Celebrating 50 years: Caisse sera sera

Celebrating 50 years: Caisse sera sera

LiQ_Mag_Mar_2015_coverThis Peter Black column first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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On pension? Got some spare time? Try this game. It’s a bit like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon thing, except instead of connecting movie stars you connect things your Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec – the province’s pension fund manager – owns, controls or has a stake in.

The idea is to pick a business, any business, and find a link to the $215-billion colossus. Let’s take two contrasting examples – military equipment and health food. Easy. Just a glance at recent news releases shows the Caisse has sunk $12.9 million into an outfit called Bariatrix, which makes healthy products from soups to snack bars. As for the army gear, there’s the $5 million invested in Revision Military Inc., which makes ballistic eyewear.

There is seemingly no limit to the labyrinthine reach and scope of Caisse investments. Ivanhoe-Cambridge, its real estate arm, alone has a staggering $40 billion portfolio, its most recent acquisition being a Manhattan skyscraper, at $2.2 billion, said to be the second-largest office building purchase ever in the U.S..

Some local examples of Ivanhoe-Cambridge investments include the Chateau Frontenac, the only hotel the Caisse owns, which recently underwent a $75-million facelift, and Place Ste-Foy where Ivanhoe-Cambridge has unveiled a $50-million revamp to fill the gap left by the lamented departure of Holt Renfrew (founded in Québec City!) and a string of other retailers.

One might say the jewel of the Caisse’s real estate empire, while not in the same league in square footage or height as other holdings in the rest of Canada and around the world, would be the Price Building in Vieux-Québec, which houses the head office of the pension plan giant.

The cornerstone of the spectacular 18-story art deco tower was laid on Oct. 29, 1929 – Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed and brought about the Great Depression. The construction of the building, according to legend, was a lethal blow to the Price family forest products empire. Price descendants persisted, however, and have contributed much to the cultural, historical and economic life of Québec City.

LiQ_Mag_Sub_BannerThe irony was lost on no one when in the early 1980s the Caisse purchased the Price Building, in some people’s minds a monument to the dominance of Quebec by an English-speaking corporate elite. The Caisse, after all, was born of the Quiet Revolution and represents the economic muscle of what’s been called Quebec Inc.

The further irony is the Caisse acquired the Price Building while one of its creators, Parti Québécois sovereignty mastermind and future premier Jacques Parizeau, was finance minister. In 2001, two upper floors in the tower became the official Québec City digs of the premier, following Parizeau’s much-ridiculed residency in l’Élisette, a mansion on the federally-owned Avenue des Braves.

Along with Parizeau, then an adviser to Premier Jean Lesage, another Québec City product, two principal architects of the Caisse were notables from the old city – Claude Morin and Claude Castonguay. The former became a key PQ minister, the latter a Liberal one, celebrated for his role in creating Quebec’s medicare system.

The Caisse celebrates 50 years this July, true to Lesage’s prediction that it would become the largest “instrument of growth, the most powerful economic lever ever seen in the province.” Historians will argue that had Lesage not managed to persuade then-prime minister Lester Pearson to let Quebec create its own pension plan, the Canadian federation might not have survived.

As Pearson understatedly described the showdown in his memoirs, “there was a danger of a real rift” between Québec and the rest of Canada. Meeting with Lesage in Québec City, Pearson said “some of our off-the-record discussions were frank almost to the point of brutality.” But they worked, and the Québec legislature—soon to be renamed the Assemblée Nationale — passed the act creating the Caisse on July 15, 1965.

Today, the Caisse has its first anglophone boss, Michael Sabia, who, by supreme irony, is the husband of Pearson’s granddaughter Hilary—another example of how the Caisse seems to be connected to everything and everyone.

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About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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