Quebec's French tycoons: nouveau, perhaps, but decidedly riche

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The myth says the English have all the money in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The facts say otherwise. French-speaking Canadians dominate the list of a new survey of the 25 richest people in Quebec.

This reflects the heightened interest in business here. It also has political significance for Canada. Separatist ideologues can no longer spit out the words ``les Anglais'' as a code for the English-speaking rich. The French, too, have their home-grown wealth.

The richest man in Quebec is still an English-speaker, Charles Bronfman of the Bronfman liquor fortune. Unless Mr. Bronfman decides to move, he will almost certainly hold the top spot for years to come. His net worth is said to be $2 billion (Canadian).

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But Bronfman has inherited wealth. The richest self-made man in Quebec is Paul Desmarais, a financier who started his business career by taking over a small, bankrupt bus company. He now controls Power Corporation, which has holdings in banking and insurance as well as the news media, including La Presse, the big French language daily in Montreal. Mr. Desmarais's net worth is put at C$600 million.

The survey was done by L'Argent et Vous, a Montreal magazine. The editors followed the lead of Forbes magazine, with its list of the 400 richest people in the United States, and used a variety of sources to research the reclusive rich. The most important source was the stock market.

``Ideally our research would have used the direct method,'' said the French-language business magazine. ``Excuse me, Monsieur, are you worth 100 or 200 million?''

But the magazine found Quebec's rich reluctant to boast about their wealth. So they used shareholder lists, information from financial analysts, and a few books written on Canada's rich. The estimates are conservative, the magazine says. ``The people cited in our inquiry are probably richer, but they're certainly not poorer.''

And although surveys were not done a decade or two ago, Quebec's rich now appear to be more French than before. Of the 25 richest people in Quebec, 16 are French-speaking Canadians.

In the 1960s and '70s, when separatist sentiments flourished here, French Canadians, who make up 82 percent of the province's 6.6 million, complained that English Canadians and English-speaking Americans dominated the economic affairs of the province.

The English money on this list is, in the main, old money: The names are the likes of Molson, McConnell, Birks, and Webster. The money has been around for almost 200 years in the case of the Molsons. The French-speaking money is mostly new.

Pierre Peladeau started a small suburban newspaper in the 1950s. Now he owns a chain that includes Le Journal de Montr'eal, the largest-circulation French-language daily outside France. Mr. Peladeau has printing plants in Canada and the United States and has his eye on a pulp and paper company and a new English-language paper in Montreal. He is No. 13 on the list and worth at least C$150 million.

Remi Marcoux worked for Peladeau until 1976. Now he is No. 16 on the list and worth C$87 million. His company, Transcontinental Group, owns printing plants and distributes fliers in Quebec and across Canada.

Jean Coutu started off with one store. Now he has a chain and a net worth of C$200 million. He has expanded outside Quebec into neighboring provinces and lately into the United States.

There are other giants of Quebec business. The Bombardier family fortune was founded on Ski-Doo, the first snowmobile. Now the family builds subway cars for New York City and owns Canadair, an aerospace firm. It is No. 5 on the list, with a worth of C$500 million or more.

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