CN vows to appoint francophone directors this year after controversy

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“The lack of francophone directors will be addressed in the coming year.”

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Canadian National Railway is pledging to make amends in short order after igniting a backlash for failing to nominate a single French-speaking director to its board.

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CN’s board slate for 2022, which was disclosed Wednesday in a regulatory filing, 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 in its own backyard.

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.

“The lack of francophone directors will be addressed in the coming year,” CN spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis told the Montreal Gazette Thursday in an email. “Two of the current directors on the board are completing their terms in the next few months, and we will correct the situation. The board of directors is well aware of the issues.”

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CN made in headlines in January when it named industry veteran Tracy Robinson, an anglophone Canadian, as its new CEO to replace Quebecer Jean-Jacques Ruest, who retired effective Feb. 28. Robinson, who spent almost three decades at rival Canadian Pacific Railway, “fully understands and respects Quebec’s rich cultural and linguistic reality and distinctiveness and has made it a personal priority to build proficiency in French,” CN said Jan. 25.

Language skills of CEOs at major Quebec-based companies have become a hot-button 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. Rousseau’s comments sparked a firestorm of criticism from politicians and pundits alike.

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The lack of francophone representation on the board of a Montreal-based company such as CN “is simply unacceptable,” Caisse de dépôt spokesperson Maxime Chagnon said Thursday in an email. “We are extremely disappointed that CN is not taking into account this important aspect of its board’s composition, even though we have spoken to them on multiple occasions to encourage them to improve the representation of their stakeholders, namely their employees, shareholders, customers and the communities in which the company operates. It is surprising that they did not find qualified francophone candidates living in Quebec.”

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also said it was “unacceptable” for CN not to have a francophone director.

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“I’ll be honest. I was blown away to hear of this situation that a company like CN, a national company, subject to federal rules, subject to the Official Languages Act, did not see what happened with Air Canada and did not learn the lesson that would seem evident to me.”

He said he has asked one of his ministers to “ensure CN works quickly to rectify the situation.”

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 when he decided to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Another Quebecer, CGI Group executive vice-president Julie Godin, stepped down from the CN board in September to focus on her role at the information technology company. CGI is based in Montreal.

Due to the pandemic, CN is planning to hold its annual shareholding meeting virtually on May 20.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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