We're not convinced that Michael Sabia is exactly the leader the Caisse de dépôt et placement needs. The former BCE boss certainly has plenty of critics. In today's frightening financial uncertainty, someone with more high-finance expertise might have been a more appropriate choice. Worse, Sabia was selected not by the Caisse's board of directors but by Premier Jean Charest. For obvious reasons, he Caisse is supposed to be at arm's length from the government of the day.
Still, Sabia does know big business, has what must be one of corporate Canada's most impressive Rolodexes, and is no stranger - after the BCE privatization business - to operating in the media spotlight under pressure.
Anyway, two or 10 years from now the Caisse's balance sheet will reflect major variables, such as the state of world markets, more than a relatively minor variable such as Sabia's personality.
Sabia's detractors in the world of business were rapidly eclipsed last weekend by his detractors in the world of politics. Even by his own standards, former premier Bernard Landry said a mouthful: The choice was "more than an error ... It's a fault. It is almost a provocation ... It has nothing to do with where he was born ... It is his national culture, which is Canadian."
The horror! Although the Ontario native Sabia has lived here for 16 years and speaks respectable French, he is just not one of us, Landry was saying. And only one of us can be trusted to manage our money.
It would be soothing to think that this sort of blatantly ethnic nationalism is just part of the flamboyant Landry political persona. The trouble is that the sickness is more deeply rooted than any one man. Even the estimable André Pratte, editorial page editor at La Presse, opined last week that Sabia's name "shouldn't even be on the list of candidates" to head the Caisse because he is "from another province or another country." Pratte had the grace to apologize promptly, blaming a "detestable Quebecer's reflex" and adding that if Quebec claims to be a welcoming society, it must find room, even at the top, for those born elsewhere.
Good. But years of separatist propagandizing are bearing fruit, and no doubt many francophones today disapprove of the Sabia choice for the wrong reasons. How sad, and how dangerous.