Sarkozy and Harper among slew of dignitaries attending Desmarais tribute

MONTREAL – Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy are among dignitaries who are paying tribute to business tycoon Paul Desmarais in Montreal this afternoon.

Others attending the commemorative ceremony at the Notre-Dame Basilica include former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and several of her predecessors, including Daniel Johnson, Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and Jean Charest could be seen entering the ornate basilica in Old Montreal.

Also present were ex-media mogul Conrad Black, former Bombardier president Laurent Beaudoin, ex-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, former federal Liberal leader Bob Rae and his successor, Justin Trudeau.

Desmarais, who took over a near-bankrupt family business to build a multibillion-dollar empire with political connections on different continents, died in October 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.

Sarkozy has admitted he owed much to Desmarais.

When Desmarais was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2008, Sarkozy said he was president partly because of the Canadian’s advice, friendship and loyalty.

Desmarais’ 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.

His empire included Great West Life, London Life and Canada Life in the insurance industry; the Investors Group and Putnam Investments; the Gesca newspaper chain, with its flagship Montreal La Presse; and stakes in the oil company Total S.A. and the Pernod Ricard liquor company.

He was discreet when it came to discussing politics.

Only on rare occasions did he voice 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.”

He helped open the door to Canadian businesses in China by leading a commercial delegation there in 1978. He was the founding chairman of the Canada China Business Council.

However, it took eight years before Power Corp. launched a business venture there. It now invests in infrastructure projects in China through its stake in CITIC Pacific Ltd.

By the time he handed daily operations of the company to his sons in 1996, Desmarais had seen Power’s assets increase to $2.7 billion, from $165 million.

Power Corp., through its Square Victoria Communications Group subsidiary, and together with the corporate parent companies of the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail newspapers, owns The Canadian Press.

Canadian Business magazine ranked Desmarais as the wealthiest Quebecer and Canada’s seventh-wealthiest person, with a fortune estimated at $4.4 billion.

An art lover, Desmarais had one of Canada’s largest private art collections. Two wings of Montreal’s Fine Arts Museum are named in honour of his family.

Desmarais also used his fortune to build one of the world’s most exclusive golf courses on his sprawling 75-square-kilometre Sagard estate in the mountainous Charlevoix region of Quebec.

He suffered what company officials described as a “minor stroke” in 2005.

Desmarais is survived by his wife Jacqueline Maranger, sons Paul Jr. and Andre, daughters Sophie and Louise, as well as 10 grandchildren.

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