The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is moving quickly to allay concerns it's slipping in its role as a key defender and promoter of French as the lingua franca of doing business in the province.
The powerful public pension fund said Wednesday that it is sending two unilingual English-speaking senior executives at its real estate subsidiary to intensive French-language classes after a news report on Monday revealed they held meetings at which only English was spoken.
The public pension fund giant also promised to do a better job ensuring that French is spoken at all levels.
A storm erupted after a news report Monday said two executives at Ivanhoé Cambridge – Kim McKinnes, a Vancouver native who is head of global operations, and David Smith, a Torontonian who is vice-president of human resources – presided over English-only meetings with francophone staffers.
Even Liberal Premier Jean Charest, known as something of a dove on the sensitive issue of defending the French language in Quebec, took a tough stand on the matter, saying it was unacceptable and had to be corrected immediately.
In a message to employees Wednesday, Caisse president and CEO Michael Sabia said: "The guiding principle is simple: French is the language of work at the Caisse, at all levels of the organization."
Daniel Fournier, chairman and chief executive officer of Ivanhoé Cambridge, said in an interview that the incident is something of a wakeup call.
"It's a reminder: Raise the bar a little bit. The bar was always high but raise it a little higher," he said, while stressing that it represents an isolated case at the real estate subsidiary and that meetings at the Caisse level are always conducted in French.
He added that Ivanhoe is a global real estate company that has assets and offices all over the globe, where English is used on a daily basis.
Created 45 years ago in a bold move by then-premier Jean Lesage to create a homegrown economic powerhouse, the Caisse is a symbol and point of pride for Quebeckers of francophone financial prowess.
Quebec's French-language charter requires companies to respect the right of employees to use French in their daily work environment. So it is a bit of an ironic twist that the Caisse, a francophone bastion, is caught up in a controversy that it stepped over the line by imposing English on some employees.
Both Mr. McKinnes and Mr. Smith had been taking French lessons, Ivanhoé Cambridge said in a news release. Mr. Smith will go on a three-month sabbatical and enroll in intensive French-language immersion. He will take up a new post upon his return that will see him oversee international human resources while a new candidate will handle Quebec HR.
Mr. McKinnes will speed up his French-language training by taking private lessons as well as having periodic immersion sessions integrated into his workday, the Caisse said.
The story broke after Caisse employees alerted La Presse to complaints they filed about the situation to the provincial language watchdog, the Office de la langue française.
For the Caisse, the timing is unfortunate. Under the leadership of Mr. Sabia, it has been trying to repair its damaged public image after it reported stunning losses of $40-billion in 2008.
Portfolio manager Stephen Jarislowsky said it's unfortunate that the incident sparked a media frenzy and a major distraction in the provincial legislature.
Obviously it would be better if a pension fund such as the Caisse could attract talented managers who speak both English and French but unfortunately that's not always possible, he said. "You should always get the best, all things being equal."
Claude Garcia, former president of Standard Life Canada and a former member of the Caisse board, said it's only natural that anyone coming to work at the Caisse should be expected to be able to get by in French, just as someone hired by a pension fund based in English Canada would have to speak English.
"It's playing with fire to think that you can work at that level at the Caisse and not have to speak French," he said.