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Canada's bean counters get into a brouhaha

Kevin Dancey, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, says regulating foreign accountants is difficult in Canada.

Patti Gower for The Globe and Mail/patti gower The Globe and Mail

Allegations of intimidation. An Internet petition with thousands of signatures. Dissidents who insist on anonymity.

It is not exactly the type of intrigue you would expect to surround a merger proposal from the three umbrella bodies that oversee Canada's accounting profession.

But the passions of some of the country's 170,000 bean counters have clearly been stirred.

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Behind the battle is a new push from the profession's leaders that would see Canada's chartered accountants (CAs), certified management accountants (CMAs) and certified general accountants (CGAs) eventually trade in their acronyms for a new one: CPA, or chartered professional accountant.

Those promoting the idea say it is needed to streamline the way the provincially regulated profession is governed. They say it would save the millions of dollars in advertising that the bodies have spent competing with each other. And they point to the need to face competition from foreign accounting bodies such as Britain's Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

They also say the profession here must speak with one voice in global debates about the new international accounting standards, which were recently adopted by Canada.

Quebec's bodies have already decided to merge. But this will still leave 36 separate provincial governing bodies in charge of the splintered profession. Merging those into one body in each province or territory simply makes sense, says Kevin Dancey, head of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.

The current system "makes for a pretty inefficient structure, particularly when the world is going global," he said.

Merging is not a new idea. A previous attempt between CAs and CMAs failed in 2004 after members objected. Many in the profession say there has been a blurring between the three disciplines over the years. For example, CAs used to be the only discipline allowed to perform audits. Now, in most cases, the other designations can as well.

Still, resistance has been fierce. Earlier this month, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta said it was bowing out of the merger talks, citing negative feedback from members. CGAs in Manitoba are also sitting on the sidelines.

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Before anything becomes a reality, provincial and territorial legislatures will each have to draft and pass new laws.

In the mean time, an acrimonious debate rages. Much of the opposition appears to come from CAs, some of whom see their designation as superior to the others.

In Ontario, the battle has gotten ugly. Some CAs are upset that the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario (ICAO), while holding a vote this June, is not allowing a binding vote. (The question of a member vote varies between designations in each provinces. Other bodies, including all CGAs, are holding what they say are binding votes.)

Prominent Toronto accountant Al Rosen says a dissident group of Ontario CAs, associated with an Internet petition apparently signed by more than 3,600 people, are remaining anonymous out of fear of reprisals.

"I've been told that the younger CAs, their jobs are being threatened because they are taking up this cause," Mr. Rosen said.

Some CAs opposing the merger declined to speak to The Globe and Mail on the record.

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Mr. Rosen says he opposes the merger because he says it would create a more powerful lobby group to pressure governments to lower accounting standards. And it would wipe out the differences between the designations, he adds.

"I still have not found an advantage," Mr. Rosen said. "The disadvantage is going to be that the one-size-fits-all shoe-store mentality will be there."

In a statement e-mailed to supporters, the opposition group says its members were invited to address the Ontario institute's council in December, but declined due to scheduling problems and because the ICAO allegedly took "measures to arguably make those invited feel intimidated."

Rod Barr, president and CEO of the ICAO, declined requests for an interview. But in an e-mailed response from a spokesman to questions submitted by The Globe, Mr. Barr said his organization had not intimidated anyone.

"We have no idea what is being referred to in that quote," his e-mail reads. "The ICAO has gone out of its way to talk to this group and any other interested members on numerous occasions."

The e-mail said that if the organization's vote fails, the institute would still consider going ahead only if a majority of other provinces proceed with the merger, or if turnout was very low.

Anthony Ariganello, president and CEO of the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada, gives the latest merger plan "better than a 50-per-cent chance" of working out: "We're hopeful that we can get it over the hurdle this time."



Canada's accounting profession, wrestling with a plan to merge its three different designations into one, is also looking over its shoulder as foreign competitors come calling.

At the moment, a long-running feud with Britain's Association of Chartered Certified Accountants is in federal court. The foreign body and Canada's chartered accounting profession are doing battle over the trademark to the very letters CA. The fight is cited by merger proponents as another reason Canada's profession needs to unite.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, two of the world's largest accounting organizations joined forces to launch a new global designation for accounting professionals.

At a recent reception hosted by Britain's Consul-General in Toronto, representatives of the London-based Chartered Institute of Management Accounts (CIMA) toasted their new joint venture with the massive U.S.-based American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the largest grouping of accountants in the world.

As though there were not enough acronyms involved, the two bodies launched a new designation, the CGMA, or Chartered Global Management Accountant. It's a credential they hope their management accountant members the world over – and in Canada – will start using.

The question of what letters an accountant can put after their name remains controversial.

By law in Ontario and some other provinces, foreign-accredited accountants are forbidden from using their own acronyms on their business cards. The rule was reconfirmed in revised legislation passed in Ontario in 2010, over cries of protectionism.

Those behind the British-American joint venture say Canada should loosen its rules.

"I think one of the first challenges is to make people understand that healthy competition is a good thing," said George Glass, the past president of CIMA. "A monopoly is not going to give you the best result, we always know that."

His American counterpart, Paul Stahlin, who also addressed the Toronto reception, said there was room in the world for all sorts of accountants: "There's enough room for many accounting associations, as long as they all have got the mission to raise standards … That's what we're all about."

But the leaders of Canada's accounting professions clearly see foreigners as a problem. They warn that if a foreign-designated accountant does something unethical, he or she is not subject to the profession's domestic discipline procedures. (CIMA counters that it operates around the world and can easily investigate complaints from its London headquarters.) "If you're dealing with an accountant from some other non-Canadian body, there's no real regulatory process in Canada," said Kevin Dancey, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants. "We don't really think that's in the public interest."

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