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globe editorial

Bombardier, Inc., investors gather in Montreal on Thursday for an annual meeting that promises to be uncomfortable for the transportation conglomerate's founding clan.

The Beaudoin and Bombardier families own a controlling interest in the heavily subsidized company, but they are beset by unlikely shareholder activists: Canada's pension funds, those paragons of risk aversion.

The insurgency is being led by the Caisse de dépôt et du placement du Québec, which is withholding its vote for Pierre Beaudoin, grandson of founder Joseph-Armand Bombardier, as he seeks to serve another term as executive chairman.

Related: Bombardier's Pierre Beaudoin stepping down from executive role

For the quintessential promoter of Quebec business to publicly confront charter members of the province's business royalty is both astounding and welcome.

As a rule, it's not desirable for the state or its creatures to wade into the affairs of publicly traded companies. But when the company is Bombardier, two large caveats are in order.

Governments have long supported Bombardier with various forms of financial assistance; its status as a truly private company is muddied, to say the least.

And public pension funds are independent of government (though questions have at times been raised about the Caisse). The funds have long pushed for more transparent and responsible governance from the companies in which they invest.

Despite extensive public support, Bombardier maintains a dual-class share structure that confers control and a third of the current board – Mr. Beaudoin, his father, two of his uncles and a cousin – to a family that holds about 13 per cent of all shares.

The Caisse has a say on appointing independent directors, and its stance is supported by other behemoth institutional investors representing Ontario Teachers, Quebec's largest labour federation, and British Columbia's public pension fund.

Their catalyst for action was fat pay raises (since deferred) for Mr. Beaudoin and other senior executives.

Investor activism is a tag most often attached to buccaneering hedge-fund managers. This is a beast of a different colour. It is heartening to watch it heave into view.

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