Wiseman: Taking on Quebec’s nationalists

Refreshing and courageous questioning:

The inability of Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau to speak French should raise a bigger question: why is Air Canada headquartered in Montreal? Based on the volume of flights, Air Canada’s de facto hub is Toronto. If geography is a consideration for a head office, Air Canada might want to think about relocating to Winnipeg where most of the corporation’s overhaul and maintenance work was done before being shifted to Montreal by Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1968. Outrage followed, damaging national unity: police had to clear a path for Trudeau as the airline’s Winnipeg employees swarmed around him, shouting anti-Quebec slogans at a Liberal fundraiser.

When Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in 1987 awarded the lucrative CF-18 fighter maintenance and overhaul contract to a Montreal firm rather than to a Winnipeg firm whose bid was cheaper, technically superior, and recommended by the neutral federal bureaucracy, some westerners began to refer to Mulroney as Pierre Elliot Mulroney; he had broken his promise to award contracts based on business principles and not political expediency as he said the Trudeau Liberals had done.

Mulroney’s decision led directly to Preston Manning’s launch of the Reform Party, the first step leading to the demise of the Progressive Conservative party. In 1988, Mulroney’s government conditioned Air Canada’s privatization on its headquarters remaining in Montreal. Decisions by the Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, their caucuses top heavy with Quebec MPs, discriminated in favour of Quebec.

After the Parti Québécois gained power in 1976 and the Quebec National Assembly passed the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), making communicating in French with French-speaking staff at companies such as Sun Life Assurance mandatory, the company announced it was moving its headquarters from Montreal to Toronto. A political storm erupted; Michael Cassidy, the soon-to-become Ontario NDP leader called on Ontario’s Conservative minister of industry to resign for welcoming Sun Life’s relocation, while Trudeau said Bill 101 undermined Montreal’s historic role as a financial and commercial centre for national and international companies.

And that is what happened. Although both the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal kept their official “head office” in Montreal, not wanting to incur the wrath that Sun Life’s departure did, they shifted their management operations and “corporate headquarters,” their de facto head offices, to Toronto and to where their chief executives live. Trudeau warned that other companies might follow Sun Life’s lead if Bill 101 was not changed.

Justin Trudeau, who became Liberal leader and prime minister by the leverage his father’s name gave him, is not on the same page as his father.

Now, Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin CEO Ian Edwards has postponed a speech he was scheduled to give to Montreal’s Canadian Club. He knows that he will be pilloried as Rousseau has been for his deficiency in French, incurring a similar public relations nightmare. Rousseau and Edwards have said they will study French, but at their age—Rousseau is 61, Edwards 57—they will gain little practical command of it as a working language.

Although most of CNR’s operations are in Western Canada, its head office is also in Montreal. CNR CEO Jean-Jacques Ruest is a francophone but is soon to step down. Will candidates to replace Ruest be required to demonstrate that they are bilingual? Memphis-born Hunter Harrison, famous for introducing precision scheduled railroading and leading the CNR to record profits, promised to learn French when he was the corporation’s CEO, but there is no record of his ever having spoken it.

When the Official Languages Act was introduced in the 1960s, the Trudeau government assured Canadians that it simply entitled them to deal with and be served by the federal government and its crown corporations, like Air Canada and the CNR at the time, in their preferred official language. The law does not require their CEOs or board members of federally regulated industries to have a working command of both official languages.

The French language is not in danger in Quebec as Quebec nationalists would have you believe; the percentage of Quebecers speaking French at home has not declined. However, Quebec’s share of Canada’s population has been steadily shrinking, accelerated by François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government which has cut the number of immigrants to the province.

Unilingual anglophones like myself have noticed how the federal political parties have tip-toed around Quebec and the CAQ’s positions, such as the ban on schoolteachers’ and public servants’ religious headgear, violations of the Charter of Rights. And there is Bill 96 which claims to unilaterally change the Canadian Constitution, which Pierre Trudeau said would last for a thousand years. Where, oh where is Justin Trudeau?

Had Erin O’Toole taken on Quebec’s nationalists, perhaps his Conservatives would have done better in the election. Kow-towing obviously didn’t work.

Nelson Wiseman is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto.

Source: Taking on Quebec’s nationalists

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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