More Desmarais. This is the Godfather the man who really runs Canada. Desmarais most powerful?
Peter Black, Press Republican
Few people on this planet and perhaps only one in Canada, could have a guest list for a party at their remote country home that includes the king of Spain, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., Leo DiCaprio and Sarah Ferguson.
That Canadian is Paul Desmarais, arguably the most powerful man in Canada. Desmarais is powerful not just because he is unimaginably rich thanks to the $100 billion Power Corp. empire he built from scratch; he’s a giant because he has used his power to gain unprecedented political influence, not for any demonstrable financial gain, mind you, but simply because he enjoys playing politics as much as he likes making money.
This past weekend, in a supreme display of the influence he has accumulated in his 52 years as an operator in the business world, Desmarais summoned dozens of notables from business, politics and entertainment to his newly completed $40-million (estimated) spread in Quebec’s spectacular Charlevoix region. The guest list was kept extremely hush-hush — another testament to Desmarais’s power. The above-mentioned names were only rumored, but no matter, any one of them would fit comfortably into Desmarais’ wide circle of friends from around the world.
That circle includes the three longest-serving prime ministers of the last 35 years, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien. Chretien’s daughter France married Andre, one of Desmarais’s two sons, making that circle a little tighter than others. Desmarais’s right-hand man at Power Corp. is John Rae, a long-time Chretien advisor and the man who ran two of the three election campaigns that brought Liberals majority governments since 1993.
Desmarais is also on pretty close terms with the prime minister-in-waiting, Paul Martin, who, after all, employed him at Power Corp. for many years. In 1981 he sold to Martin Power’s shipping line, Canada Steamship Lines, which Martin grew into the largest shipper of its kind in the world before entering politics. (Martin last month transferred ownership of CSL to his three sons to free himself for the Liberal leadership campaign which ends in November.)
A roomful of politicians have worked for Desmarais, either on their way up or down the political ladder. Daniel Johnson Jr., for example, Quebec Liberal leader and briefly premier, was Power’s corporate secretary for a time. Daniel’s dad, Daniel Sr., another Quebec premier, was a close crony of Desmarais’s.
The story is told of how Desmarais flew to Hawaii to convince the vacationing Johnson to drop a five-year plan for Quebec independence.
He was also tight with Robert Bourassa despite the premier’s efforts to block his attempt to buy a Quebec City newspaper, which he eventually acquired anyway, giving him control of most major newspapers in Quebec. He spoke to Bourassa days before he died of cancer in 1996. Bourassa, always considered a wavering federalist, told Desmarais Quebec needed to move on from the debate over sovereingty.
Desmarais’s wealth and power are enough to assure him superstar status among Canadian and global entrepreneurs. But what puts Desmarais in a category by himself is how he, a French-Canadian from the Northern Ontario mining town of Sudbury, has earned a place in a Canadian business establishment populated entirely by English-Canadians. For years he was the only French-Canadian on the boards of major Canadian companies, invited there not out of tokenism, but because of his ever-increasing financial clout.
Desmarais represents the triumph of French-Canadians within a country dominated by English-speakers, a role the 76-year-old tycoon takes seriously. While embraced by the new generations of francophone business leaders of Quebec Inc., he is no darling of Quebec nationalists. Desmarais, in fact, all but froze Montreal-based Power’s activities in Quebec after the separatist Parti Quebecois was elected in 1976.
It is only in recent years that Power has again become a major player in the domestic corporate world. Desmarais used the hiatus to put together a corporate colossus in Europe, one that includes the largest broadcasting network on the continent, one of the world’s largest oil companies, a Swiss salami company and a 12-percent share of the company that owns the Suez canal.
Paul Desmarais officially retired as president of Power Corp. in 1996, although he remains chairman of the executive committee and is majority owner. His sons, Paul Jr. and Andre, now manage the company day-to-day. Though slowed by several heart operations and normal aging, Desmarais is reported to still be the master of the empire he built.
In his semi-retirement he has overseen the construction of his estate near the Saguenay River. The project turned a hunting lodge, set on 10,000 acres of forest with five lakes, once owned by one of Desmarais’s paper companies, into a dream compound.
And that’s where Desmarais hosted his exclusive set of friends for a country-style barbecue few of them are likely to forget. Much like history is not likely to forget a giant like Desmarais.
Some of the facts and anecdotes about Desmarais in this column come from the Canadian Establishment series by author Peter C. Newman. Desmarais, Newman notes, is the only Canadian business leader to be featured in all three volumes, spanning more than 25 years.
Peter Black is a syndicated columnist writing about Quebec and the producer of a daily current-affairs program for Canada’s public radio broadcaster (CBC), based in Quebec City. His column appears every Friday. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com
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If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen. -- Samuel Adams, speech at the Philadelphia State House, August 1, 1776--"If You Haven't Suffered Enough It Is Your God Given Right To Suffer Some More" Wm. Aberhart Alberta Premier