Along with its significant roster of subsidiary companies, Power Corporation of Canada (Power Corporation) manages one of the largest pools of wealth in the country, with assets totalling over C$445.5 billion.18 Power Corporation’s complex web of subsidiaries includes the insurance, investment services, communications, media, energy, waste and mineral extraction sectors. Through its controlling share of key subsidiary Power Financial, Power Corporation operates two of Canada’s largest non-bank financial services and insurance companies: IGM Financial and Great-West Lifeco.
In the wake of the climate crisis, financial institutions such as banks, pension funds and investment management companies have come under fire for financing the world’s largest and most polluting fossil fuel companies. While rarely part of the divestment conversation, insurance companies also play a pivotal role supporting the industry—through both insuring fossil fuel projects and investing their insurance premiums in oil, gas and coal companies. Power Corporation’s fossil fuel influence can also be discerned through its substantial ownership shares in the giant French oil and gas company Total SA. Paul Desmarais Jr., chairman and co-CEO of Power Corporation, was a director of Total SA until 2017.
Incorporated in 1925 by Arthur Nesbitt and Peter A. T. Thomson, Power Corporation of Canada was initially formed to manage investments in public utility companies throughout the country. It held a controlling share in Canadian Oil Companies Ltd. before selling it off to the Shell Oil Company in 1962.1 By the 1970s the company had been sold to the powerful Desmarais family,2 which continues to hold a controlling stake in the company, and whose descendants continue to hold executive positions in its management and on its boards.
|Pansolo Holding Inc.||CA||59.15|
|Desmarais Family Residuary Trust||CA||> 50.00|
|Royal Bank of Canada||CA||3.00|
|Province of Québec||CA||2.39|
|Power Corporation of Canada (self-owned)||CA||2.26|
|Fidelity Investments (FMR LLC)||US||1.90|
|Vanguard Group Inc.||US||1.86|
Included are all shareholdings of 1% and greater. Source: Orbis Database, October 2018.
Power Corporation holds a 65.5 per cent interest in Power Financial, the parent company of Great-West Lifeco and IGM Financial—both large conglomerates of insurance and investment services companies that themselves own numerous subsidiaries.3 Great-West Lifeco includes major life insurance firms such as London Life, Canada Life and Irish Life. IGM Financial owns investment service companies such as Investors Group, Mackenzie Investments and Investment Planning Counsel.5 Total is the world’s fourth-largest oil and gas company,6 with operations that include offshore oil and gas drilling, liquefied natural gas and shale gas fracking. It is active in Africa, North and South America, Asia and Europe. The Power Corporation corporate umbrella also includes ownership of Power Energy Corporation—a renewables company—along with a number of other, smaller subsidiary corporations.7 “Investments,” Power Corporation of Canada, accessed June 15th, 2018 https://www.powercorporation.com/en/companies/investments/ (no longer available).
In its promotional materials on corporate responsibility, Power Corporation claims to integrate environmental and social factors into its investment selection practices, emphasizing the positive environmental impacts of its investments in renewable energy sources.8 The company also notes its charitable activities: in 2017 it made $48 million in charitable donations, with recipients including environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation.9 Power Corporation acknowledges its responsibility to address climate change, adding that climate action must be “harmonized” with the company’s ability to accrue profit. Of note, the company does not perceive its operations to be under threat from climate change: in its disclosure to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Power Corporation suggests that as a holding company with no direct ties to high-carbon industry, government-imposed climate policies “are not expected to generate a substantive change in our business operations, revenues or expenditures.”10 It adds that the majority (98 per cent) of its assets are held within the financial services industry, and that Power Corporation’s leaders “do not consider physical climate parameters to have a substantive impact” on their future performance because of the geographic diversity of these holdings.11
When considered against both the size and the content of the company’s assets, however, these claims appear dubious—particularly in the context of its subsidiary insurance companies. Insurance companies function much like major banks, investing the “float” (the money they accumulate through insurance premiums) that isn’t paid out in claims. The income generated by investing insurance money isn’t taxable, further increasing the amount of revenue which the companies can generate. The largest Canadian insurers—including Power Corporation’s network of companies—hold enough investments to rank among the largest asset managers in the world. For example, Great-West Lifeco—a Power Corporation subsidiary—holds C$1.3 trillion in consolidated assets.12
While it is not possible to determine how the entire corporation invests its assets, an analysis of some of the investment managers working on its behalf helps illustrate the real carbon impacts of its holdings: Putnam Investments—a Great-West Lifeco subsidiary—holds investments in Bp, Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips among others.13 As stated previously, Power Corporation owns a substantial piece of Total SA, giving Power an interest in Total’s extensive operations in offshore oil and gas drilling, liquefied natural gas and shale gas fracking. Furthermore, insurance companies like those controlled by Power Corporation frequently underwrite new fossil fuel projects, providing coverage for the many political and technical risks that companies face.
In the context of climate change, Power Corporation draws on the complexity of its ownership structure as a strategic advantage. By limiting the scope of subsidiaries’ corporate responsibility within their own specified operations, Power Corporation creates a conceptual divide between its various holdings and the combined carbon impacts of its activities.
The immense political power of the corporation’s controlling family, the Desmarais, has led critics to suggest that it has shaped legislation and policy in its favour.14 Former Canadian prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien all worked for Power Corporation or sat on one of its boards at various points in their professional careers,15 and the Desmarais family is known for its close ties to the federal Liberal Party.
Moreover, the biography of Paul Desmarais Jr. illustrates the company’s political influence beyond national borders: Desmarais Jr. was one of the 30 members of the North American Competitiveness Council, a group which helped forge the trilateral framework of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), which was disbanded a few years following its launch in 2006. The SPP was widely criticized for its attempts to privatize Canadian freshwater sources, militarize border security throughout Canada and Mexico and facilitate the expansion of carbon-heavy energy sources such as the Alberta oil sands.16 Desmarais Jr. is also the former chair and was, until recently, a director of corporate Canada’s leading business council, the Business Council of Canada.17 “Board of Directors,” Business Council of Canada, accessed June 11, 2018, http://thebusinesscouncil.ca/about-the-council/members/board-of-directors/ (no longer available).
Learn more about the Power Corporation of Canada at LittleSis.org
The intent of the Corporate Mapping Project database is to engage Canadians in a conversation about the role of the fossil fuel sector in our democracy, by “mapping” how power and influence play out in the oil, gas and coal industries of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Power Financial Corporation holds a substantial share of Pargesa Holding SA, whose partial ownership of the holdings company Groupe Bruxelles Lambert provides it with a large stake in the French oil company Total SA.Power Financial Corporation holds a substantial share of Pargesa Holding SA, whose partial ownership of the holdings company Groupe Bruxelles Lambert provides it with a large stake in the French oil company Total SA.4Organization Chart,” Power Corporation.