CN says search for francophone, Quebec-based director has begun

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The former crown corporation sparked controversy for failing to nominate a single French-speaking board member.

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Canadian National Railway said Tuesday it’s begun a search for a francophone Quebec-based board member after sparking controversy for failing to nominate a single French-speaking director.

The new board member will be appointed “in the coming months” following a “rigorous process,” Canada’s largest railroad said Tuesday in a statement.

This will be in addition to CN’s new Canadian-born chief executive, Tracy Robinson, a three-decade industry veteran who recently relocated to Montreal after being hired in late January.

As a former crown corporation until its privatization in 1995, Montreal-based CN is subject to Canada’s Official Languages Act — though the legislation doesn’t govern the company’s board.

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“CN, headquartered in Montreal for over 100 years, and its Board of Directors, is very proud of and respects the company’s rich history in Quebec, where the official language is French,” chairman Robert Pace said in the statement.

CN’s board slate for 2022, disclosed in a regulatory filing last week, includes several former railroad executives, none of whom are based in Quebec. The move drew scorn from the $420-billion Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, a major CN shareholder, which criticized the company for ignoring qualified francophone candidates based in its home province.

Language skills of CEOs at major Quebec-based companies have become a sensitive issue after Air Canada boss — and native English speaker — Michael Rousseau told reporters in November it was a “testament to Montreal” that he could live here without speaking French. Rousseau had earlier delivered an English-only speech to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal.

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Canada’s biggest railroad had planned to have at least one francophone director in 2022, but political events decided otherwise. CN appointed Jean Charest as independent director in January, only for the former Quebec premier to resign April 1 when he decided to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Board makeup is quickly turning into a political issue.

Companies that are subject to the Official Languages Act, such as CN and Air Canada, should be forced by Ottawa to have a minimum proportion of francophone directors, Conservative Party official languages critic Joël Godin said Tuesday.

“We must have a tool to force federally chartered companies to have francophones,” said Godin, who is vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Official Languages,.

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The Conservatives are preparing an amendment to the bill that aims to modernize the Official Languages Act, Godin also said. Lawmakers are currently debating the minimum proportion of francophones and the mechanism to impose this requirement.

Godin’s position is consistent with that of the chair of the official languages committee, Liberal MP René Arseneault.

Businesses subject to the Official Languages Act, “no matter how independent,” should represent “the linguistic demographics of the country,” said Arseneault, who represents the Madawaska-Restigouche riding. This would mean making it mandatory that “at the very least” a quarter of board of members be francophone.

Issues surrounding the use of French at CN go beyond the boardroom.

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Officials at the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference wrote to Robinson earlier this month to highlight “multiple problems regarding the use and quality of the French language in the workplace,” La Presse reported last week. Employees who say they’re uncomfortable working in in English “are subject to pressure, threats of disciplinary action and a treatment that could sometimes amount to retaliation,” the union said in its letter.

Separately, CN said Tuesday that adjusted diluted profit rose seven per cent in the first quarter to $1.32 a share. Quarterly revenue advanced five per cent to $3.71 billion.

Citing “challenging” operating conditions and “worldwide economic uncertainty,” CN also cut its full-year financial outlook. Adjusted diluted profit for 2022 is now expected to rise by 15 per cent to 20 per cent, the company said, down from an earlier target of 20 per cent.

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Robinson addressed the language situation on a late-afternoon call with financial analysts, her first since taking over — and even spent a couple of minutes reading a statement in heavily accented French. The new CEO said she’s been practicing her French since moving to Montreal two months ago.

“It’s a priority for me and for CN,” Robinson said in French. “I want to make sure that anyone can communicate with CN in the official language of their choice. It’s also important for us to have francophone directors.”

Robinson concluded her prepared remarks by thanking her predecessor, Quebecer Jean-Jacques Ruest, for his 25 years of service at CN and his “exemplary leadership.”

“Merci beaucoup JJ,” she said.

Presse Canadienne contributed to this report.

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