Cinar co-founder Charest dies at 51

Exec was a Canuck fave but her run ended in scandal

MONTREAL — Micheline Charest, co-founder and former CEO of troubled Canuck animation company Cinar, died Wednesday in Montreal from complications following plastic surgery. She was 51.

Charest was often celebrated as one of Canada’s leading female execs during the heady days of Cinar’s success in the late 1990s, but the cheers turned to jeers when she and her husband and co-CEO, Ronald Weinberg, were fired in 2000 amid a major financial scandal.

Cinar, best known for producing kids TV shows like “Arthur” and “Caillou,” became mired in scandal in the fall of 1999 when allegations arose that the Montreal-based company had committed tax fraud by falsifying documents in order to receive federal and provincial film tax credits. The following year, auditors discovered Cinar had invested $122 million in suspicious offshore funds without board approval. That’s when Charest and Weinberg left the company.

Just last month, Cinar inked a deal to sell the company for $144 million to a group led by former Nelvana CEO Michael Hirsh.

Cinar released a statement saying, “The employees of Cinar Corp. are saddened by the death of Micheline Charest, co-founder of the company and an important figure in the development of children’s programming. Micheline Charest was passionate about children’s entertainment and was committed to nonviolent programming. Under her leadership, Cinar grew into a respected company in its field by creating characters that bring joy and stimulation to children around the world.”

Charest, who grew up in Quebec City, studied at the London Film School. She and Weinberg founded Cinar as a small independent film distrib in the mid-1970s in the U.S. They relocated the company to Montreal in 1984, opened a dubbing studio and began producing children’s TV fare.

In the early 1990s the indie producer began to achieve notable success selling its shows to U.S. and Canuck specialty channels. Series include “The Adventures of Paddington Bear,” “The Busy World of Richard Scarry,” “A Bunch of Munsch,” “Mona the Vampire,” “Arthur” and “Caillou.” It later expanded into live-action shows as well, producing “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” “Emily of New Moon” and the hit miniseries “Million Dollar Babies.”

Cinar became a publicly traded company in 1993 and, with the added capital, expanded ever more aggressively into the international TV marketplace. Cinar was one of the founding stakeholders in Canadian cartoon network Teletoon.

But the success story came crashing down in 1999 when the opposition Bloc Quebecois alleged in the House of Commons that Cinar had fraudulently obtained tax credits by claiming scripts actually written by U.S. scriptwriters were penned by Canadians. The tax credits are only available for Canadian-created projects.

The scandal grew several months later when it was revealed that the company had invested $122 million in a Bahamas-based fund without consulting the board. A large chunk of that money has yet to be recovered, and Cinar is pursuing several lawsuits related to the missing cash. The company also launched legal action to recover funds it felt Charest and Weinberg owed the company.

In 2001, Charest and Weinberg were fined C$1 million ($747,000) apiece by the Quebec Securities Commission after regulators investigated financial irregularities at the company. The deal with the securities regulators did not include any admission of guilt by Charest and Weinberg.

Charest is survived by Weinberg and their two sons.

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