Jean Cinq-Mars, Quebec’s Sustainable Development Commissioner

By Olga Prin

Canadian Accountants are being challenged to view corporate activity through a wider lens than the typical financial report. Some CPAs are stepping up, using their analytical skills to drive sustainability….” (1) In line with the CPA Order’s efforts to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the growing number of business leaders throughout the world committed to making sustainability a priority(2), the Chair was delighted to provide logistical support and attend HEC’s launch of the new academic year in sustainable development. Setting the pace to a lecture focusing on various aspects of the topic, Quebec’s Sustainable Development Commissioner Mr. Jean Cinq-Mars started out with how perceptions were often misguided where environmental protection and sustainable development were thought to be equivalents since the latter also encompasses social and economic considerations.

Mr. Cinq-Mars believes that the biggest challenge in addressing sustainable development issues lies in favouring long term vision over conflictual short term decisions constantly taken in the political arena or in companies eyeing short term profits. At the government level, the main challenges fall under institutional barriers making it difficult to find common ground and approaches between ministries (managing interministerially/horizontally) and going from activity-based to results-based/performance management.

Reporting to the National Assembly of Quebec, the Sustainable Development Commissioner’s mandate is legislative in nature and essentially seeks to ensure that public bodies adhere to all 16 sustainable development principles. Audited entities are required to sign and validate the observations made and then to implement all post-audit recommendations. Audits carry significant impact with 74% of all recommendations having been implemented (QAG). For now, the Province’s healthcare and education systems are not yet been subject to these audits although the Sustainable Development Act stipulates they will eventually be included in the process.

The Sustainable Development Commissionner’s audits are based on the CPA methodology with added multidisciplinary expertise – engineering, biology, sociology, etc. (see 2015 Report of the Sustainable Development Commissionner Highlights). Mr. Cinq-Mars insists on staying away from monolithic thinking in favour of learning to see things differently when trying to solve sustainability issues. More often than not, they of a lack of objectives rather than mismanagement.

To get to the root of a problem and make way for recommendations with a true and long term effect, the Commissioner recommends that one asks <why> at least finve times after getting an answer. For instance,

Why is that door handle grinding?”
Because it needs to be oiled.
“Why does it need oil?”…

and at the fifth why, you get to the underlying cause of the problem : property management operations are inefficient. Thus, any recommendation made will refer to property management improvement rather than merely getting some oil for that handle.

Interviewed for CPA Magazine’s special edition on Sustainability published earlier this year, Susan Todd, CPA, CA, a principal of Burnaby, BC-based Solstice Sustainability Works consultancy, was adamant about accountants having much to bring beyond attaching numbers to all things they report on. “We have rigorous analytical minds that can help break down qualitative information into digestible pieces that can be supported by evidence… It’s taking us a little out of our comfort zone, but in new ways.”(3)

Sensitive to the importance of demonstrating leadership on the subject of sustainability which calls for key competencies of the profession, accounting bodies across the country have ramped up their professional development offering. Simultaneously, CPA Canada is actively carrying on the work initiated in 2008 by the CICA and CMA Canada in the scope of the Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S).(4) Founded in London by the Prince of Wales a decade ago, A4S invites accounting bodies worldwide to join forces in promoting sustainable reporting to help “ensure that sustainability – development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – is not just talked and worried about, but becomes embedded in organizations’ DNA.” 

More information on HEC Montreal’s sustainability teachings and activities.

Learn more about how to integrate sustainability into operational and decision-making processes on the Quebec CPA Order’s website.


(1)(3)  Smith, Susan, ‘For Good Measure’, CPA Magazine, January-February 2015, p. 44
(2) Brearton, Steve, “By the Numbers – Fun Facts & Figures”,  CPA Magazine, January-February 2015, p. 80
(4)  Law, Jaclyn, Eye on the Future : CPA Canada continues work on sustainability », CPA Magazine, January-February 2015, p. 13