It started on St. Jean Baptiste Day with a boom that shook the village.
Desmarais has hired locals.|
"We knew it wasn't fireworks," said Howard Smith, an architectural historian who shares a house here with his wife, Valerie. Outbursts of nationalist fervour are rare in this Eastern Townships anglo enclave 150 kilometres east of Montreal.
Then came the trucks, hauling boulders and full-grown trees, kicking up dust, raising a fuss, just before making the sharp turn into 4601 Georgeville Rd.
Soon word was out. It travels fast through a village of 30 year-round households that swells to many more in the summer months.
One of Canada's richest men had moved into Georgeville's back yard.
Out of a hayfield on the outskirts of the village, on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, Paul Desmarais Jr. of Power Corp. fame was carving his patch of paradise.
The reason for the boom soon became clear. The Sudbury-born, Montreal-raised business baron had blasted away an old house that had once sheltered the rich and famous.
"He blew up 100 years of history," said one old-timer who didn't like it one bit, though he would just as soon that his name wasn't mentioned here.
Then 43-year-old Desmarais began to build what has been dubbed the ''Great Wall of Georgeville," taking out established cedars and replacing them with a stone rampart to protect the property. The estate is wired with silent alarms, a fact that locals discovered when someone unwittingly strayed over the line and police raced to the village.
It's all a bit unsettling for a village where time seems to have stood still. Sedate two-storey houses built in the American colonial style line the main street.
Genteel Georgeville prides itself on its discretion; people hardly even notice any more when actor Donald Sutherland saunters into the village in scruffy jeans and sandals.
When the wind is blowing in the right direction over the lake, you can hear the bells of the Benedictine monastery at Saint-Benoit-du-Lac.
But lately, there's a new sound wafting over the village. It's like roosters crowing, only different.
It is coming from Desmarais's tidy white-and-black barns, where emus balance their football-shaped girths on long, thin legs.
So is the house undergoing renovations on his property, the one with the raised pointed roof and dormers sprouting in every direction. At first, villagers thought it must be Desmarais's house, so grand and unwieldy was it. But they learned it will become the guest cottage, after Chateau Desmarais is built. Rumoured to cost around $2.5 million, the anticipated principal residence is growing in people's minds faster than a kid can stick together Lego bricks, before the first speck of concrete is poured.
Land-title records show that Desmarais has spent a minimum of $5 million to buy at least 111 acres. His wife, Helene Blouin, has no stake in the property, under the terms of a marriage contract signed prior to the purchase, the records indicate.
Georgeville fire chief Alex Bernais, who is about to become Desmarais's neighbour, said "everybody has a little different idea'' of the Desmarais project. "Some people think it's fine. Other people don't think it's so fine at all."
Bernais, who is building his new house just across the way from Desmarais, said people used to ramble the shoreline paying little mind to who owned what. Now "it is fenced in, gated and locked," he said. "Maybe that is modernization. I don't know."
Desmarais has made a point of hiring locals, of staying on the right side of municipal bylaws with his emu pens, guest pad and fences.
Desmarais's supporters, who are reticent about identifying themselves, point out that he has planted trees on the property, restored the barns and spiffed up a property that was crumbling after years of neglect. Even the stone fence is looking better now, with fir trees growing on top of it.
True, he demolished a house with history. But its only inhabitants in recent years have been stray cats. It was once owned by high financiers, including the man who brought power to Georgeville, James B. Woodyatt. When he left, there were big philanthropic shoes to fill. An avid Boy Scout supporter, he welcomed scouts to a camp on the property and willed it entirely to Boy Scouts of Canada in 1974. But the estate was purchased 1976 by Donald Woodward, who started selling off parcels to Desmarais in 1995.
Retired architect Philip MacKenzie is among those who aren't pleased by Desmarais's efforts to rearrange the rolling landscape to suit his taste.
"He's trying to gentrify nature. He's building fortifications against it," MacKenzie said. As for the subsequent structures, "they seem to be totally out of place."
The old-timer had a similar view. "It's obviously fake. It is man-made for ornamental purposes or a barricade against the outside world."
Though Desmarais seems to keep to himself, showing up occasionally at the elite Georgeville-area Heritage Club where his children have taken golfing lessons, his legacy is well known. (He wouldn't be interviewed for this article or permit a tour of the property.)
His father, Paul Desmarais Sr., is part of Canadian business legend, having built a corporate dynasty out of a failing bus company. The Desmarais family has ties to both Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien.
Chretien's daughter, France, is married to Paul Jr.'s younger brother, Andre. Among the directors of Desmarais companies are Charles Bronfman of the Seagram empire, former Ontario premier William Davis, former federal Tory cabinet minister Don Mazankowksi and Senator Michael Pitfield.
Georgeville's new resident has arrived with no shortage of cash, fueling suspicions that this is only the beginning, that he is bent on buying up a good chunk of the village. A financial report by the company April 16 shows that he received $700,000 in salary, a $1-million bonus and $158,869 in other compensation last year from Power Corp., of which he became chairman and co-chief executive officer after his father turned it over to his two sons two years ago.
In addition, he received $350,000 in salary and a bonus of $670,000 as chairman of Power Financial, a Power Corp. subsidiary.
Desmarais's land acquisitions in the Georgeville area began Sept. 7, 1995, when he paid $2.4 million for one 40-acre parcel. On the same day, land-title records show, he paid $600,000 and $650,000 for an eight-acre and a 14-acre parcel.
There were three more transactions - one a month later, a second in 1996 and a third in 1997. The first involved the purchase of 18 acres at 4581 Georgeville Rd., just down from the spot where he is building the guest cottage at 4601 Georgeville Rd. The second and third purchases involved payments of $550,000 and $70,000 to acquire 31 acres.
The old-timer worries that the empire will just keep growing. Bernais said Desmarais recently expanded his land across Georgeville Rd., so his property now abuts the fire chief's on two sides.
There are no laws to stop him from buying as much property, waterfront or otherwise, as he chooses, and very little in the way of restrictions on what he can build.
As long as ducks have settled on ponds around Georgeville, the community has been in a flap over the question of a heritage bylaw. Smith said the idea was rejected about 10 years ago, and he was among those who argued against it.
"You can't legislate good taste. You can't pass a law telling people what is good and what is bad architecture."
Little wonder that the well-heeled have flocked here to put up buildings, good or bad.
Roger Williams is chairman of a council representing six municipalities around the lake that is trying to draft regulations ensuring that landowners don't mess with the topography or build high fences to block a view of the lake.
Severely limited public access is also a major issue, said Williams and Roger Nicolet, mayor of Austin and a council member.
"Many feel that we have sold our birthright to outsiders," Nicolet said. "This is a very sensitive subject."
However, as council vice-chairman Pierre Jutras pointed out, it is partly thanks to corporate Quebec that the lake has remained so pristine. Its individual members have tended to buy large tracts of waterfront property to put up just one house, albeit a very large one. The construction is usually the best that money can buy.
That may be so, the old-timer conceded as he puffed on his pipe. Desmarais can do what he wants. "We all do what we want. It's just that people with lots of money can do more of it, so it's more obvious."
A resident historian, he knows all about the days when Montreal shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan built his estate, Belmere, in the area.
"There was equal talk in the local population about how things were changing back then."
Now, there is no end of talk about the importance of preserving Belmere, which is owned by none other than Robert Gratton, chief executive officer of Power Financial and Desmarais's right-hand man.
The Smiths think Desmarais would be viewed more kindly in the community if he weren't so aloof.
His property is highly visible; he is not. His reputation in the corporate world of being quiet and reserved is spreading to the countryside, where it doesn't go over so well.
Georgeville residents are used to rubbing shoulders with actors and senators. They are used to seeing the odd head of cattle or sheep, but to them, the emu is something new.
"Mostly our feelings are hurt because he doesn't like us," Howard Smith said with a laugh.
Valerie Smith said her only problem is that "he isn't going to invite me to tea."