10/09/2013 09:34 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Paul Desmarais Dies At 86


Paul Desmarais, controlling shareholder of the Power Corporation of Canada, died last night at the age of 86.

Desmarais was one of Canada's wealthiest people. With a net worth of around $4.4 billion, he ranked fourth in Canadian Business' list of richest Canadians in 2012.

His family said he died "peacefully" Tuesday evening at his country estate northeast of Quebec City surrounded by his family, including his wife and four children.

Power Corporation is a diversified management and holding company, and owns part or all of numerous recognizable companies, including insurers Great-West Lifeco and London Life. It also owns numerous media names, including La Presse newspaper in Montreal and Le Droit in the Ottawa area, as well as the work search site Workopolis.

The Desmarais family is an inextricable part of Canada's ruling elite. Paul Desmarais' son, Paul Jr., is a co-chief executive of Power Corp. Another son, Andre, also shares the top job at Power Corp. and is married to France Chrétien Desmarais, daughter of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Born in the Northern Ontario mining town of Sudbury in 1927, Desmarais was one of Canada's most powerful figures, straddling the worlds of business and politics.

Not only did he build Power Corp. into one of the country's largest conglomerates, Desmarais was also a staunch defender of national unity.

Desmarais' successful business journey began modestly in 1951 with the revival of the family's ailing bus company.

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.

During his final annual meeting as chief executive in 1996, Desmarais explained his federalist views.

"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."

In a 2008 interview with French magazine Le Point, Desmarais described his identity.

"I was born a Franco-Ontarian. I chose to live in Quebec. I am Canadian. Canada is my country. Quebec is my province."

Desmarais' strong political views led critics to accuse him of persuading his friend, Nicolas Sarkozy, to adopt a pro-Canada foreign policy, when the French president professed his love for Canada during a recent visit to Quebec.

After Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, he awarded Desmarais the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, France's highest order of merit that was established by Napoleon in 1802. Other recipients include Lech Walesa and Alexander of Russia.

"If I am the president of France today, it is thanks in part to the advice, the friendship and the loyalty of Paul Desmarais," Sarkozy said during the 2008 ceremony.

One of the Sarkozy's moves was to relaunch the stalled merger between the state-owned gas company and the electric and gas utility Suez SA that is partially owned by Power Financial and partner Albert Frere's holding company.

Desmarais has been called the most powerful businessman in Canada, gaining the ear of Pierre Trudeau, Paul Martin, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, whose daughter is married to Desmarais' son, Andre.

Although he had close ties with federal Liberals, he also held admiration for Conservatives.

"Mulroney really impressed me. He signed the Free Trade Accord with the United States and Mexico," he told Le Point.

Desmarais had a special bond with Paul Martin Jr., who some say viewed Desmarais almost as a father figure and mentor.

The bond between the two Franco-Ontarians was enhanced when Martin purchased Canada Steamship Lines from Power.

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. Net earnings increased to $209 million from $3 million, and the market value of the company's shares increased from $61 million to $2.6 billion, for a compounded annual return of 16.4 per cent.

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 has 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.

A housewarming party in 2003 attracted political heavyweights, including Mulroney, former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, along with ex-U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Desmarais suffered what company officials described as a "minor stroke" in 2005.

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

A private family funeral is planned, followed by a memorial service to be announced by the Desmarais family.

With files from The Canadian Press

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery10 Richest Canadians 2012 See Gallery