NRC foots VP’s $90K French bill
20 months of private lessons in Alberta for Ottawa executive
The National Research Council is keeping one of its vice-presidents on full salary for nearly two years of French language training in Alberta, while covering his private lessons at a cost of $90,000 and counting.
Ian Potter has been vice-president of engineering since 2011. He was brought in by then-president John McDougall, a Conservative appointee who left the job suddenly in 2016. The two men had been executives together at Alberta’s publicly-funded R&D corporation, and shared a plan to make the NRC more “revenue-oriented.”
Soon after McDougall left, Potter announced that he would leave Ottawa to do language training for “an initial period” of six months, beginning in early January 2017.
More than a year later, he is still on training. The NRC now says his language studies will continue until the end of August — 20 months after they began. An acting vicepresident is running the engineering division.
Potter, who is in his late 50s, is still studying seven hours a day in Edmonton at an hourly rate of $65, or $455 a day.
How this expensive story unfolds is revealed in documents obtained through an access-to-information request.
Potter announced his decision to study French at the end of 2016, a few weeks before he left Ottawa to begin studying. His position is designated bilingual, and he wrote to colleagues: “I had to delay this training for several years to help the organization manage its transformation,” but by this point his engineering division was “on solid footing.”
His contract with the U of A’s Campus Saint-Jean, in a francophone neighbourhood of Edmonton, his hometown, is simple. Each day he spends five hours studying one-on-one with a teacher and two hours he works on his own, but with access to the teacher. The university is paid for all seven hours.
The six-month contract was for about $48,700 (plus GST) and covered levels A and B of the Frenchas-a-second-language curriculum of the Canada School of Public Service, with teaching materials such as French Makes Sense and Une saison au ministère de l’Habitation.
Potter wrote to NRC president Iain Stewart after a few months that “all is going as well as I could hope,” but saying he would like a couple of extra months of study, extending his training to late August of last year. After that, he wanted to come back to Ottawa.
Stewart was sympathetic. “It is a long hard slog for a unilingual person to start afresh in a new language — from your (note) it sounds like you are making progress and keeping your morale up,” he said.
Eventually the two men agreed that Potter would stay in Edmonton through December, letting him practise right up to the date of the government language tests.
The cost to NRC was approved at $103,250 for the full year, including GST. The exact figure spent in 2017 was about $76,000, because some lessons were cancelled.
But at headquarters in Ottawa, the question of a further extension into 2018 arose. In July, Stewart and the head of human resources arranged to choose an acting replacement for Potter while extending Potter’s training to the end of the fiscal year at the end of March. Michel Dumoulin was chosen as the acting vice-president late last August. At the same time, Potter’s engineering division was being restructured in his absence.
This announcement to all NRC employees seems to have blindsided Potter. He emailed Stewart: “Thanks for the update on the changes being made. I’m pleased to see action taking place quickly on restructuring and hiring.
“With regards to myself, I note in your email that you say I will return from language training at the end of the fiscal year — however, based on the existing training plan, I return at the beginning of January. Please advise.”
Stewart replied that the situation was flexible, and “let’s see how you make out on testing toward calendar year end.”
The question of whether Potter has taken language testing, and if so what results he had, is confidential, NRC says. But his studying in Edmonton was extended until the end of the fiscal year on March 31.
And recently the NRC updated its website to show a further extension until Aug. 31.
Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, called the situation “nice work if you can get it.”
Wudrick said he’s strongly in favour of most language training for government workers.
“In most cases, language training is reasonable. This is not one of those cases. It is far too much,” he said.
“I don’t think it is reasonable to have nearly two years of full-time language training for an executive who had been doing his job, until all of a sudden he decided he needed to go on language training,” he said. He also said that 20 months is too long and costly, especially late in a person’s career.
“He’s a 57-year-old senior executive, who is taking classes five hours a day (plus) two hours of self-study, being paid his full salary and all his lessons paid for by the taxpayer. That’s not a bad gig,” he said.
Ian Lee, who teaches at the Carleton University ’s Sprott School of Business, also criticized the deal.
“This shows the flaws of the bilingualism program which give it a bad name. It should be more nuanced with more exemptions allowed (such as) for people within five to 10 years of retirement or for people posted long term to western provinces,” he said in an email.
He called this example “a waste of taxpayer dollars,” but added: “This does not negate the bilingualism program. It should be applied with much greater discretion.”
NRC sent an emailed statement saying Edmonton is Potter’s hometown. The statement also says:
“Language training is a standard part of career development within the Government of Canada. It’s normal for employees and senior executives within the government to perfect their ability to work in both official languages. To meet the language requirements for his position, Dr. Potter has been taking French language training. This form of training is often used for Government of Canada officials.”
Potter also defended the training in an email: “When I joined the NRC, I signed an agreement that I would meet the language requirements for my employment level, but since I was starting from a very low level of French language ability, I knew that an extended period of full-time training would be required at some time when operational circumstances permitted my absence. When I initiated the training, I was then and I still am now confident that there is the management and leadership depth at NRC that I am able to rely upon to effectively fulfil the acting VP position during my absence.”
NRC has not answered the following questions we submitted:
Is Ian Potter definitely coming back after Aug. 31, as the NRC organization chart suggests? How old is he?
Is it effective to keep a vice-president on 20 months of language training a long way from Ottawa?
How much contact does he have with the engineering division?
Why is he doing individual training in Alberta — i.e. not in a classroom setting in a place like Asticou?
In most cases, language training is reasonable. This is not one of those cases. It is far too much.
Ian Potter has been vice-president of engineering at the NRC since 2011. Potter announced his decision to study French at the end of 2016, as his position is designated bilingual, and has been studying seven hours a day in Edmonton since early January...