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George Cohon's son, Mark Cohon, announced the 86-year-old's death Saturday on social media platforms.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

George Cohon, who played pivotal roles in establishing the McDonald’s fast food empire in Canada and Russia, died on Friday at the age of 86 at his home in Toronto.

His son, Mark Cohon, announced his death Saturday on social media platforms.

“The man who spoke with presidents and prime ministers, and whose optimism transformed what seemed to be an unchangeable world, was happiest and most content sitting under the loggia at this Palm Beach home and cruising on McHappy III with his family,” noted a letter Mark Cohon posted on LinkedIn. (McHappy III was his 48-foot yacht.)

In Mr. Cohon’s colourful career, he rubbed shoulders with figures such as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mikhail Gorbachev, Brian Mulroney and Bill Clinton. In a reaction posted on X, formerly Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called him “an accomplished businessman who never stopped giving back.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Cohon practised corporate law there until 1967, when he bought a McDonald’s franchise agreement covering Eastern Canada and moved to Toronto. He opened a McDonald’s restaurant in London, Ont., the following year. McDonald’s was then largely unknown in Canada, having opened its first restaurant in Richmond, B.C. – its first outside the United States – the previous year.

Businessman George Cohon led McDonald’s into the Soviet Union

Thus began a remarkable expansion. McDonald’s opened its 50th restaurant in Canada by 1970. According to a profile by the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, McDonald’s reacquired Mr. Cohon’s licence in 1971, at which time he became chairman, president and chief executive officer of McDonald’s Canada.

Within a decade of his arrival, there were hundreds of franchises – and by the time he stepped back from managing its day-to-day operations in 1992, the count had surpassed 1,000. McDonald’s Canada says it now operates more than 1,400 restaurants and employs 90,000, serves 2½ million customers daily, and buys more than 30 million kilograms of ground beef annually.

In 1990, McDonald’s Canada opened the brand’s first restaurant in the Soviet Union. Mr. Cohon’s crucial role led to him being credited as the man who brought the Big Mac to the Soviets, an event regarded as key in the opening of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution. The optimism accompanying that moment has been extinguished: McDonald’s pulled out of Russia last year after the invasion of Ukraine.

“It was a huge symbol of how the communist regime was becoming more westernized,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University’s management faculty who researches food.

“You needed people like George to really move the needle in terms of unifying the world. And I’m not sure it would have happened without him.”

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Mr. Cohon was noted also for supporting numerous charitable organizations and community groups, some of which offered tributes on Saturday. In a statement on X, the Toronto Zoo said it would fly its flags at half-mast in honour of the man who opened a McDonald’s there in 1974.

In its own statement, the Original Santa Claus Parade said Mr. Cohon “brought millions of smiles to the faces of Canadians.” He was among a group of businessmen who intervened to rescue the long-running event after Eaton’s withdrew its sponsorship in 1982. McDonald’s Canada has remained a sponsor through the 119th annual parade, held on Sunday in Toronto.

Mr. Cohon’s numerous honours included Companion of the Order of Canada, to which he was promoted in August. A service is scheduled for Tuesday in Toronto.

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