Mother Superior for Modern Times
July-August 2004
When I was in elementary school, the nuns were a part of my daily life. I remember sister Sainte-Cécile, who patiently taught me piano, and sister Saint-Léon-de-Rome, who was kind enough to take me into her first grade class even if I hadn’t yet reached the required age. I also remember Mother Superior, the most feared person in school; there were a lot of other nuns too, but they hadn’t been assigned teaching responsibilities and remained dutifully behind that great big door, the forbidden door. None of them could go through that door, all except the person whom we respectfully referred to as Mother Bursar. She would sometimes walk down the hallway, an impressive collection of keys seemingly concealed under the great folds of her black habit. She was most discreet, yet obviously held an important position. We used to say, as adults would, that she was busy administrating.

Many years have passed and things have changed. The nuns are no longer part of the picture. Other than a few touching stories about cloistered nuns, who are more than likely presented as historical curiosities, we wouldn’t hear about them at all. Well … at least until the infamous Marché central de Montréal affair, where a religious congregation was defrauded to the amount of some 80 million dollars. The media embarked on a feeding frenzy as they discovered that such huge amounts of capital were put into play by nuns who had supposedly taken a vow of poverty. Truthfully, was there really any reason to be upset? The nuns had no other choice but to put their collective funds to work if they wanted to ensure the subsistence of their community: let’s not forget that most of them are at an age that is leaning more towards retirement than to the work force. Anyways, our society has rid itself of their usefulness and of their professional niches, teaching and health. As it stands, they depend primarily on the interest earned from their investments.

And now, nuns are company shareholders. A role they have taken on with much class and dignity. Breaking their long-standing tradition of discretion and muted presence, they have taken a stand and are speaking their mind, and quite brilliantly. Always courteous. We’ve heard them speak at many shareholder meetings, speaking through the Regroupement pour la responsabilité sociale des entreprises (a group encouraging corporate accountability), a movement that was created by twenty congregations which was joined by twelve other non-religious organizations. Since the nuns must now be shareholders, they intend to be good shareholders. That’s why they impress upon the companies in which they’ve invested to assume their corporate social responsibilities. They take advantage of shareholder meetings to ask companies to be accountable for their actions in the fields of human rights and the environment.

For example, last April, the Regroupement asked Esso to produce an annual report relating its efforts in reducing greenhouse gases and developing new energy sources. Sears was also targeted with requests as to the working conditions and standards of some of its suppliers from developing countries. Evidently, the Regroupement has had some success, because similar requests submitted to The Bay during its annual general meeting last year, have since led the company to adopt a code of behaviour. And that’s not all, they intimated that other companies would soon be targeted by the Regroupement: Encana, a Calgary oil company, Alcan, Canadian Tire, banks …

In short, the Regroupement represents Mother Bursar’s return; her presence serves to point out that bad corporate citizens are in fact riskier investments and that such behaviour will eventually hinder their profitability. A true activist for our modern times, Mother Bursar keeps a watchful eye on investments and calls to order companies lacking social awareness. My goodness … if it weren’t that I would appear pretentious and opportunistic I would allow myself the following question: if the nuns are looking for some good causes in which to invest their money, couldn’t we interest them in a few million preferred shares in cooperatives? It’s just an idea...

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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