11/16/2011 05:17 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

Quebec pension-fund manager sends execs to French classes amid language tiff

QUEBEC - Quebec's giant pension-fund manager has responded to a language controversy by promising that two senior executives will undergo intensive French lessons.

Wednesday's announcement came amid scathing headlines and political outrage that two senior executives, one from Toronto and the other from Vancouver, can't communicate in French.

A reason the Caisse de depot, now worth over $200 billion, was created in the 1960s was to help Quebec francophones gain some power over their economy.

Employees have been complaining lately that meetings are occasionally held in English to accommodate David Smith and Kim McInnes, both senior executives at the Caisse's real-estate division.

The news has caused the Opposition Parti Quebecois to declare a 35-year setback in French language rights. Premier Jean Charest has agreed the situation is unacceptable.

"Whether it's one person or two people, it's not a question of numbers. It is imperative for us that the Caisse de depot take steps to correct the situation," said the premier, who is usually less than hawkish on language issues.

The Caisse announced that Smith will take a 90-day sabbatical to learn French then, when he returns, he will have his responsibilities limited to the Caisse's international operations.

He is a vice-president of human resources at Ivanhoe Cambridge, the Caisse's real-estate division. A new human-resources person will be hired to deal specifically with Quebec.

Smith has lived in Montreal for 11 years.

As for McInnes, the president and chief executive of the real-estate division, he will undergo more intensive French-immersion lessons.

The Parti Quebecois opposition was hardly impressed. It said the government should extend language laws that apply to the public service, and make them applicable to Caisse subsidiaries.

The ability to speak French is a necessary condition for being hired in Quebec's public service.

"They haven't changed anything," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said.

"They were caught with their hand in the cookie jar and were forced to justify themselves. But I think the people concerned were already taking French lessons."

Quebec's minister responsible for language, Christine St-Pierre, said she believed the Caisse had learned its lesson and reacted well to the controversy.