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He quit practising law, bought The Sherbrooke Record and used his connections to help launch a young Jean Charest into politics
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, September 22, 2018 – Page B24

George MacLaren, dead at 79, was an influential figure in Quebec's anglophone community, serving as publisher of The Sherbrooke Record. His fascination with politics led him to become a mentor to a young Jean Charest, the future deputy prime minister of Canada and premier of Quebec. Years later, soon after Mr. Charest became premier, he appointed Mr. MacLaren to be the province's agent-general in London.

George Roy MacLaren was born on June 21, 1939, in Bondville, Que., where his father, Albert, had a farm with a herd of Jersey dairy cattle. Albert, whose family owned the MacLaren paper mill in Buckingham, Que., had been gassed while serving in the trenches during the First World War. When he returned home and started working in the mill, his doctor told him he would die soon unless he moved to the country, so he bought the farm in the Eastern Townships.

George attended a local school, then later went to Ashbury College in Ottawa for high school. After graduating from McGill University with a BA in 1961, he studied law at Laval University in Quebec City.

The early 1960s was an exciting period in Quebec.

There were a handful of English-Canadian students at Laval who were sympathetic to the aspirations of francophone Quebeckers during the Quiet Revolution. One of those students was Brian Mulroney, who went on to become prime minister. He was a year ahead of Mr. MacLaren.

"I knew him at Laval and then when he started to practice law in Montreal.

One of his great contributions was his leadership in the English community in Quebec. He was fearless. He went on to make a major contribution to Canada," Mr. Mulroney said.

After several years of practising law in Montreal, Mr. MacLaren decided to move to Sherbrooke, Que., in the Eastern Townships and set up a law practice there.

"I think he wanted to be out of the city and to have the freedom, but he worked just as hard in the country as he did in the city," said his wife, Anne (née Monger). "I had grown up in the country, and he had grown up on a farm, so we bought the farm and then he started setting up his own law firm in Sherbrooke."

Their farm was in Ogden, just outside Sherbrooke, and Mr. MacLaren was soon involved in local politics.

He was elected mayor of Ogden Township, population 795 at the time according to his wife. His political interests spread to provincial and federal politics as well.

Mr. MacLaren was an enthusiastic supporter of 26year-old Jean Charest when he ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Sherbrooke in the federal election of September, 1984.

"George was a mentor for me. He had a significant influence on my life. When I first ran in 1984, he opened up his world for me," Mr. Charest said, referring to Mr. MacLaren's network outside Quebec.

"In October of 1984, he organized a meeting with his friends in British Columbia. Prime minister Mulroney sent me out there."

"[George] was very much a man of the Eastern Townships. He represented the English-French duality of Canada, a breed that is dying out, unfortunately," Mr. Charest said.

George MacLaren's name was at the top of the letterhead of MacLaren, Hackett, Campbell, Turner, Bissonette & Bouchard. One of the firm's clients was Conrad Black, who owned The Sherbrooke Record, Quebec's largest English-language paper outside of Montreal.

"On one occasion, when one of our journalists implied that a school trustee had embezzled a substantial sum, George negotiated a libel settlement, and I wrote an editorial cautioning the plaintiff against uncalled-for zeal," Mr. Black said. "We settled by having the plaintiff write his side of it, which excoriated our journalist and we published it without alteration or comment but paid no damages."

Mr. MacLaren became familiar with the local paper, and in 1977 he bought it from Mr. Black and his partners, leaving his law practice to work as a fulltime publisher. "He ran The Record very well as a resident publisher," Mr. Black said.

Mr. MacLaren told his colleagues at The Record that he objected to editorials from the Winnipeg Free Press running in the Sherbrooke paper, a practice that had become common before he took over as publisher. He vowed to keep the paper local. He loved newspapers and was said to read five or six a day.

One of his first editors on The Record was Charles Bury, a large, bearded man who was once a bouncer at the Boiler Room on Montreal's Crescent Street.

The two men were opposites but worked well together.

In 1987, he was approached by Pierre Péladeau, the Quebec press baron who owned the province's bestselling newspaper, Journal de Montréal. Mr. Péladeau wanted to buy The Record and start an English-speaking tabloid in Montreal, and he wanted Mr. MacLaren to be the publisher for the new tabloid. He agreed.

The paper, the Montreal Daily News, had a short life. It was born in March, 1988, and died in December, 1989. As one observer pointed out, English Montreal had lost a large slice of the working-class clientele that once bought papers, such as the old Montreal Herald.

In 1990, Mr. MacLaren reinvented himself and became an investment adviser. He had his own firm, which later merged into a larger brokerage house. He remained there until 2003.

Jean Charest, newly elected premier, then appointed Mr. MacLaren as agent-general in London, covering a territory that included the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, as well as Nordic countries, including Finland and Iceland.

"He was responsible for representing Quebec's economic and cultural interests," Anne said. "He knew the culture. There would be events like the Cirque du Soleil and George would invite people who had business interests in Quebec to those events and they were absolutely thrilled to come, and were very impressed with what they saw. He worked very diligently on Quebec's economic interests abroad."

He spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland, where, among other things, Quebec-based Bombardier was the largest private-sector employer.

Mr. MacLaren supported several English-language groups in the Eastern Townships. He was on the executive committee at Bishop's University, just outside Sherbrooke, and on the board of Stanstead College, a boarding school south of the city. He was also chairman of the board of trustees of Montreal's McCord Museum, and served on the board of directors of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

When he and his wife retired, they moved to Mahone Bay, N.S. He was an avid reader, loved visiting museums and was a keen fisherman of trout and Atlantic salmon.

Mr. MacLaren, who died on Aug. 30 in Mahone Bay, leaves his wife, Anne, his children, William Roy and Sarah Avery, and two grandchildren.

To submit an I Remember: Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page.

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Associated Graphic

George MacLaren, seen standing next to a printing press, bought The Sherbrooke Record from Conrad Black in 1977, after representing the publication in a libel case.


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