* Q1 EPS C$0.76 vs forecast C$0.68
* Stronger equity markets help drive performance
TORONTO, May 4 (Reuters) - Sun Life Financial (SLF.TO), Canada's No. 3 insurer, said on Wednesday its quarterly profit rose 5.8 percent, helped by a strong North American equity market performance that gave a boost to its investments.
Net income rose to C$438 million ($456 million), or 76 Canadian cents a share, in the first quarter ended March 31. That compared with a profit of C$414 million, or 73 Canadian cents, in the year-before quarter.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S had expected, on average, a profit of 68 Canadian cents a share.
The company said its operating net income was up 9 percent from a year earlier to C$472 million, reflecting in part, higher assets under management, increases in the value of real estate properties, and stronger equity markets.
"Sun Life Financial started 2011 with solid results compared to the same period last year with strong performance across all of our operating segments," Donald Stewart, Sun Life's chief executive, said in a release.
The Toronto-based insurer has extensive operations in Canada, the United States and Asia. As a seller of both insurance and wealth-management products, it competes with Manulife Financial (MFC.TO) and Great-West Lifeco (GWO.TO).
Return on equity, a key measure of profitability, improved to 12.5 percent from 12.4 percent a year earlier.
Assets under management rose 8 percent to C$469.4 billion, helped by net sales of mutual, managed and segregated funds.
Shares of the company, which released its results after the market close, ended down 0.61 percent at C$30.73 on the Toronto Stock Exchange amid a broadbased market decline.
$1=$0.96 Canadian Reporting by John McCrank; editing by Peter Galloway