To view original article click here
The Ottawa Citizen
Updated January 30, 2018
It was an unseasonably warm day in early November when an Ottawa police officer noticed the car.
The silver Honda Civic was parked on a Vanier street, blocking traffic.
When the constable approached, the man inside was, as he’d later be described, “combative,” and would reply to the officer only in German.
The driver’s licence indicated the occupant was Antoine Paquin, one of this city’s best-known entrepreneurs.
A few kilometers east, Kerry Pfahl had just come back from dropping off her two boys at school.
She noticed her husband wasn’t home. That was a concern. He hadn’t mentioned plans.
Twenty minutes later, Pfahl got a call from Paquin’s priest. He told her Antoine had scheduled a meeting but hadn’t shown up.
“Where was he?” Pfahl asked herself.
The answer came shortly from the police, who described the confrontation to her.
It was the day that worry turned to fear.
Paquin had suffered a psychotic break.
For years, Paquin had been silently suffering symptoms of what would later, and somewhat tentatively, be diagnosed as depression and bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by severe mood swings.
He’d had racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleepless nights. But last November, the illness began roaring through him like a freight train.
Paquin was checked into the Montfort Hospital for emergency assessment — and given anti-anxiety medication.
Six months later, on May 23, Paquin took his own life at his Navan estate. His friends and colleagues, including the very few who had been aware of his mental condition, were rocked; left with more questions than answers.
“I haven’t been able to reconcile this,” says Dave Furneaux, Paquin’s friend for 20 years and a eulogist at his funeral service.
Paquin was the wunderkind. Twenty years earlier, he had made a fortune from his very first startup, Skystone Systems. He had helped launch Ottawa’s tech boom.
In those days, euphoria was normal as the industry’s risk-takers ushered in a new order.
The brash, intense Paquin was one of its high priests. He ran a string of tech firms, invested in fellow entrepreneurs and became a venture capitalist.
Aside from his well-known career success, Paquin was, outwardly at least, the picture of health: supremely fit, an ironman, skier, surfer and a cyclist.
Then there was family. Paquin’s relatives were many and his marriage was solid. Two of his three boys were still in high school.
To outside observers, Paquin had much to live for.
The world of mental illness is filled with people unwilling to accept that their brains are betraying them. For much of his adult life, Paquin tried to fix himself. This was just who he was — different, that’s all.
Until last November, he believed his symptoms had nothing to do with mental illness. Even then he wasn’t totally convinced. Shortly before his death, he drove himself to a clinic in Kingston to get a brain scan, to see if a tumour or some other physical cause was at the root of his affliction.
What seems clear is that he was somehow pre-disposed to a brain disorder, which made him vulnerable to certain types of stress. He experienced more than his share of it, starting early in life.
There is no direct line from one trauma to the troubles that plagued the mind of Paquin. But there are glimpses, hints and suggestions, especially in retrospect, of a brilliant mind on fire.
In the summer of 1984, Antoine Paquin was deep in the interior of B.C. and facing a revolt from his platoon.
Just 17, he had completed his first of two years at Collège Militaire Royal, the Saint-Jean, Que. military academy that prepares talented Quebec cadets for university. Paquin and his fellow classmates had travelled to the Canadian Forces Base in Chilliwack, B.C., for military exercises.
As part of the simulation, the platoon leader was “killed,” forcing Paquin to take over. The platoon was in the wilderness, without food. Paquin’s job was to locate supplies that had been dropped nearby by helicopter.
Paquin led the search without success. After 36 hours, his troops were hungry and foul-tempered.
“There was a revolt,” says one member of the platoon, a former Saint-Jean classmate of Paquin’s. “The guys said ‘You’re not a leader,’ though I and others stood by Antoine.”
The whole exercise had been a test, meant to see whether Paquin could keep the respect of his troops. He failed it.
Worse was to come, though.
“We weren’t liked,” says the former classmate. “We were from Quebec and we were in officer training. Chilliwack was run by corporals with experience in the real army. Their attitude was ‘These guys are going to pay.’”
The abuse came in many forms. The corporals would shout into squad members’ faces to see how they’d react. Platoon members were frequently pushed to the edge of exhaustion to test physical endurance. They were compelled to eat food that had been chewed by fellow soldiers. On one occasion, the classmate says, a trooper was made to bend over while a corporal simulated a rectal probe with a stick — a warning of what was in store if anyone disobeyed orders.
Paquin’s personality didn’t help. “Antoine was intelligent and gifted, and he was always questioning things,” the classmate explains, “That made him a target.”
Despite the difficult introduction to military training, Antoine completed two years at Collège Militaire Royal, graduating to Royal Military College in Kingston, where he intended to earn his university-level degree.
But the hazing rituals and abuse he received there proved too much.
“He was a top cadet, top marksman, top student, an overachiever in every way,” said one close family member, “but he broke down there.”
It was not a physical breakdown; Paquin simply couldn’t face returning for his second year there.
Paquin didn’t like to talk about RMC. “He would hint at things that happened but said only that RMC wasn’t completely his thing,” said Chris Riordon, the Carleton University classmate who later co-founded the company that led to Skystone, Paquin’s breakout success in the tech world.
Sylvain Charlebois, who started RMC the year after Paquin left, noted that just 25 of 300 original recruits in his class survived the five-year program and graduated.
“It was a very different era,” explained Charlebois, currently dean of Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. “You weren’t allowed to show psychological weakness, let alone the physical. Today I’m a civilian dean in a university where students can’t relate to what I went through in the 1980s.”
Neither of Paquin’s closest friends at Carleton University — Riordon and Brian Gieschen — recognized signs of mental distress.
During their school years, Riordon and Paquin started the Objectivist Club, which celebrated the fiction of Ayn Rand, among other conservative philosophers. It was, after all, the era of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and his agenda of smaller government. “He was really gung ho on the U.S.,” Riordon says.
It’s not clear where Paquin picked up his initial instincts for laissez-faire capitalism.
His father, Raymond, taught mathematics at the Université du Québec, including campuses in Outaouais, Sherbrooke and Montreal, where Antoine was born. Antoine’s grandfather was a successful businessman. But Raymond was one of seven siblings, which meant that any inherited wealth was substantially diluted. Antoine and his brother were middle-class francophones.
Antoine was the only sibling to fully embrace anglophone culture. During his first year at Carleton, Antoine’s English was improving, though still strongly accented. He went by the name Marc (his full name was Marc-Antoine) because he hated being called Anthony or Tony. By the time he graduated, Riordon says, Paquin’s English was nearly flawless. And he reverted to Antoine.
Paquin had a good ear for languages. During his career he acquired some fluency in German and Spanish.
“He was a really interesting guy,” says Dave Furneaux. “He was highly intelligent, very driven and very creative. Other creative people lack discipline, but he used both sides of his brain.”
Like so many other engineering grads in that era, Paquin started his career at the research arm of Nortel Networks, where his first boss, Stefan Opalski, introduced him to the fine art of building complex chipsets for the telecommunications industry.
“Antoine was a bit cocky, but I ascribed it mainly to his youth,” says Opalski who was Paquin’s senior and an island of calm by comparison. “He felt he could do anything.”
Paquin laboured just two years at Nortel before exploring other options. He was not going to spend his career tweaking semiconductors in a laboratory. Paquin kept in touch with Riordon, who had landed a job at Newbridge Networks, the telecom equipment firm launched a few years earlier by Terence Matthews.
“Antoine was entrepreneur, entrepreneur, really eager to get going on something,” says Riordon.
In the context of the late 1990s high-tech industry, this quality was evident in many others as well. But even within that crowd, Paquin’s brashness, and unreserved enthusiasm for taking big risks was exceptional.
Paquin and Riordon started Aurigor Engineering out of their basements in 1993.
That year, a record 10 Ottawa tech companies listed their shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange for the first time. Entrepreneurs Terry Matthews and Michael Cowpland were making headlines virtually every week.
Paquin, meanwhile, was living in Aylmer with his wife, Caroline; Riordon was in Manotick.
Eventually, the Carleton grads turned their focus to building custom chips. One was particularly promising — a semiconductor that offered a bridge between the then-separate worlds of telecommunications and the internet. It would prove the basis for Paquin’s first, monster home run.
By 1996, it was clear Paquin’s enthusiasm for risk far exceeded that of Riordon.
“I was nervous about building up too fast,” says Riordon, “Antoine wanted to push aggressively.”
They came to an agreement. Riordon spun off a new firm, Aurigor Telecom Systems, leaving Paquin — along with his former Nortel boss, Opalski, and half-a-dozen others — with the original entity, Aurigor Engineering.
Showing good instinct for marketing, Paquin promptly renamed the firm Skystone Systems, after the meteorite that provided the raw material for the sword of Excalibur in the legend of Britain’s King Arthur.
Riordon, Paquin and Opalski retained ownership in both firms.
Just one other step was required: to get the chip into the hands of the tech legends building the internet. That’s where Dave Furneaux came in. Though he, like Paquin, was still in his 20s, he was the son of a prominent U.S. venture capitalist.
In 1994, he and his father were mulling a new fund that would invest in tech startups. On a visit to Ottawa, Furneaux dropped in to see Paquin after hearing about Aurigor from a manager at Nortel.
“Call me if you ever decide to build products,” Furneaux had told Paquin. When Skystone became a reality, Paquin made the call. Shortly after, the two began a cross-continent journey to show the industry’s most important firms what their semiconductor could do.
“It wasn’t until we started meeting with people that we realized that what we had was really important,” Furneaux recalls.
Skystone’s timing was exquisite. The worlds of telephone networks and the internet were converging. Cisco knew it and, unlike Nortel, was willing to act. Three of Cisco’s top executives flew from San Jose to Ottawa in June 1997 and presented Paquin and Opalski with a stunning offer — $89 million US in cash and shares for 100 per cent of Skystone’s privately held shares.
“You have to do everything right,” says Opalski, “but luck is a big factor.”
Paquin was in the right place and time with the right people.
“It was a massive offer,” says Furneaux, “and it had happened so fast, Antoine’s first validation of being an entrepreneur.”
The journey to great success would never again be this easy for Paquin.
Paquin’s greatest corporate triumph had come at significant personal expense. The day the sale of Skystone was announced, Caroline was preparing to sign divorce papers.
For Paquin, the rush to build Skystone had been all consuming. He had hired dozens of employees, often inviting them unannounced to his home for dinner. At one point, Paquin invested their life’s savings without informing his spouse. Nor was he shy about raising seed money; he approached members of his family and Caroline’s. He persuaded prominent high-tech executives to invest — Mike Foster, Leo Lax, Douglas Smeaton and John Roberts, among others.
Paquin was the public face of Skystone, dealing with potential customers and professional investors. He was on the road constantly, barely making a connection with his son Laurent, who was born in 1993. Three months after the sale of Skystone was finalized, he gave up custody.
Paquin had succeeded professionally in spectacular fashion at a young age. The world beckoned as family life did not.
As far as the outside world was concerned, Paquin had it made. He had not only secured his fortune, he had acquired a reputation for being a visionary. His Skystone had pointed the way for others.
Cisco’s 1997 purchase of Skystone was a life-changing event for Paquin. Not so many years earlier, he had been working evenings in a 7-Eleven corner store to pay for his university tuition. Such were his finances in 1989-90 he had to quit piano lessons because he couldn’t afford them.
Now, suddenly, he was in receipt of $20 million US worth of Cisco shares (about $28 million Cdn at currency rates then in force). At first, he was dismissive about his change of fortune. “It’s not about making money,” he told a reporter days after the deal had been announced. “It’s about passion. It’s about building something. It’s about winning.”
Yet there were troubles. Many evenings he was enveloped by black moods, periods when he would retreat into his private thoughts and not speak. Now and then, Paquin’s anger would erupt.
“He was very good at putting on a mask at work,” says a family member, “but he internalized things so much he didn’t want to deal with anyone at the end of the day.”
Luc Beauvais, a veteran member of the Ottawa Police Service, was on routine traffic patrol on Blair Road in 2000 when he heard the roar of a car accelerating on a green light. It wasn’t until he got off his motorcycle that he noticed the make of the vehicle he had just pulled over: it was a Ferrari 550 Maranello, which listed for $250,000 before options and taxes.
The driver — a young, fit man with blond hair — asked Beauvais politely: had he done anything wrong? Beauvais, realizing it was the car’s powerful engine that had produced the noise, told him no.
The men struck up a conversation — about guns, the military and cars. “What’s the model?” Beauvais asked. Paquin told him, then asked “Want to try it out?”
Beauvais answered patiently that a test drive would be inappropriate in the circumstances. “Well, in that case, why don’t you come to my house on Saturday?” Paquin suggested.
That caught Beauvais off guard.
“Why not?” he thought.
Beauvais very nearly turned back, though, when he entered the driveway at 120 Lansdowne and caught a glimpse of Paquin’s main house.
Over the previous two years, Paquin has spent millions to acquire seven acres, demolish the decrepit former house once occupied by Netherlands royalty, and build a sprawling brick mansion.
Beauvais’ curiosity got the better of him. Who was this guy?
“It was the best traffic stop I ever made,” Beauvais recalls, not because he finally had the thrill of driving a Ferrari, but for the 17 years of deep friendship that resulted.
Beauvais and Paquin had relatively little in common. Both were francophone, and each was the father of young children. Indeed, Beauvais and his wife had two sets of young twins.
But Beauvais was uninterested in the world of business and semiconductors that Paquin inhabited nearly full-time. Which turned out to be the whole point.
At or near the peak of the tech boom, Paquin hosted a blowout fundraiser for the National Arts Centre for more than 100 guests. Marlen and Mike Cowpland were there as was Michael Potter and other prominent players from the world of high-tech and the Ottawa arts community. Pinchas Zukerman who, the previous year, had become the music director of the National Arts Centre’s orchestra, watched Paquin play piano for his guests.
Late in the evening Paquin found Beauvais downstairs playing pool. “You’ve got to stay until everyone’s gone,” he whispered to his friend, “when the rich guys leave we can play AC/DC and have a blast!”
Beauvais became for Paquin an island of normalcy. “We never talked about business,” Beauvais says. “My friendship with him wasn’t about money.”
The two would shoot the breeze over beers in the ByWard Market, discussing their wives, children, the police service and sports. Paquin appeared fascinated by Beauvais’ experiences as a policeman, particularly when these involved providing motorcycle escorts for foreign dignitaries and other VIPs visiting Ottawa.
Over the years, the relationship morphed into something more profound as each realized the other was carrying a secret burden. At first, it was Paquin who played the role of big brother.
Beauvais, who two years ago was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, was having increasing difficulty dealing with the suicides and fatal accidents that occurred with distressing frequency. He investigated between four and eight suicides every month and the pattern didn’t change when he was transferred to British Columbia in 2005. Beauvais had trouble sleeping, plagued by nightmares featuring victims.
“When I started getting treatment for PTSD,” he said, “Antoine was the one that kept in touch out of all my circle of friends.”
Later, Beauvais and Paquin leaned on each other. Paquin, too, was experiencing sleepless nights and difficulties concentrating. His was a different kind of PTSD, but no less powerful.
If the sale of Skystone represented the apotheosis of Paquin’s good fortune, the rest of his career was marked by consecutive pieces of bad luck that dripped on his consciousness like battery acid.
Had Paquin simply held onto his Cisco shares, done nothing for three years, he would have been worth $180 million US.
But that’s not how ambitious, high-energy entrepreneurs behave.
Paquin began selling his shares almost immediately. Paquin invested in a string of Ottawa startups, from Chrysalis-ITS (chips for secure computing) to Philsar Semiconductor (chips for wireless handsets). A chunk of his Cisco shares went to pay for his Ferrari, his Porsche and the construction of his Rockcliffe mansion. Entrepreneurs across the city sought an audience with him, for advice and money.
“There were a number of startups that approached him,” says Leo Lax, a Skystone investor, “Antoine would just give them $100,000 to $200,000.”
The drain on his Skystone proceeds didn’t seem to matter at first because Paquin soon slugged another ball out of the park. He had quit his job at Cisco in 1998 to become CEO of Philsar. In May 2000, he revealed that he had orchestrated the sale of his new firm to U.S.-based Conexant for $186 million US.
Coming so quickly after his success at Skystone, the deal appeared to seal Paquin’s reputation as one of high-tech’s golden boys. He was not yet in the same league as tech pioneers Terence Matthews and Michael Potter, but he was still just 33. Given enough startups to run, Paquin would surely get there.
Paquin knew better, however. During negotiations over Philsar’s sale, the value of the shares Conexant was willing to pay was all over the place. At one point, the price had briefly surged to more than $400 million US. But by the time the deal was announced, the Conexant shares had lost more than half their value and would continue to fall rapidly.
The tech bubble had been punctured.
And there was another crucial difference from Skystone. Paquin was not a founder at Philsar, which meant he owned relatively few shares. An executive at the time estimated Paquin’s share of Philsar at no more than 10 per cent. Depending on when Paquin finally disposed of the shares he collected from Conexant, his take may have been less than $10 million US.
In the context of a collapsing tech industry, even that might have been considered a win, but for what happened next.
In 2001 Paquin and some of his colleagues relied on professional advice offered by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP to significantly reduce taxes owing on the profits (capital gains) he made from selling company shares. This developed into a time bomb that would explode years later.
Post 2000, there were more immediate stresses involving money. Some of Paquin’s venture investments crashed, for instance. Sedona Networks went bankrupt, Sibercore wound up operations. The value of his stake in other startups plummeted as stock market indexes continued falling.
Venture capitalists — his co-investors in many cases — squeezed him out using techniques he considered reprehensible. To cite one example, venture firms invoked clauses that ensured they would be paid first in any eventual sale of the startup before early investors, known as angels, got a dime. In these instances, Paquin got nothing.
Nor did Paquin do well in real estate. He invested in excess of $10 million in his Rockcliffe estate but sold it late in 2003 to Philip Garel-Jones, a founder of JDSU, for little more than $8 million. That sale was finalized by his wife, Kerry Pfahl, because Paquin had already departed for Los Angeles to try his hand at running yet another tech startup, Axiom Semiconductor.
Money was never what you would call tight for the family after Skystone but there was a definite downscaling from the excesses of the tech boom. Paquin in 2002 sold his Ferrari and Porsche 996. When the family returned to Ottawa from California in 2006, they acquired a property in Navan — a light-year away from the bad memories of Rockcliffe. It sold recently for nearly $1.5 million.
While the state of Paquin’s finances was a source of worry, he also struggled with a sense of purpose. Was he best suited as an entrepreneur or as an investor who could help other entrepreneurs?
From 2001 to 2009, Paquin flipped back and forth between these two worlds, not entirely comfortable with investing, not hugely successful with his last three startups. Underlying everything was the dark thought that perhaps he would never again match his success at Skystone. It was a theme he returned to during his final months.
Before he escaped to Los Angeles in 2002 to run Axiom Semiconductor, he had been CEO for a year at BitFlash, an Ottawa startup that specialized in wireless technology. It was a case of bad timing. Wireless carriers, the major customers, had simply stopped buying new technologies, forcing Paquin in 2001 to sack half his 100 or so employees. He stepped down shortly after. Three years later Open Text of Waterloo purchased BitFlash for an amount considered immaterial.
As far as the Ottawa tech community was concerned, Paquin simply disappeared. He had learned about Axiom Microdevices through people he met while running Philsar. Founded by a pair of grads from the California Institute of Technology, Axiom developed the world’s first cellphone power amplifier based on a technology known as CMOS. The company would go on to sell more than a quarter of a billion units, but Paquin survived as its CEO only until early 2004.
“There were differences with investors over company strategy,” Dave Furneaux explains, “It happens all the time.”
Luc Beauvais remembers a mid-day call from Paquin sometime in 2004. “Guess what I’m doing?” Paquin had told him in a tone suggesting conspiracy. “I’m surfing!”
For nearly two years, Paquin bided his time, waxing his surfboard, training for ironman competitions, taking courses in material science and engineering at the University of California. Photos at the time show him to be remarkably buff, almost relaxed, whether on the beach with surfboard at hand or sitting on the deck chair of a colleague’s boat against the California sun.
It should have been a sweet interlude, and in many ways it was. But Paquin simply couldn’t relax. It had been like this his entire professional life. “He was loving life and living it fully but at the same time he was suffering,” says a close family member.
Paquin worked hard to stay ahead of his feeling of desperation; he was more comfortable when his agenda was full, when things were intense. When his calendar opened up wide, as it did in 2001 and again in California, he rushed to fill it up.
After Paquin left BitFlash in 2001, for instance, he worked with Leo Lax at Skypoint Capital, an Ottawa venture firm that had invested in a group of high-tech startups. Paquin’s role was to provide advice to the founders of four of the companies.
“For months we had trouble reaching Antoine,” recalls Lax, “When we finally got hold of him we realized he was actually trying to run the four companies we assigned.”
Another colleague says Paquin had been pushing hard because he felt this was necessary to get things back on track at the four firms.
Similarly in California, when Paquin left Axiom, he filled the empty spaces with intensive physical training and university lectures.
In 2006, he and Pfahl moved back to Ottawa. Their two young boys were growing up and the parents did not want to see them schooled in the States. For the next three years, the family settled into a routine that was very nearly normal. The boys attended Ashbury College, the school of choice for the Rockcliffe set, while Paquin commuted weekly to Montreal, where he served as a partner at Rho Canada Ventures, advising entrepreneurs about strategy.
“He seemed to enjoy Montreal, at least in the beginning,” says Steve Baker, who was Rho Canada’s entrepreneur-in-residence while Paquin was partner. “He was doing a lot of soul-searching, trying to figure things out,” Baker adds.
Paquin travelled to Montreal by train every Monday, returning home to Navan for weekends. In Montreal, he stayed in a penthouse apartment a few minutes’ walk from Rho Canada’s offices in the downtown core. On one of the train journeys Paquin decided his true calling was neither that of adviser or financier. He would launch another startup.
Starting Solantro was easy. He’d done this sort of thing before. Paquin scoped out a mission, called up his friend Dave Furneaux, and looked for ways to finance the development of technology that could get the job done.
Paquin’s ambition was epic. He wanted to develop semiconductors to digitize the solar power industry to make it easier for utilities to set up and run new installations with great speed, flexibility and efficiency. Solantro would transform the electric grid.
“Antoine looked at semiconductor devices that could change the world,” Lax said.
It was a breathtaking, beautiful vision. But progress toward realizing it was positively glacial compared to his early experience at Skystone. Paquin learned that Solantro was, in one sense, like any other startup — he had to raise money continually so he could pay his team of developers until the day Solantro had customers willing to pay for the new solar chipsets.
On the rare occasions Paquin worked out of the company’s Nepean office, employees got used to seeing their boss striding back and forth between desks, talking a mile-a-minute into a communications headset, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.
By then there were signs of Antoine’s inner struggles. There was the rashness of some of Paquin’s decisions, particularly when it involved spending money, his brusqueness when he casually dismissed work done overnight by his engineers or his sudden loss of interest in projects or ideas he had been obsessing about for ages.
Mostly, though, Paquin was on the road, trying to arrange deals with potential partners or customers in India, Japan and China.
Even for someone as fit as Paquin, the routine was exhausting. “Solantro is in a very tough business,” says one semiconductor expert who worked with Paquin, “Most of its customers are in Asia, and they want to buy from their own suppliers. They grind you on costs.”
They were gentle compared to the Canada Revenue Agency.
Paquin’s difficulties with tax authorities really started in 2010. According to court documents, CRA officials had several years earlier audited the tax reduction strategy recommended by Deloitte. The foreign currency straddle, as it was known, was complex in the extreme.
The documents explained that Deloitte arranged for Paquin to contract with a U.K. broker who bought foreign currency futures, then hedged the positions in a manner that reduced Paquin’s tax bill from 1998 through to 2001.
In November 2010, CRA informed Paquin he owed $17 million in back taxes.
It was a stunning setback and Paquin, who had sought legal advice in 2001 before moving ahead with the Deloitte strategy, fought back. “That was a real source of stress for Antoine for many years,” said his friend, Beauvais. “He wanted to write a book about how the world is getting screwed by government, about how the CRA is going after the rich.”
Paquin appealed directly through the Tax Court of Canada. The case was closed in 2015. Paquin also sued Deloitte for “negligent misrepresentation” and “breach of fiduciary duty.” He launched the suit in 2012 and ended it in March 2017.
Since both legal settlements were covered by a non-disclosure agreement, it’s not known what amounts Paquin ultimately wound up paying, if any.
What’s clear from interviews with colleagues and friends is that he wasn’t happy with the process, with being forced to defend his actions for more than six years, with having to endure the possibility of losing a considerable chunk of his remaining fortune.
“That CRA mess was not Antoine’s fault,” said a business colleague who also had his taxes re-assessed as a result of the same strategy, “but he was dragged into a very dark hole with no way out.”
The tax fiasco wasn’t the only thing preying on Paquin’s peace of mind. His father died in 2015, as did Adam Chowaniec, the founder of Tundra Semiconductor and a mentor with whom Paquin was exceptionally close. Not only that, Solantro was taking longer than he expected to become a success — the company had had to lay off workers during 2016.
Which of these factors, if any, led to his break with reality in November 2016 — his German-speaking episode — will never be known.
But from that point on, Paquin was a danger to himself.
At first, it wasn’t obvious.
Paquin spent a week in the Montfort Hospital, where he was prescribed some anti-anxiety medicine.
He was given a psychologist’s appointment some months later for a followup and meantime advised to return to the hospital in the event of an emergency.
Paquin took a leave of absence from Solantro. In December, he, Pfahl and their two boys left for a vacation at the family’s timeshare villa in Cabo on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Luc Beauvais and his wife, Sherry, joined them.
“In the mornings Antoine would meditate and do yoga,” says Beauvais. “He was up and down but he wasn’t hyper.”
Beauvais had been surprised to learn about Paquin’s rather gentle drug treatment and suggested he arrange some followup appointments. “Antoine called a couple of psychologists (in Ottawa) when he was down in Mexico,” Beauvais says.
Paquin’s Facebook pages did not mention his Mexican vacation though postings from the previous two or three years are studded with references to retreats and peaceful vistas from around the world.
His personality softened, too.
He travelled to India on Solantro business several times with Raj Narula who was impressed by Paquin’s insatiable curiosity about Indian language and religion. Paquin also examined his younger self with apparent objectivity. “I have a bad reputation,” he told Narula, “I was young and brash and made a lot of money.”
During his final vacation in Mexico last December, he visited an orphanage. So struck was he by the plight of the children that he immediately pushed to donate his time-share vacation property — a transaction that hadn’t been completed at the time of his death.
When longtime friends and colleagues dropped by Paquin’s home or office during 2016 to say hello, Paquin had been wistful. “We should go skiing, you and I,” he told Luc Lussier, the founder of Philsar. “I should have been a priest,” Paquin said in a conversation with Seste Dell’Aera, a former marketing director at Solantro.
His mind was wandering, mulling possibilities. Paquin wanted to go to Africa to help the poor. He thought it would be a good idea to retire on Vancouver Island and be closer to his buddy Luc Beauvais.
In his quiet moments, he appeared reflective. “My life has been full of miracles, starting with the mystery of my own existence,” he posted on Facebook in late November.
When Paquin returned to Ottawa early this year after his Mexican vacation, reality seemed to hit. He called his friend Dave Furneaux who referred him to a psychiatrist in Boston. The U.S. specialist gave Paquin the name of a psychiatrist in Ottawa.
Paquin had several meetings with the psychiatrist but was not referred to The Royal. “It simply never came up,” says a close family member.
It may have been because Paquin’s mental disorder presented somewhat unusually.
“A true bipolar condition affects patients’ ability to function well on the job,” says Dr. Sanjay Rao, a psychiatrist and clinical leader in cognitive behavioural therapy at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.
“I would also look for changes in moods that occur in distinct phases during the year, not a day to day thing,” he adds, stressing that he can only speaking about bipolar symptoms in general.
Other factors could have produced Paquin’s mental crisis last November. For instance, he had been taking medical marijuana and had recently tried ‘magic’ mushrooms, which contain naturally occurring psychedelics such as psilocybin.
Pfahl was well aware of her husband’s erratic demeanour. “We were in survival mode,” she says.
Paquin talked with certain family members about the idea of taking his own life. Beauvais says Paquin first mentioned suicide four years ago but he had had no plan.
“How could you think this when you have everything?” Beauvais had asked rhetorically.
Paquin didn’t bring up the subject again with Beauvais until 2017.
Paquin’s state of mind was particularly troubling for his eldest son, Laurent, because the two had repaired relations and chatted regularly.
Paquin also demonstrated that his will to live hadn’t simply gone away. In late April or early May, he arranged for a scan of his brain, the results of which are still in the hands of the coroner’s office. The high-tech buff in him wanted to see if there was some physical explanation, such as a tumour, that might explain his symptoms.
Around the same time the dosage of one of his several medicines either changed or was becoming less effective. “In the last two weeks,” says Pfahl, “he wasn’t feeling himself.” The medical marijuana was no longer helping him relax and Pfahl says he was so troubled by war and human suffering he could no longer listen to the news.
It’s not clear when Paquin made his decision to end his life. Beauvais says he saw it in his friend’s eyes during a dinner just two days before the suicide. Beauvais and his wife, Sherry, were in Ottawa to celebrate another family member’s 75th birthday. On Sunday, they visited Antoine and Pfahl.
“At first he seemed very happy, like old times,” says Beauvais. At one point, the four of them discussed Paquin’s illness openly. “It’s not your fault,” Sherry told him.
Beauvais says that toward the end of the evening, “Antoine seemed tired, distracted.” The driver he had pulled over 17 years earlier had lost his mischievous spark. “It was a different kind of goodbye,” Beauvais adds
On Tuesday, a fellow policeman, aware of Beauvais’s close friendship with Paquin, called with the devastating news.
After he had absorbed the shock, Beauvais remembered a visit Antoine had paid him and his wife a year earlier in Vancouver. Antoine had met them in the lobby of their hotel with his guitar and played One, the hit song by U2. “The lyrics, listen to the lyrics,” Beauvais says, “It’s as if he knew.”
“Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?” is how the song begins before moving to the chorus.
“You say one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you, baby, if you don’t care for it.”
It’s possible Paquin meant nothing more than to share a tune he liked. On May 23, he found a way to permanently quiet the noise in his brain.
Among entrepreneurs, bravado is common. In some cases, it may even underpin their success. Surprisingly often, it is the product of a mental condition.
Dr. Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, discovered that one in two entrepreneurs had a lifetime history of at least one mental health condition and that 32 per cent had wrestled with multiple conditions. This was based on his recent survey of 242 entrepreneurs and 93 non-entrepreneurs of similar age.
More specifically, Freeman’s study — Are Entrepreneurs ‘Touched with Fire’? — showed that 30 per cent of the entrepreneurs he surveyed had experienced depression compared to just 15 per cent for the control group, and 11 per cent had reported bipolar disorder compared to one per cent for the non-entrepreneurs.
This doesn’t answer the question of whether people who choose to become entrepreneurs are predisposed toward mental illness, or whether the high-tech industry creates forces that produce mental distress. It may be a little of both.
“We all know that the tech profession tears you away from family far too much,” says Chris Albinson, managing director of Panorama Capital and a founding member of C-100, a group of Canadians working in California.
Former Intel chief executive Andy Grove famously wrote that in high tech “only the paranoid survive.” The demands are unrelenting. From inception a startup is often just one step short of oblivion. Most will either fail outright or drift through life a mediocre survivor.
Economic fortunes in high-tech can shift dramatically and unexpectedly. The highs associated with landing significant equity investments or orders are a rush to the brain; the lows that come with failed deals and cancelled purchases are mind-numbingly deep.
“The majority of the time, patients with bipolar disorder will be in the depressive phase, not the manic,” says Dr. Sanjay Rao, a psychiatrist and clinical leader in cognitive behavioural therapy at The Royal Ottawa, “We also look for evidence of atypical behaviour.”
Diagnostics are frustratingly imprecise — perhaps not surprising given the complexity of the brain.
Dr. Zul Merali, the president and CEO of The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, says it is telling that death rates from mental illness, usually in the form of suicide, have not retreated at all during the past few decades while medical researchers have substantially reduced the rate of fatalities from heart disease, many cancers, AIDS and strokes. Merali points out the number of suicides in Canada, 4,000 a year, is equivalent to two plane crashes every month with no survivors.
The most vulnerable category is men between 45 and 55 years of age, exactly Antoine Paquin’s cohort.
The larger impediment to gaining insight into people’s brains may well be budgetary. “Less than five per cent of medical research money is dedicated to mental health,” Merali says.
Mental health research is probing some promising areas involving detailed brain scans that allow for a more careful calibration of drugs for particular types of mental illness.
Paquin’s tale is disturbing as well for what it shows about the prevalence of disorders of the brain.
At least seven of the more than 40 individuals interviewed for this feature suffered mental illness. These included colleagues of Paquin, close relatives, friends. During our lifetimes, 20 per cent to 30 per cent of us will experience a serious mental disorder, according to Dr. David Atwood, a clinical director at the Royal Ottawa.
Mental afflictions come in many variants, from depression and bipolar disorder to obsessive compulsive and attention deficit disorders. But whatever its form, the mental illness is invidious. If left unchecked, it stealthily suffocates or misdirects normal thought. Eventually it develops into a form impossible to hide as happened with Paquin.
The latter stages of mental illness are filled with risks. The crises come more frequently, the suicide threats more real each time. Family members, friends, loved ones can never know which clue or warning sign is the definitive one. It can take weeks to determine whether conventional anti-depressants and other drugs are being effective — and much can happen in this period.