03 February 2016

A social look at the Canadian profession

It's been interesting to see the heavy promotion CPA Canada has been giving lately for its brand, and fascinating to note that they are promoting a single image of what that is supposed to represent to employers. However, the legacies of the predecessor designations will last for a very long time.

It appears that very little work has been undertaken to examine the effects they have left on the profession. There was one very bad joke going around a while back to explain the differences:

"CGAs do good books. CMAs explain what they mean. CAs bend them to fit GAAP."

But it's not that simple. The former professional bodies were created to serve different needs that arose as time went by:

  • The Chartered Accountants (CAs) were the first to be formed, initially in Montreal (the Association of Accountants of Montreal), and then in Toronto (the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario). The Toronto group appeared to be  more aggressive in extending membership to people of various qualifications, and there was a breakaway movement that formed the Dominion Association of Chartered Accountants in order to raise standards and confer a uniform national designation. That caused a rift that only healed in 1910, with the ICAO being triumphant and the CA designation being conferred province by province. DACA would become the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants in the 1950s, and the qualification and reporting standards gradually became more uniform nationally with university degrees required before entry into their programme only in the 1960s.
  • The Certified General Accountants (CGAs) began as a group to provide accounting training for employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it branched out from there. There was a running battle going on for decades between them and the CAs as to the right to audit financial statements, and this was fought out both in the legislatures and the courts. Their final inclusion in CPA Canada is rightfully seen as a miracle of negotiation.
  • The Certified Management Accountants were initially created by the CAs as a subgroup of their members to cover the growing field of cost accounting before the CGAs had a chance to get into it. It then started holding its own examinations to confer "certificates of efficiency" to newcomers, and then created the separate Registered Industrial and Cost Accountant (RIA) designation in the early 1940s. The RIAs became the CMAs in the mid-1980s, and that time they started to required the possession of a university degree before entry into their course of study.
  • The Certified Public Accountants (the original CPAs) came about in the mid-1920s to professionalize the accountants and auditors that worked for the taxation authorities in Ottawa and Queen's Park. The designation originated as LA (Licentiate in Accountancy) during 1926-1931, changing to IPA (Incorporated Public Accountant) during 1931-1936, before becoming the CPA. They merged with the CAs in the early 1960s.
  • There were also the Accredited Public Accountants (APAs) out West, which existed from 1950 to sometime in the 1970s before merging with the CGAs. I have no information as to the reason for their formation in the first place, but it does explain somewhat why the CGA membership tended to be more heavily weighted to the Western provinces.
It's been interesting to see how they all intermixed (or not) over the years. Some companies preferred to hire one group over the other, others were indifferent as long as the candidate did the job, and still others streamed them to fit various pigeonholes (eg, CAs for external financial reporting and tax returns, CMAs for management reporting, and CGAs for monthly reporting and reconciliation). The corporate attitude tended to dictate how they all related to each other.

The different modes of training also have had their effect: the "bullpens" the CA candidates were in while they got ready for the UFE created alumni networks that have helped them out greatly over the years, even if many of them adopted the white-shirt and navy-suit stereotype along the way. On the other hand,  the CMAs and CGAs had to study on their own (sometimes even by correspondence), and have tended to treat the organizations they work for as being the focal point of their social interaction. The latter probably explains why many of them have tended to be introverted in broader settings.

The CMAs also had an influx of membership back in the 1970s and 1980s from the transfer over of British graduates of ICMA (the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants, now the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), and their superiority complex tended to muddy things up for a while for the homegrown RIAs. However, that is a story that has never been properly explored. Thankfully, the ICMA influx has long since retired.

I generally found the RIAs to be the most sociable of the bunch (conflict of interest disclosure: I'm one of them myself), and more likely to want to go out and relax together over a drink after work. You really learned a lot listening to those fellows in such a setting, and that type of camaraderie has been lacking for a long time among the more recent graduates. Of course, it cost a lot more for the newer CMA grads for funding their tuition compared to what we faced, and the Board Report stage did force some social interaction to take place in order to achieve a goal, so it may not have been that bad. However, I have heard instances of many employers not reimbursing all of the costs involved, or of setting up tracks to assure the progression of such candidates to more deserving positions, as opposed to the CATO system the CAs had.

What will the new CPA graduates face, and what will be the consequences for those that have come before? Those questions are very much open, and it would be interesting to see if someone (most likely an academic) will step up and investigate this.

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