speak up in defence of Canada.

Although Desmarais riled many separatists, Martin said he was a great example during the 1960s Quiet Revolution, proving French-Canadians could succeed in business.

"The Quiet Revolution was a revolution that existed in many, many facets, but certainly one of them was the ability for Quebecers, for Acadians, for Franco-Ontarians and for French-Canadians right across the country to succeed and Paul Desmarais was the living symbol of that," Martin said in an interview.

"But he did it, really, with such grace and with such character and integrity I also think was part of that example he set."

Former political adversaries also offered their respects Wednesday. Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois described him as "a great builder who contributed to advance Quebec's economy."

That influence was exercised far beyond Quebec.

When Desmarais threw a housewarming party in 2003, the guests included two former U.S. presidents.

And Nicolas Sarkozy once credited him with helping make him the president of France. Sarkozy returned the favour in office, becoming the most ardent critic of Quebec independence among all the recent occupants of Paris' âlysée Palace.

His patronage of the arts included contributing to the restoration of the famous gardened estate of impressionist painter Claude Monet.

Buildings at universities in Montreal and Ottawa carry his name.

"Mr. Desmarais will be remembered as a unique business leader who improved the lives of Canadians through the creation of jobs and through charitable endeavours," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.

The path to power began in Sudbury, Ont., where he was born in 1927. He left law school to take over the family's ailing bus company in 1951.

A series of smart moves resulted in the creation of a holding company that in 1968 made a share-exchange offer with Power Corp.

With his company's diversified holdings in insurance, transportation, paper, media and financial services, Desmarais was one of the most notable members of his province's business elite, often referred to as Quebec Inc.

He was discreet when it came to discussing politics.

In terms of style, he was the antithesis of a Rupert Murdoch, who regularly uses social media to opine on the political story du jour.

But on rare occasions, he voiced his views publicly. During his last annual meeting as Power's chief executive in 1996, he extolled his belief in Canadian unity.

"My profound attachment to Canada stems from the great liberty and freedom that my ancestors were able to enjoy in building their lives in a new country; the same liberty and freedom which allowed me as a young French-Canadian from northern Ontario to realize his dream in building a business in all parts of Canada and abroad."

In a 1974 interview, he described some politicians he respected.

"I respect greatly men of strong personalities. If I had to name some, I'd say Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Mao Tse-Tung," he told L'actualité magazine at the time.

A private family funeral is planned, followed by a memorial service to be announced by the Desmarais family.

 

-- The Canadian Press

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2013 B5

History

Updated on Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 6:40 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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