NRC foots VP’s $90K French bill

20 months of pri­vate lessons in Al­berta for Ot­tawa ex­ec­u­tive

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - TOM SPEARS

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.

JULIE OLIVER

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...

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