BUSINESS WATCH

A yes to Quebec from mid-Canada

‘They are distinct, and they should be so recognized. If we let Quebec go, there will be no Canada; we would just disintegrate.’

Peter C. Newman December 16 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

A yes to Quebec from mid-Canada

‘They are distinct, and they should be so recognized. If we let Quebec go, there will be no Canada; we would just disintegrate.’

Peter C. Newman December 16 1991

A yes to Quebec from mid-Canada

‘They are distinct, and they should be so recognized. If we let Quebec go, there will be no Canada; we would just disintegrate.’

PETER C. NEWMAN

BUSINESS WATCH

I was interviewing George Richardson last week, the Winnipeg financier and grain merchant who is the most powerful businessman west of the Lakehead, and he was saying all the right things.

He approved the idea of Quebec being singled out as a distinct society—“They are distinct, and they should be so recognized”— and added that it was absolutely essential that Quebec stay in Canada: “It’s ridiculous to flippantly say, ‘Let them go.’ There will be no Canada; we will just disintegrate from there.” Then I asked him a practical question: If Quebec did separate, how would he get his grain to transatlantic markets? “It would have to be worked out,” he replied noncommittally, then leaned forward and, in an unexpected aside, speculated: “We might have to go down the Mississippi.”

It was obviously not the first time he had considered the prospect, but his remark brought into focus just how shattered this country and our economy would be if Quebec did decide to strike out on its own. It’s easy enough to see how the Maritimes would be isolated, but the West needs to operate in a transnational setting as well, and any geographical gaps would seriously damage the Prairie economies. “Western Canada would need a port on the St. Lawrence River,” Richardson continued. “But Quebec needs things from Western Canada, too. It has no other source of natural gas. We shouldn’t be threatening them. These are problems that need discussion and understanding.” Richardson opposed Meech Lake, mainly because of the way it was presented, but he enthusiastically supports the current Ottawa proposals. “In the last round, everything was too cast in stone, but now there is firm ground from which to begin talking.” He is nervous about the deadline imposed by Quebec’s referendum legislation, but believes that “We should be able to accommodate it and show progress early in the new year. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I would hope that if there is

positive movement in the discussions, the deadline could probably be extended.”

The main problem Richardson has with the Mulroney government’s current Canada Round proposals is that three members of the Supreme Court would be perpetually appointed from Quebec. “That’s one-third of the court’s justices,” he points out, “and it seems a bit inflexible to me that there would never be better people from other parts of the country who shouldn’t be represented.”

Although Richardson’s brother James was a member of Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, the family doesn’t belong to any political party. “We’re constantly judging the players,” he says, “and supporting those in positions of power who we think are doing the best job.” He’s impressed with the “common-sense approach” of the Reform party, but has not become a member.

His disillusionment with the Tories is based squarely on his belief that they didn’t bite the bullet hard enough on deficit reduction when the economy was still healthy. “They had the mandate to straighten out our fiscal position, and even if they’re getting at it now, it’s too little, too late. Take unemployment insurance. They increased employer contributions last

year and are doing it again. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Unemployment insurance should be there, but it should be there for the right people, and it should be properly funded, which would have been a lot easier to bring about when there was fuller employment than there is today. You didn’t need to be a genius to realize there was going to be a problem.”

While he’s happy with Ottawa’s monetary policies and praises Bank of Canada governor John Crow for reducing inflation rates, Richardson remains dead set against the Mulroney cabinet’s puny efforts to deal with fiscal deficits. “Within their own hearts,” he maintains, “they know that they haven’t done enough, and that’s where the Canadian public are ahead of their government.”

He remains happy about free trade and supports an extension of the deal to Mexico, mainly as a new market for Canadian agricultural products. “To isolate ourselves in the northern part of North America isn’t realistic; we’ll just shrivel up and die,” he believes. “The biggest thing we have to do in Canada is to make it our own market. The provincial trade barriers we still have are just unbelievably restrictive.”

The Richardson group of companies, which chairman George runs from the top floor of the family’s office building at Winnipeg’s historic comer of Portage and Main, now has annual sales of just under $2 billion—and all of its ownership stock is in family hands. His Pioneer Grain Co. is Canada’s last major privately owned grain trader, still maintaining about 200 elevators across the Prairies.

As might be expected, Richardson has some strong views about the economic disarray in Canadian agriculture. “I’m reasonably optimistic that the Canadian government’s representations at GATT have reached the stage where there will now be some meaningful reductions in farm-subsidy programs,” he says. “The EC can’t sustain what they’re doing, and the U.S. government doesn’t want to keep it up, either. As soon as both these major powers come to their senses, there will be some improvement.”

The family conglomerate includes Richardson Greenshields, the only large Canadian investment dealer that remains independently owned. Richardson Greenshields has the country’s largest retail network (65 offices worldwide) as well as the second-largest mergersand-acquisitions department. Another subsidiary, Marine Pipeline Ltd., is busy building gas and oil pipelines, while another Richardson company participates directly in oil exploration, mainly in Manitoba.

Richardson’s most surprising current success is in real estate, the business that has become such a killing ground for most entrepreneurs. The bulk of his investments are in Lake Tahoe, in Nevada, where the Richardsons own several major recreational properties.

George Richardson is an optimist, both about his country and his business. But he’s also a realist. And if he had to, he’d be the first in line to barge Canadian grain down the Mississippi River.