George Cohon - © 2023 Cohon Family

Landmark Passings: George Cohon Dead At 86

You’ve heard the name. But you can’t place it… I’ll relieve your frustration. George Cohon was the guy who brought McDonald’s to Canada – and Russia. Cohon received more awards and accolades than we could mention in a single blog post just listing them…

Cohon’s son Mark broke the news this morning in a simple post on X (formerly Twitter): “Last night we said farewell to my dad. Our family, Canada and the world lost a remarkable man.”

A Russian McDonalds - © 2022 - Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin RoseA Russian McDonald’s: After the company decided to leave the country over the War against
Ukraine, but before the locations were turned over to Russian copy-cat resto operators.

Early days

George Alan Cohon was born on April 19, 1937 in Chicago. He graduated from the Northwestern University School of Law in 1961. In 1968, Cohon, his wife and 2 sons moved to Toronto with a license to open Canada’s first McDonald’s. That he did later that year in London, Ontario. Sister Erin, who spent her teens in London, remembers patronizing the place.

The corporation credits Cohon’s personal enthusiasm for the company with the rapid expansion of McDonalds’ in Canada. By 1971, he was Chairman, President and CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. By 1976, Cohon was supervising  more than 200 Canadian McDonald’s locations. At the time of his passing, Cohon was still involved, as Senior Chairman.

In 1974, He opened what was then the world’s largest McDonald’s at the Metro Toronto Zoo. This weekend, flags at the Zoo will fly at half-staff in Cohon’s honour.

1976 the year that he once again indulged his ‘visionary’ side, bigtime – coming up with the idea of taking the Golden Arches to Russia (Then, the Soviet Union). He met with fierce administrative resistance. The first McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain didn’t open until 1990, in downtown Moscow.

That would have been a big enough reason to eulogize George Cohen, all by itself. The first Fast Food chain to go where none other had dared before.

Received many accolades

Though born in the states, he became what we can all agree was ‘a great Canadian’.

Outside the day-to-day business of running McDonald’s Canada, Cohon will be remembered as the founder of Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities of Canada, in 1982. The organization builds and runs special residences for the families of children receiving medical treatment for serious afflictions at nearby hospitals.

The most auspicious of the honours he received over the years included these:

He was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1988.

In 1998, Cohon was awarded the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest public service awards by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Around that time, he also received the Israel Prime Minister’s Medal, Israel’s highest public service award.

Also in 1998, he became a member of the Canadian Business Hall of Fame.

Cohon was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2000…

… And was given a Key to city of Toronto in 2012.

Earlier this year, he was elevated to the rank of Companion of the Order of Canada.

From the Horse’s mouth…

Cohon’s autobiography, To Russia With Fries: My Adventures in Canada and Russia was published in 1997. Folks who’ve read it say its fascinating. You can still get it from Amazon.

– Maggie J.