He never ran for public office, never accepted a seat in the Senate or an appointment as Governor General. Still, Paul Desmarais was a singular political force in Canada for more than five decades. The most powerful francophone in the country, he knew and influenced, in small ways or large, every Canadian prime minister and Quebec premier over the past five decades. He negotiated a business deal with Maurice Duplessis, argued against separation with Quebec premiers Daniel Johnson and Réne Lévesque, helped prime minister Pierre Trudeau open up relations with China by becoming a founding chairman of the Canada China Business Council in 1978 and kept in close touch with succeeding prime ministers, no matter their political affiliation, including Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
The personal was both political and financial for Mr. Desmarais, the Franco-Ontarian takeover artist and corporate strategist who parlayed a failing Sudbury bus company into Power Corp. of Canada, the multibillion-dollar global industrial, financial and communications empire. He died Tuesday night surrounded by his family at Domaine Laforest – his extensive estate with its own helipad and golf course and enough acreage to put some principalities to shame – in the township of Sagard in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. At 86, he remained the controlling shareholder of Power Corp., although he had handed over the daily management of the company to his sons, Paul Desmarais Jr. and André Desmarais, in 1996. With a fortune of $4.5-billion, he was ranked the fourth-richest Canadian by Forbes magazine.
“My family is related to his family through our grandchildren,” said Mr. Chrétien, whose daughter, France, married Mr. Desmarais’s son, Andre, in 1981. By then, the two men had known each other for nearly two decades. “He was a very good friend and a very successful example for everybody,” Mr. Chrétien said. “When people like to complain of the mistakes of the past, Mr. Desmarais was the best example to prove that if you work hard, you can succeed in Canadian society.
“He was a modest man, a great Canadian and I am very proud to have known him for so long,” Mr. Chrétien said.
“I loved him like a brother,” said Mr. Mulroney, a close friend for nearly 50 years. “He was one of the most significant players in Canadian economic history.”
Mr. Mulroney said that Mr. Desmarais “believed that happiness comes from sharing it,” so he endowed hospitals, universities and artistic initiatives. A dedicated art collector whose tastes ranged from Jean-Paul Riopelle to Cornelius Krieghoff, he gave a $ 10-million donation to the 1991 capital campaign of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and had the pleasure of seeing his father’s name, Jean-Noël Desmarais, mounted on the Moshe Safdie-designed pavilion.
Paul Martin said he was “a young lawyer who had decided he didn’t want to practice law” when he joined Power Corp. in 1966. Less than two years later, Mr. Desmarais acquired the company, and asked Mr. Martin his intentions. “I want to quit and go off on my own,” was the reply. To which Mr. Desmarais said: “Why don’t you hang around for a couple of months? I’m sure I can keep you busy.”
Thirteen years later, Mr. Martin was still there, principally because of his boss. “I had such huge respect for him. He was a tremendous visionary and his integrity was beyond question,” he said. “He had a global vision. He wanted to build a great Canadian company, but he wanted it to have a global footprint. He was consistently one step ahead of where conventional thinking was, so for me it was a tremendous 13 years,” said Mr. Martin, who ended up buying Canadian Steamship Lines, the company he managed for Mr. Desmarais, from Power Corp. in 1981.
'A MODEL FOR MANY YOUNG FRENCH-CANADIANS'
A little more than six feet in height, handsome, with a commanding gaze, Mr. Desmarais liked playing cribbage and poker and admired innovative and powerful leaders. “I respect greatly men of strong personalities,” he told l’actualité magazine in 1974. “If I had to name some, I’d say Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Mao Zedong.”