Who wants to be a billionaire? .. only 23 Canadian citizens this year, says Forbes magazine

Mar 12th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Being a millionaire nowadays of course means nothing. A decent executive house, in most places where decent executives would live, starts at around $1 million. According to one recent estimate: “There are about 250,000 people in Canada [alone] with a net worth of more than a million dollars, not counting real estate.”

Being a billionaire, on the other hand, still counts. According to the recent Forbes magazine survey for 2007, there are only 23 Canadian citizens – individuals and/or families – who qualify under this heading. Nine of them currently reside in Ontario, seven in Quebec, four in Western Canada, and one in Atlantic Canada.

(If you’re quick at the mathematics of finance, you may have already calculated that this only adds up to 21. As yet another sign of what Stephen Harper calls Canada’s unique history and eclectic identity, the remaining two Canadian billionaires currently reside in California.)

The Canadian economy involves much more than the heady preoccupations of its 23 billionaires. But familiarizing yourself with the compact enough Forbes list can show a few things about the state of contemporary capitalism in Canada. In some respects the resulting broad-brush picture isn’t quite what capitalism’s most ardent critics usually seem to suggest.

Ontario …

As of this moment, more or less, Ontario has about 39.1% of Canadian billionaires, compared with about 38.9% of the total Canadian population (or in round numbers 39% in each case).

The richest individual and/or family in Ontario, and Canada, by far, is “David Thomson & family” – with a current net worth (in US $) of some $22 billion. (See the table below for this and most other numbers – and note that, on Forbes‘s calculations, David Thomson & family is/are the 10th richest individual and/or family in the entire world. The richest is of course Bill Gates.) The Thomson family fortune, based on newspapers and then other printed and electronic communications media in various parts of the global village (“the medium is the message” and all that, and money too of course), was started by David’s grandfather Roy Thomson in 1934, in the wilds of Northern Ontario.

Next in line in Ontario (and Canada at large) is “Galen Weston & family” – heirs of the George Weston Ltd. founded by Galen’s grandfather in 1882, which is “now one of North America’s largest bakers.” The Westons also own “a controlling stake in Canada’s largest supermarket chain, Loblaw.” Then comes Edward “Ted” Rogers – “son of the man who invented the world’s first alternating-current radio tube.” Ted made “his own mark in business” when he “bought a single radio station and built it into the media conglomerate Rogers Communications, which today includes 46 radio stations, 70 consumer and trade magazines, and television stations like Rogers Sportsnet and the Shopping Channel.” And then there is “Bernard (Barry) Sherman” who founded the Canadian “generic-drug maker Apotex in 1974” and has “since relentlessly battled big pharma over exclusivity patents, gradually building the company into the largest Canadian-owned drugmaker, with an estimated $1 billion in revenues.”

In some ways Wallace McCain, the 5th richest man residing in Ontario today, really belongs in Atlantic Canada. He was “forced out of McCain Foods’ day-to-day operations in the 1990s after a family feud.” But he “remains vice chairman and still has a one-third stake in the world’s largest producer of frozen french fries” (which is still headquartered in New Brunswick, where a lot of potatoes are grown), and he “took over meat processor Maple Leaf Foods in 1995.”

The last four names on the Ontario list especially reflect the newer sides of the regional economy – and the regional society as well. Alexander Shnaider is a Canadian of Russian descent, who has profited mightily from linking Western financial resources with the new opportunities for capitalism in Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has “a big stake in … the fourth-largest steel mill in Ukraine,” as well as “interests in steel trading, real estate, retail and manufacturing in Russia, Ukraine and Siberia.” Mike Lazaridis “founded BlackBerry maker Research in Motion while a student at the University of Waterloo.” Rising stock prices have recently made him unusually wealthy, along with James Balsillie – “Cochief executive of … Research in Motion.” (RIM’s announcement that it will be re-stating its recent accounting results may throw some cold water on the party here, but these guys are still rather suddenly quite rich.)

Finally, the intriguing case of Michael Lee-Chin highlights the growing deep cultural diversity of Ontario today. He is a Canadian who was born in Jamaica “of Afro-Caribbean and Chinese heritage.” The AIC mutual funds enterprise that helped make him very rich has lately suffered from “lackluster performance.” But he now “also owns stakes in National Commercial Bank Jamaica, Total Finance in Trinidad and Tobago, and Columbus Communications, a cable and communications company in Barbados.” He has been a principal benefactor as well of “the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a new Daniel Libeskind-designed building at the Royal Ontario Museum” expected to open this June in Toronto.

Quebec …

The career of Paul Desmarais illustrates the rise of Quebec’s new francophone business class in the later 20th century. He “bought his father’s one-route … bus company for a dollar in 1951,” and eventually built it into “Power Corp., a $23 billion (sales) financial services and communications giant.” The company “owns [the] Montreal daily La Presse as well as six other newspapers in Quebec and Ontario,” and “also controls Power Financial, which includes life insurer Great-West Lifeco and Investors Group, the largest mutual fund company in Canada.”

Next in line in Quebec is Robert Miller, who “founded Future Electronics in 1968 and built it into the world’s third-largest electronics distributor (products include semiconductors and electromechanical components).” He is followed by the well-known Charles Bronfman, who “along with brother, Edgar Sr., inherited the Seagram spirits empire that was built up by their father, Sam, and sold to Vivendi in 2000.” (And while he officially resides in Montreal, Mr. Bronfman apparently spends quite a lot of time in Manhattan nowadays too.)

Quebec’s next two billionaires point to the sometimes under-rated European multicultural side of the province that is not a province like the others today. Stephen Jarislowsky was born in Berlin, Germany and “moved to Canada in 1949 after receiving his MBA at Harvard.” Six years later he “founded Jarislowsky Fraser, an asset manager that today manages $50 billion on behalf of institutional clients and high-net-worth individuals.” Emanuele (Lino) Saputo started a cheese shop in Montreal in 1954 with his parents Giuseppe and Maria. In the 1980s he “snapped up US and Canadian dairies … as pizza’s growing popularity boosted demand for his products.” The Saputo family is now active in the Canadian forest products industry as well.

The last two names on the Quebec list return the new francophone business class to the limelight. Jean Coutu “opened his first drugstore in 1969,” and the Jean Coutu Group is now “one of North America’s largest pharmacy chains” – with investments in the US Northeast and mid-Atlantic states as well as Canada. Guy Laliberte is the “accordion-playing fire-breather” who “founded Cirque du Soleil in 1984 with a gang of street performing friends. Initially funded by the Canadian government, the Montreal-based circus, which has no animals, no speaking and no star performers, became a for-profit group in 1985.” It “hit [the] jackpot when Steve Wynn brought Cirque to Las Vegas in 1991.” M. Laliberte also “throws lavish parties,” and “dreams of one day traveling into space.”

Western Canada …

The richest person in Western Canada, and 8th richest in Canada at large, is Jim Pattison, the “Vancouver magnate” who “parlayed car dealerships, started shortly after college,” into an “advertising, fishing and supermarket empire.” He is “currently building stakes in Canadian small caps, including … Westshore Terminals Income Fund, Canfor and Sun-Rype Products.” He also owns “eclectic tourist attractions” and “a massive Palm Springs lair that once belonged to Frank Sinatra.”.

The other three Western Canadian billionaires all currently reside in the booming oil-rich province of Alberta. But Daryl Katz (pronounced “Cates”), in Edmonton, has things in common with Jean Coutu in Quebec as well (and more broadly even Barry Sherman in Ontario). Mr. Katz is the lawyer “son of a pharmacist” who has “cobbled together 2,000 pharmacies to create one of the biggest pharmacy chains in North America.” Starting in the 1990s he “bought up distressed pharmacy chains with the help of drug distributor McKesson.” He is “now using the Rexall name to rebrand his stores” and “plans to open 100 new ones in Canada” soon.

Clayton Riddell and N Murray Edwards in Calgary are almost certainly the Canadians who have profited most from the ongoing oil and gas resource boom in Alberta. Clayton Riddell is a “Winnipeg, Man.-born geologist” who “made it big by finding natural gas in remote and often arctic-like areas.” In the 1970s he “founded Paramount Resources, which developed huge natural gas inventories.” Most recently he has “split up the company by spinning out income trusts from Paramount’s assets” (a strategy that “was recently dealt a blow by Canada’s federal government”).

N. Murray Edwards is the great impresario of the Canadian oil sands: “His company, Canadian Natural Resources, has sketched out plans to spend $25 billion to turn the gucky mud found in northern Alberta into barrels of crude oil.” He “also owns big stakes in Ensign Energy, Canada’s second-biggest oil services company, and Penn West, one of Canada’s biggest energy trusts” – and even “Lake Louise, Canada’s famous ski hill.”

Atlantic Canada …

The story of billionaires in Atlantic Canada is very simple, but complicated at the same time. At least setting aside Wallace McCain, who currently resides in Toronto, the story is all about “James, Arthur & John Irving.” Their “secretive and sprawling empire, founded in 1881 by their grandfather J.D. Irving, dominates the economy of New Brunswick and maritime Canada.”

The brothers’ Irving Oil “owns Canada’s largest refinery,” which (as in Alberta) “is benefitting from the global boom in fuel prices” these days. The company “is also mulling a second, 300,000-barrel-a-day crude refinery, which would be the first new refinery in the US or Canada in 25 years.” And with Spain’s Repsol, Irving Oil is “developing a liquid natural gas terminal with 1-billion-cubic-feet daily capacity in St. John, N.B.” The Irving brothers also control “600 gas stations, 3.6 million acres of timberland in Canada and Maine, and four daily newspapers.”

California Connections …

How come two Canadian-citizen billionaires currently reside in California? One obvious answer is that it can get quite cold in Canada during the winter (which for this year is fortunately starting to end in Ontario – where both cases in point began).

Jeffrey Skoll went to the University of Toronto, but apparently then “pumped gas in Toronto before getting an MBA from Stanford” University (somewhat south of San Francisco) in 1995.

He then went on to become “Ebay’s first president and full-time employee.” He “remains its second-largest shareholder,” but “is no longer involved with the company … and has turned his attention to movies and philanthropy.” His most recent big achievement was serving as executive producer of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – “the global-warming documentary that … won two Oscars in February.”

One very good reason David Cheriton currently resides in California is that he is currently a tenured professor at Stanford University. A while back he “introduced students Sergey Brin and Larry Page to venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers,” and was “rewarded with [a tidy] chunk of Google stock.”

He also “founded networking equipment company Granite Systems with Andreas von Bechtolsheim,” and then “sold [it] to Cisco Systems in 1996.” And he has backed a product known as “VMWare.” His more strictly academic work involves “research on such projects as distributed interactive simulation.” He has “donated $21 million in Google stock” to his “alma mater, the University of Waterloo.”

From an absolutely Canadian point of view, of course, the most important thing about both Jeffrey Skoll and David Cheriton is that even though they currently reside in California, they have remained Canadian citizens.

How do Canadian billionaires stack up internationally?

The Forbes list for 2007 calculates that there are now a total of 946 billionaires in the entire global village: “Microsoft’s Bill Gates remains the wealthiest man on Earth, nabbing the top spot for the 13th straight year with $56 billion. His friend, fellow philanthropist and famous investor Warren Buffett grabbed second place with $52 billion.”

In Canada David Thomson & family’s $22 billion is still some considerable distance behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. But it is not all that shabby – and (as noted earlier) good enough to give the Thomson family 10th place in the entire global village.

At the same time, the United States has 415 of the world’s 946 current billionaires. The rough calculation that Canada has only somewhat better than 10% of the US population suggests that Canada should also have, say about 40 or so billionaires, instead of the 23 it actually has. And this does seem to suggest that it really is easier to become very rich in the USA today than it is in Canada.

Yet it is worth bearing in mind that it is easier to become very rich in the USA today than it is in any other country of the world period. The United States, with only about 4.6% of the world’s population, has 43.9% of the world’s billionaires. Australia has only 12 billionaires, France 15, Japan 24, and the United Kingdom 29. And in this company Canada’s 23 billionaires does not look too bad.

In fact, when you bring population into the picture, Canada is doing at least somewhat better in generating billionaires than most other comparably economically developed places, except the United States. Thus on the Forbes list for 2007 the US has one billionaire for every 0.7 million people and Canada one for every 1.4 million people. But Germany has one for every 1.5 million, Australia for every 1.7 million, the UK for every 2.1 million, France for every 4.1 million, and Japan for every 5.3 million.

This is far from the only and even further from the best way of measuring a country’s economic performance. But insofar as it makes any sense at all, Canada could be doing a lot worse.

Global Rank



Net Worth $Bill




David Thomson & family





Galen Weston & family





Edward Rogers





Bernard (Barry) Sherman





Wallace McCain





Alexander Shnaider





Mike Lazaridis





Michael Lee-Chin





James Balsillie






Paul Desmarais





Robert Miller





Charles Bronfman





Stephen Jarislowsky





Emanuele (Lino) Saputo





Jean Coutu





Guy Laliberte






Jim Pattison





Daryl Katz





Clayton Riddell





N Murray Edwards






James, Arthur & John Irving



St. John



Jeffrey Skoll



Los Angeles


David Cheriton




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: With many thanks to the excellent people at Forbes, who originally compiled most of the information on which this note is based – and have helped all of us who are interested get a somewhat better grip on just what is going on in the world today.

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