By FRED LANGAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
When her husband's first big deal was hanging in the balance, Jacqueline Desmarais, who died this month at the age of 89, said to him: "Don't worry, Paul, if it doesn't work out, I can go back to nursing."
Her husband told the story at her 80th birthday party.
"They were the original power couple, helping each other along the way," said Robert Scully, who made a biographical documentary for the Desmarais family. "She promoted his business activities, she organized his events."
Of course, she never had to return to nursing. That deal and many others succeeded, allowing Paul Desmarais to parlay his small Sudbury bus company into what is now principally a financial services company, headed by Power Corp.
Mrs. Desmarais helped her husband throughout his business career; at one stage, when his bus company was on the ropes, the two of them counted out bus tickets to use to pay employees.
"She was a person with an infectious enthusiasm for life and she had the unique ability of being able to bring out the best in people. They shared a bold vision and they shared their dream together," a close family friend said. "They were both very down-to-earth people with a great sense of what was important in life. They learned to enjoy very simple pleasures. She has a capacity to listen to people and relate to them."
Jacqueline Maranger was born in Sudbury on Sept. 20, 1928. Her father, Ernest, was a train engineer with the Canadian Pacific Railway, her mother, Albertine (née Thanasse), stayed at home with their four children. Jacqueline acquired her lifelong love of music - she had an impressive singing voice - from her father.
The population of Sudbury during her childhood was about one-third French-Canadian, one third English-Canadian and a third European immigrants from places such as Italy and Finland, who came to the Northern Ontario city and surrounding towns to work in the nickel and copper mines. So Jacqueline grew up speaking both English and French.
Religion played an important part in community life at the time. The Maranger family went to mass every Sunday and it was at church that young Paul Desmarais, who lived several blocks away, first noticed the young woman he would later marry.
Jacqueline went to the University of Ottawa and earned a degree in nursing. She practised in Sudbury, then for a short time in San Francisco before returning home and resuming her courtship with Mr. Desmarais, who owned a bus company. She would be travelling home from the hospital on one of his buses and he would get the driver to stop and he would drive her the rest of the way. The couple were married in Hull, Que., in September, 1953.
They lived in Sudbury early in their marriage, then moved to Ottawa when Mr. Desmarais bought a bus company there.
When he bought Provincial Transport in Quebec from the Drury family, they moved to Montreal.
Once settled in there, Mrs. Desmarais set about raising her four children and involving herself in the community and her husband's business affairs.
"[Paul Desmarais] was the first to say: 'Whatever success I have had, my wife has been a huge part of it,' " said a close family friend who asked to remain anonymous.
Mrs. Desmarais was committed to many charities, but some of her most ambitious work involved music. She devoted a great deal of time and study to the world of opera and was more than just an ordinary fan who shows up on opening night.
She was one of only eight managing directors of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and, from there, she launched what was perhaps her most unique achievement: sponsoring the broadcast of live opera in high definition to movie theatres across Canada. The program, called Live From the Metropolitan Opera, allows audiences who might never travel to New York to see opera broadcast live to theatres in big cities such as Toronto and Edmonton, as well as smaller centres such as Victoriaville, Que., and Moose Jaw.
She also sponsored the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca that opened on New Year's Eve, 2017.
In Canada, she supported l'Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, which her friends say was her favourite cause. Among other things, she sponsored the group's tour of Europe last fall.
She was also a patron of l'Opéra de Montréal and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra as well as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where among other things she sponsored concerts by performers such as the cellist Stéphane Tétreault, who the museum described as "her protégé." Madame Desmarais bought a Stradivarius cello for him to use.
"Mrs. Desmarais's delight in music was infectious," said Nathalie Bondil, the director general and chief curator of the museum.
Her greatest protégé was the conductor Yannick NézetSéguin, whom she supported from the time he was 20 years old.
He is now world famous and is starting next season as musical director and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
Mrs. Desmarais took to the stage herself more than once.
Decades earlier, when the jazz great Duke Ellington was playing in Ottawa, she joined him to sing Sophisticated Lady.
She also performed in an amateur production of Mame by the Lakeshore Players in a Montreal suburb and she played the main part, Auntie Mame.
"When I came out on the stage I came down singing and I looked down and there was my family white as a sheet and I was trying to get them to relax by singing 'Light the candles, get the ice out,' " Mrs. Desmarais told Mr. Scully, the documentarian. She laughed, "That was my [musical] career."
Mrs. Desmarais, who was known to her friends as Jackie, made an evening of it. She increased the ticket prices for her rich friends and donated the money to charity. The performance was followed by a party at the Ritz in Montreal.
She was a gregarious woman who loved to entertain.
"Jackie was the most generous person. I don't mean just with charities, but with her friends in many ways," said Brenda Norris, with whom she played bridge and went on cruises.
"When she decided to take something up, she attacked it with dedication and enthusiasm. When Jackie took up golf, she eventually broke 80 and played in the Dinah Shore Invitational," Mrs. Norris said.
Along with golf, she was a keen bridge player, taking lessons in Florida from the bridge expert Marty Bergen. Her mother, Albertine Maranger, had also been an accomplished player; on the night she died, she had just returned from a bridge game in Sudbury where she had a bid and made a grand slam, the top score in bridge.
Jacqueline Desmarais was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1998, and promoted to officer of the order in 2013. "A remarkable patron and philanthropist, Jacqueline Desmarais contributes to the vitality of the arts in Canada. Of note, she established a scholarship fund to support promising musicians. She also created a foundation through which she offers artistic, financial and promotional support to young opera singers from across Canada, enabling them to hold their own on the world's biggest stages," read the citation.
She also received the top Quebec honour, the Ordre national du Québec, as well as France's Légion d'Honneur. She was inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame in 1996.
Mrs. Desmarais died at her home in Charlevoix on March 3.
She leaves her children, Paul Jr., André, Louise and Sophie; 10 grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and her sister Yolande Sylvain. Her husband, Paul, predeceased her, as did her sister Lucille and her brother, Robert.
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Former governor-general David Johnston, right, promotes Jacqueline Desmarais within the Order of Canada during a ceremony in Ottawa in 2013.
ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS