CN Rail promises to beef up francophone presence on board

A CN Rail locomotive pulls auto carrier cars in Dartmouth, N.S. on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The country’s largest railroad operator has pledged to fill the void of francophones on its board of directors, scrambling to reassure Quebecers amid heightened language sensitivities in the province.

In a statement in French, Canadian National Railway Co. says two board members will run out their terms and step down in the “coming months,” allowing the company to “correct the situation” — though none of the 11 newly named nominees are native French speakers.

Until earlier this year, the board could point to at least one francophone director, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who stepped down to run for the federal Conservative leadership.

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Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, a major CN shareholder, says it is unacceptable that there is a lack of francophone representation on the board of a Montreal-based company that is subject to the Official Languages Act.

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“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,” spokesman Maxime Chagnon wrote in an email.

“It is surprising that they did not find qualified francophone candidates living in Quebec.”

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CN chief executive Tracy Robinson said on her appointment in January that she had begun French lessons to communicate with CN employees and customers and “embrace the experience of living in Quebec.”

CN, like fellow former Crown corporation Air Canada, is subject to Canada’s Official Languages Act, which requires federal institutions to provide services in English or French on request.

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Despite having no native speakers of Quebec’s official language and common tongue, the board touts diversity in one respect: six of its 11 directors are women, including the CEO.

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