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Then & Now: Alma and Baxter Ricard built a media empire in Sudbury

Not only did the local couple champion Franco-Ontarien culture and create Canada’s first bilingual radio station, but they gave tens of  millions of dollars to charity

Sudbury's first French-language radio station, CFBR AM, went on the air in December, 1957. The "BR" stood for its owner, Baxter Ricard.

The private French station, an anomaly at the time, lost money and never attracted a large audience. In an interview with Northern Ontario Business in December, 1984, Ricard was asked why he didn't close the radio station.

Ricard spoke about the influence of his father, Félix, a long-time school trustee who had fought against Ontario's Regulation 17 that restricted the teaching of French in provincial schools from 1912 to 1927. Ecole Félix Ricard is named after his father.

The French radio station was a passion project that by 1984 had lost an estimated $1 million. Thankfully, Richard’s other broadcasting interests in Northern Ontario made a fortune. Before their deaths, Ricard and his wife, Alma, gave their money away to charity.

Business and life partners for more than 60 years, the Ricards had major interests in radio, television and cable services. They were community leaders and staunch supporters of French and Franco-Ontarien language and culture. 

In 1998, Alma set up the $23-million Alma & Baxter Ricard Foundation fellowship fund to assist French-Canadian students from communities where French is a minority language to pursue graduate studies at any university of their choice.

Other beneficiaries of the Ricards' philanthropy include Cambrian College, Laurentian University, the University of Ottawa and the Sisters of St. Joseph. Funds were promised to purchase an MRI for Sudbury General Hospital, but the offer was withdrawn when the provincial government announced plans to close it and build a one-site hospital.

The couple's generosity extended to St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto for a study on the health impacts of inner-city poverty, and funds for a research chair in neurosurgery at the University of Toronto.

Baxter Ricard started in hardware. He would become a broadcast pioneer and president and chair of Northern Cable Holdings Ltd.

Ricard's father, Félix, owned a hardware store on Lisgar Street. Alma Vézina, originally from Montreal, worked there as a secretary. The Ricards married in 1940 and took over ownership of the hardware store.

Ricard had other interests. He invested in Sudbury Broadcasting with a group of business owners and politicians who applied for a licence for a bilingual radio station. 

CHNO AM – "NO" for Northern Ontario – was launched on St. Jean Baptiste Day, June 24, 1947, at 8 p.m. from the ballroom at the Nickel Range Hotel. The studio was down the street at 166 Elm St. across from the courthouse.

CHNO was the first bilingual radio station in Canada outside of Quebec and it offered four-hour blocks of English and French programming rotating over a 16-hour broadcast day. In addition to local programs, it was affiliated with CBC Dominion (English) and Radio-Canada (French) networks.

Within a year, Ricard became a principal shareholder, and in 1954, he was named president and general manager of the company. Alma joined him in the boardroom as secretary-treasurer.

When CFBR was launched in 1957, CHNO became an English only station.

Sudbury Broadcasting moved from Elm Street to the former King George School in the city's West End in 1979 when space was needed for a new FM station, CJMX FM.

In 1972, with CUC Broadcasting, the Ricards and Norm Bradley started Northern Cable, a cable television service. 

Northern Cable Holdings included CHNO, CFBR and CJMX as part of its broadcast division, which became known as Mid-Canada Radio. By 1990, Mid-Canada owned 15 stations.

From 1980 to 1990 Northern Cable owned MCTV (Mid-Canada Television) stations in Sudbury, North Bay and Timmins.

The Ricards and Northern Cable began to sell off their media holdings in 1990. Mid-Canada Radio was sold to the Pelmorex Radio Network. Through a series of ownership and frequency changes over the last three decades, CFBR became CHYR FM (Le Loup 98.9), CJMX is KISS 105.3 FM and CHNO FM is Rewind 103.9 FM.

Baton Broadcasting purchased the MCTV stations, which are now part of Bell Media.

Northern Cable was sold to CF Cable TV in 1993, and was later acquired by Persona. Persona was purchased by Eastlink in 2007.

Baxter Ricard died in 1993 at the age of 87. During his lifetime, he served on numerous community boards, was a life member of the General Hospital board, president of the chamber of commerce, and president of the Richelieu Club.

He was chair of the Sudbury Urban Renewal Committee in the 1960s which championed the redevelopment of almost 60 acres in the downtown Borgia area.

A Liberal Party supporter, he was a friend of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who represented Algoma East.

"I used to be manager for Mike Pearson. Every time Mike would come up, I would meet him at the airport and drive him to Elliot Lake and he'd come home for breakfast," Ricard told Northern Ontario Business in 1984.

In that same interview, he remarked a high school teacher told him he would never amount to anything. "I had a hard time in Greek and Latin, but I was good in mathematics."

Ricard received an honorary degree from Laurentian University, and was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Northern Ontario Business in 1990. He was inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame posthumously.

Alma Ricard died at the age of 96 in 2003. In 2000, she was named an Officer in the Order of Canada for her philanthropy. Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson delivered the medal to her at home in Sudbury as she was too ill to go to Ottawa.

At the time of her death, Alain Landry, executive director of the Baxter & Alma Foundation, based in Ottawa, said, "I consider Mrs. Ricard one of the biggest philanthropists in Canada." 

The foundation "will perpetuate the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Ricard indefinitely."

Sources:
Northern Ontario Business, December 1984
History of Canadian Broadcasting (broadcasting-history.ca)
Greater Sudbury archives; greatersudbury.ca/archives
**Sudbury: Rail Town to Regional Capital. Wallace, C.M.; Thomson, Ashley (1993)
Greater Sudbury, The Story of Our Times, Laurentian Media, 2008
Sudbury loses its greatest philanthropist; Ricard dies at 96, Sudbury Star, June 4, 2003

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury. Then & Now is part of Sudbury.com’s Community Leaders Program.




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