Flirting with the enemy

When Michael Sabia took helm at the Caisse de depôt et placement du Québec on March 13 of this year, his swift nomination sparked controversy. Several questioned the lack of transparency of the process; some questioned his credentials; a few questioned his commitment to the growth of Québec's economy and to the Caisse's role in it. Comments about his origins made many people uneasy and it's rather simple to understand why this calling into question was denounced. Still, Mr. Sabia isn't the first person to face discriminatory criticism when arriving into office.

On May 1st, 1998, the appointment of David Levine as Chief Executive Officer of the new Ottawa Hospital was announced. He began his duties on June 15 following six weeks of tumultuous public outcry led by the media and a select group of individuals discontented with his politics. Like the Caisse, Ottawa Hospital was facing enormous challenges. But unlike Mr. Sabia, Mr. Levine's origins (Jewish and Anglophone) weren't contributing to the outcry; his political affiliations were. He was a sovereigntist.

As if these affiliations had any connection with the tasks at hands, public demonstrations took place. Even Mike Harris, then Ontario's Premier, suggested that the board would have done better to select a "non-Canadian who believes in Canada and keeping Canada together" than someone of Levine's background. Much to his credit, David Levine downplayed the furor. When talking to reporters, he attributed the anger to frustrations with hospital restructuring and suggested that he was just "the lightning rod."

In contrast, Michael Sabia used the media to portray his opponents as bigots and silence them. The Globe and Mail exploited that angle in a report titled "New Caisse boss defends Quebec roots", published on May 5th, 2009. Of course, some of the reluctances expressed toward the Caisse's new CEO did reek discrimination. But in his haste to end the debate, Mr. Sabia fostered the erroneous idea that any questioning was out of place and dodged valid interrogations.

In recent months, Louise Harel has been subjected to heated attacks from members of Montréal's Anglo milieus. She's running for the mayoralty this coming November, but, for some, she mostly is a sovereignist associated with Bill 101, sovereignty referendums and the forced municipal mergers.

Renown Canadian lawyer Julius Grey works as an election adviser to Harel. He recently had a glimpse of what such an association entails. On July 7th, Hampstead town council passed a motion to terminate Mr. Grey's status as legal adviser to the town. Hampstead Mayor William Steinberg vetoed the vote. In Mr. Grey's own words, "it is wrong to demonize another person because of their opinion on one issue." His support for Harel reflects his recognition that he has a common interest with her on social-justice issues. I share Mr. Grey's wisdom and salute Mr. Steinberg's leadership.

Meanwhile, Michael Sabia has been working on the Caisse's risk management policies. After having put the largest pension fund in Canada on creditwatch negative earlier this year, Standard & Poor's announced it maintained its AAA grade this week [Google translation].

Louise Harel has a good shot at Montréal's top job this coming fall. Perhaps, those who currently doubt the legitimacy of her candidacy will have the opportunity to change their minds.

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