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The black-tie crowd that jammed the ballroom of the Toronto Marriott Eaton Centre Hotel on Oct. 11 was hoping to catch a piece of human drama.

It had gathered to see Harrison and Wallace McCain, the battling brothers of Canadian capitalism, climb onto the same stage to be honoured with a leadership award by the country's most prestigious business school.

Would the brothers embrace, shake hands, or keep a cool distance? Expectations were running high, perhaps fuelled by a hunger for happy endings in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

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But the gala-goers were disappointed as news spread that Harrison, 74 and suffering from a weakened heart, had not travelled from his home in New Brunswick. There would be no reconciliation that night -- probably, ever.

Wallace, 71, in a moving speech, made it clear that nothing much had changed in the more than seven years since he was forced out of McCain Foods Ltd., the frozen-food giant that he and Harrison had built since 1957.

Confronting the question on everyone's mind, the silver-haired chairman of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. told the audience, "I'm not going to candy-coat that situation. It was a very hard thing for me to endure, to watch such a successful partnership go down the drain the way it did."

He said he couldn't pretend that the dispute was anything but "a fundamental disagreement about how the future of the company leadership was to be determined."

The tribute dinner, sponsored by the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, confirmed what people close to the McCains had known all along: The brothers' bitter succession dispute amounted to a divorce. As with any divorce caused by irreconcilable differences, the relationship could never go back to what it was.

"My father used to tell me a hundred years ago, 'Don't worry about anything you can't do something about,' so I don't," Wallace said later in an interview. "That's the way life is. [Harrison]goes on with his life and I go on with mine."

They shared the same bedroom growing up as farm kids in rural New Brunswick. As co-chief executive officers at McCain Foods, they seemed inseparable as driven builders of the largest frozen French fry producer in the world. They owned houses beside each other on a high hill over the Saint John River, near the head office in Florenceville.

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They spoke in the same voice, a rapid-fire lingo that, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna jokes, was so profane that if the four-letter words were removed, the two would have been rendered functionally illiterate.

In his Ivey speech, Wallace recalled what was lost: "Harrison and I were not just partners in title as co-CEOs, but much more than that. We tackled the minefields of our business together, almost as spiritual partners as well."

But these two proud men seem fated to go to their graves estranged from each other.

"They need to learn how to forgive," said Archie McLean, a consultant and public speaker who worked with both men at McCain Foods, but threw in his lot with Wallace after the breakup and served as CEO of Maple Leaf Foods after Wallace's family acquired it in 1995.

The brothers have at least learned to co-exist. They probably have little choice. Along with a sister, Marie, they are the survivors from a family of six children, and run into each other at weddings and funerals. Wallace keeps a long-distance vigil as his older brother battles health problems.

Both show up at board meetings of McCain Foods, where Harrison is chairman and Wallace is vice-chairman and still owns about a third of the shares. At the meetings, they maintain a contact that, according to observers, is businesslike but not tender.

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"It's a business meeting and business is discussed," said Howard Mann, president and CEO of McCain Foods. Wallace is always interested and insightful, although in interviews he expresses frustration that he still holds a large stake in privately held -- and illiquid -- McCain Foods.

But the dividing line is the same as in the early nineties: Wallace saw his son Michael, a cocky Ivey Business School graduate, as the natural successor to himself and Harrison; Harrison and other members of the family adamantly disagreed. Then the lawyers and spin doctors took over.

Forced from McCain Foods' executive ranks after an arbitrator's ruling, Wallace and his family moved to Toronto. Along with the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board, they took over underperforming Maple Leaf Foods in 1995, and Michael was promoted to president and CEO in early 1999.

Harrison's camp appointed Mr. Mann, a savvy British food executive, as president of McCain Foods, and designated Allison McCain -- a son of Harrison and Wallace's late brother Andrew -- as deputy chairman and his uncle's likely successor. Harrison and Allison were not available for interviews.

Harrison and Wallace now control two of Canada's largest food companies, with combined annual sales of more than $11-billion. Forbes magazine ranks both among the 500 richest people in the world, each with a net worth of more than $1-billion (U.S.) -- although the amounts are questionable, given the inexact science of valuing private companies.

Meanwhile, the debate continues unresolved: Which brother was right? On the face of it, McCain Foods, with $6-billion (Canadian) in sales, is the stronger company, an international powerhouse whose reach is summed up by its motto: One World, One Fry. According to the company, its sales have doubled over the past five years, and it has never experienced an annual loss.

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This year, it made its second-biggest acquisition, the $300-million purchase of the food service operations of Anchor Food Products Inc. of Appleton, Wisc. The move extends the company's diversification into frozen appetizers, such as stuffed jalapenos and deep-fried stuffed olives.

McCain Foods is a force in New Brunswick. Mr. McKenna told the Ivey dinner audience, "If you know New Brunswick, it is pretty well divided three ways -- the Irvings control at least a third of it, the McCains control about a third of it, and what's left over was my responsibility."

But Wallace's company, the publicly traded Maple Leaf, is a work in progress in a meat industry where margins are sliced thinly. The jury is out on Michael, now 43, and the next few years will be his test. His family says the business was a mess when they bought it, and they have worked to fix it. They have been aggressive consolidators and are bringing onstream a massive hog-processing plant in Brandon, Man. A bakery division has been restructured.

"If Michael pulls it off, I think the Wallace faction will have proved itself," said long-time Maple Leaf watcher Michael Palmer, a partner with Veritas Investment Research in Toronto.

But if Michael fails, the question of his management ability will still linger.

Mr. Palmer sees McCain Foods, which produces a third of the world's frozen French fries, as a rare example of a world-class Canadian company. The McCains, he said, are among "the few people out there with the chutzpah to try to pull it off [again, with Maple Leaf] They've pulled off one -- I think they'll pull off the other one."

If that happens, there won't be any shared celebration by two aging men who live 1,300 kilometres apart, in Florenceville, N.B., and Toronto.

At the Ivey gala, Wallace said he was disappointed that Harrison could not be there, but not because of any lost opportunity to make amends. Wallace, outgoing but self-deprecating, explained that the extroverted and tightly wired Harrison always enjoyed the limelight more.

"Don't get me wrong, it worked out all right, but I was nervous," he said later. "I broke down once, unfortunately, [I]couldn't help it."

Wallace's voice did, indeed, crack, causing him to ask for water. It was at the moment he was paying tribute to his wife Margaret and his four children, who had to cope while he was on the road 140 nights a year, building McCain Foods with his brother.

The dinner crowd was peppered with former Maritimers who help run major Canadian companies, for Harrison and Wallace are at the centre of this tight network of powerful friends. This group suffers divided loyalties: Some gravitate to one or the other brother; others, such as retired Bank of Nova Scotia chairman Cedric Ritchie, maintain a relationship with both.

These days, the distance between the men is more poignant because of the trail of tragedy that has followed them. Since the breakup, Harrison has lost his wife Billie from cancer and son Peter, who died from injuries sustained in a snowmobile accident.

His heart troubles have at times seemed life-threatening. Wallace monitors his brother's health, often through Harrison's surviving son Mark, a business analyst at McCain Foods in Toronto. But he insists he would not hesitate to call Harrison and he would get an honest reply.

Harrison's health has been a continuing subplot to the family strife. In 1992, complaining of chest pains, he entered Boston's Lahey Clinic for an emergency double bypass operation, and suffered a heart attack on the operating table. While he was recovering, Harrison's supporters say, Michael expanded his role in the company, which accelerated the confrontation.

Over the years, Harrison recovered a lot of his old vigour, but in the fall of 2000, he collapsed in Regina while attending a meeting of the National Gallery of Canada's board, of which he is chairman.

It meant a return visit to the Lahey Clinic, which has become a home away from home. He took a turn for the worse last summer, went back to the Lahey, but was able to return to New Brunswick. At the Ivey dinner, Harrison appeared in a short video clip, looking tired and drawn as he thanked the business school.

But he has rallied again and started coming to the office, Mr. Mann said. He flew to Toronto in November for a McCain Foods board meeting, a dinner honouring George Weston Ltd. president Richard Currie -- a native New Brunswicker -- and to attend a reception for Nelson Mandela.

A source close to Harrison said he has a weak heart and needs additional surgery, perhaps an artificial pump.

Mr. Mann marvels at Harrison's will to live and his appetite to still pursue his interests, which are largely business-oriented. "You think he's on a downward spiral and then he's back, not as energetic maybe, but the brain hasn't slowed down."

In some ways, though, the McCain family is preparing to move on. Michael and his older brother Scott, who heads the agribusiness operations, are running Maple Leaf. Allison, 52, a seasoned McCain Foods executive, is expected to succeed Harrison, although some observers wonder whether that will happen in the older man's lifetime. The company is inextricably tied up with Harrison's sense of life and mortality, they say.

Other McCain children are fashioning independent lives. Wallace's daughter Eleanor has launched a promising music career with a CD that showcases her crystalline voice. One song speaks of a father, "a man so proud of his sons and daughters, where he lives we belong." Another daughter, Martha, recently graduated from an interior design school.

One of Harrison's three daughters, Laura, and her husband are running Creekside Estate Winery in Ontario's Niagara wine region, and two wineries in Nova Scotia.

An executive who knows the family believes the best hope for a McCain rapprochement lies with the younger generation, particularly with the daughters who carry little baggage from old disputes.

That may happen, but probably not before Harrison and Wallace pass from the scene -- or are seized with an extraordinary urge to forgive.

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