MONTREAL - Claude Béland, former President of the Desjardins Group and the Mouvement d'éducation et de défense des actionnaires (MÉDAC), has died at the age of 87, the financial institution confirmed.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault extended his condolences to all his family and friends on Twitter, saluting the memory of a man "very socially involved in moving Quebec forward".

As an entrepreneur, Béland devoted most of his professional life to promoting and developing the cooperative model, mainly in the business and financial fields. His biographer Jean-Pierre Girard even described him as a "true apostle of cooperation".

In addition to directing the destinies of one of the largest financial cooperatives in the world, Béland wrote books on co-operatives and taught the principles and fundamentals of this type of business in several faculties of Quebec management.

Desjardins Group has indicated that its current President and Chief Executive Officer, Guy Cormier, will not be giving an interview on Sunday.

"Quebec is losing a great man, who was an ardent promoter of cooperative values," Cormier said in a statement. "Although he was occasionally critical of Desjardins, it also testified to his deep attachment to this cooperative institution, which he assumed at a pivotal moment in his history.

"We owe him a lot and, on behalf of all the board members, the elected directors of the Caisses and all the staff, I pray his wife Lise, her children and many grandchildren to accept our most sincere condolences," he added.

In recent years, Béland made several public outings to reproach the institution for having lost his soul, betrayed his social mission and turned its members into customers. He notably criticized the wave of withdrawals from ATMs in the region, as well as the leak of personal data from last summer, which he said he himself was a victim.

In its press release, Desjardins Group paid tribute to a "great humanitarian and philosopher" who has always advocated for a more equitable and more cohesive society.

A resolutely committed man

During his studies at College Brébeuf, he was already working as a volunteer at the Caisse Populaire d'Outremont, founded by his father Benjamin 'Ben' Béland. He then specialized in commercial law and cooperative law at the Université de Montréal.

Barely out of school in 1962, he participated in the creation of the Federation des caisses d'economie du Quebec. He was first the legal advisor and then the general manager.

He joined Desjardins at the time of the amalgamation of Caisses d'Economie and Caisses Populaires in 1979. President Raymond Blais became his deputy in 1986. It was this experience that allowed him to aspire to the management when his boss resigned for health reasons, a few months later.

Claude Béland was elected to head Desjardins Group on February 1, 1987 after two rounds of voting. He was re-elected twice in January 1994 and January 1997. He retired in the year of the centennial of the first caisse populaire in 2000.

During his 13 years at the helm, Béland profoundly transformed the cooperative. Among other things, he was present at the origin of the company's breakthrough in the field of securities, the introduction of automated teller machines and direct payment, the Accès-D Internet site, the sale of insurance in branches and of the reorganization of the structure of the movement. He also led the acquisition of Disnat, Coopérants and Laurentian Bank during the 1990s. 

Some of his decisions have generated a great deal of controversy. This is particularly true of the company's 'reengineering', its efforts to reduce costs and the merger of caisses in the regions. However, no one can deny that Desjardins prospered under his leadership.

The cooperative's assets rose from $29 billion to $74 billion, reserves jumped from $851 million to $3.8 billion, and credit from $1.3 billion to $4.8 billion.

At the political level, Béland chaired the Forum on Employment and the Summit on the Economy and Employment in 1996. He also served on the steering committee of the Bélanger-Campeau Commission on the Constitutional Future of Quebec in 1990.

As part of this exercise, he had to present the position of the Mouvement Desjardins de la souveraineté du Québec. He always asserted that the sovereignist view he expressed was that of the company and not his own, but even if he never again intervened in the constitutional debate afterwards, including during the campaign the referendum of 1995, this speech always stuck to him.

Béland remained involved in Quebec society after his retirement from Desjardins. Among other things, he consulted on the reform of democratic institutions at the request of the Quebec government and participated in the creation of the UQAM Chair on Corporate Social Responsibility.

He was President of MÉDAC until 2011 and sat on the boards of several organizations dedicated to social development, intergenerational relations, investor protection and the promotion of democracy.

Béland also campaigned in the New Democracy Movement for the reform of the provincial voting system and was among the first signatories of the 'Pact for Transition', an initiative of director Dominic Champagne to fight against climate change.

He was named Grand Officer of the Order of Quebec in 2014. He was a member of the Order of Francophones of America and held honorary doctorates from Laval University, Université de Montréal, Université of Quebec.