Opinion: CN board folly is the exception, not the norm

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For a national company based in the continent’s biggest French-speaking city not to have had any francophones on its board is corporative idiocy. It’s also an aberration.

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Let’s get this out of the way: that CN, the country’s largest railway, doesn’t have a single francophone on its board is absurd, particularly since CN’s history and headquarters lie in Montreal.

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So by all means, let’s pile on the invective. Having an anglo board for a national company based in the continent’s biggest French-speaking city is corporative haughtiness and idiocy.

What it isn’t is the norm. A quick gander at the boards of other giant Quebec-based companies nets a laundry list of Quebec Inc.’s bold-faced names, from BMO (Sophie Brochu, Eric La Flèche) to BCE (Monique Leroux, Mirko Bibic) to CGI (Alain Bouchard, Serge Godin, Paule Doré), to Molson Coors (Louis Vachon) to Nuvei (Philip Fayer, Pascal Tremblay.) And the list goes on and on and on.

Even Air Canada, whose CEO Michael Rousseau last fall demonstrated a cringeworthy inability to string two words together in la langue de Lafleur, has significant francophone representation with Madeleine Paquin and Jean Marc Huot. If anything, CN’s linguistic whoopsie is an aberration from what has thankfully become Quebec’s corporate status quo, where French is well represented in the province’s business circles.

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Except this is Quebec, so nobody saw it as an aberration. Instead, CN has been dragged through the news cycle, becoming the latest incarnation of the English-speaking boogeyman who has haunted Quebec’s political and business landscapes for more than 60 years.

As anachronistic as he is, this boogeyman still serves an important role: to distort the province’s linguistic reality and facilitate restrictive and even xenophobic legislation within its borders. The CN drama is so compelling in these parts because it plays into the sacred trope that big business in this province is conducted to the exclusion of French speakers. Though there is ample evidence to the contrary — Exhibit 1: the Caisse de dépôt’s worldly heft and $420 billion under management — this myth nonetheless prevails, and remains terrifically exploitable political fodder.

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Consider how ministers from Ottawa and the provincial government tripped over each other to express their outrage, with federal Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne saying CN was an example of how we must remain “vigilant.” (For what, exactly, he didn’t say.)

And consider Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval, who used the entirety of his allotted time during a committee meeting about supply chains — an important topic these days, to say the least — to berate a CN representative over the composition of its board.

It’s tempting to shrug this off as more of the performative outrage that comes with all language squabbles in this province. But you can draw a direct line between it and recent legislation that seeks to crack down on linguistic and religious minorities in the province.

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There is Bill 96, which would compel businesses with 25 or more employees to have “francization committees” and all French for most internal documents — burdens currently shouldered only by businesses with more than 50 warm bodies. It would increase the regulatory powers of the Office québécois de la langue française to crack down on small- and medium- sized businesses, many of which are startups that don’t have the resources to meet the office’s regulatory demands.

The law would further limit the number of spots in English-language CEGEPs, at a time when francophone students themselves are pining for opportunities to brush up on their English.

And there’s Bill 21. Passed in 2019, the law bans the wearing of religious symbols by certain government workers, teachers included, in the name of state secularity. Like Bill 96, the so-called “laicity of the state” law is built around fear of the other: religious minorities, in this case. The government has effectively admitted the law contravenes the province’s charter of rights and freedoms, and its immediate effects on Quebec’s workforce have been glaring.

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A 2022 Concordia study conducted with both English and French university-aged students suggested more than half were considering leaving the province because of the law. That number climbed to nearly 70 per cent for those wearing religious symbols. All of this in the name of secularism, in a province where you can hardly spit without hitting a street, town or distillery named after a saint.

What really drives me nuts about all of this is a point that’s often overlooked. Quebec’s French fact has made many Quebec companies more dynamic and helped increase their growth. This is particularly true in tech. With only 8.6 million people, the province is simply too small for most startups to grow to scale. It has pushed them to compete in markets beyond the province, where French gives them an edge.

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“Quebec tech companies, out of sheer survival, produce products that work in many languages, which isn’t always the case in the rest of the country. And having French allows them to get a foothold in Europe, which is a huge competitive advantage,” Nicole Martel, CEO of the Association québécoise des technologies, told me. The result: nearly 40 per cent of Montreal startups have a presence in Europe, according to a 2019 study from Bonjour Startup Montréal.

Since this story blew up, CN has pledged to find able francophones to sit on its board. What an unforced error, needing a drubbing from press and politicians to prompt it to do so. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that CN is the exception, not the rule.

Martin Patriquin is The Logic’s Quebec correspondent. He joined in 2019 after 10 years as Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s. A National Magazine Award winner, he has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Walrus, Vice, BuzzFeed, the Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette, among others. He is also a panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics. twitter.com/MartinPatriquin

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