Air Canada boss apologizes amid criticism over comments about learning French

MONTREAL – Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau apologized for comments he made about not having to learn French to get by in Montreal, comments that have triggered an immediate and widespread reaction.

A day after giving a speech almost entirely in English at the Palais des congrès de Montréal, Rousseau pledged to improve his French and said he did not want to disrespect Quebeckers.

The statement comes after strong criticism of the chief executive’s remarks from federal and provincial politicians, including François Legault, who deemed the statement “insulting”.

The premier of Quebec asked Rousseau to apologize for saying he had not learned to speak French while living in the province since 2007.

“It makes me angry, his attitude, to say that he has been in Quebec for 14 years and that he does not need to learn French,” Legault told reporters in French during United Nations talks. on the climate in Scotland. “It’s indescribable; It shocks me.

“Imagine tomorrow morning someone who would agree to become president of a French company in France and who would not speak French and who, in addition, would brag about it,” he said on Thursday.

Calling the comments disrespectful to French-speaking Air Canada employees, Legault added that the airline’s board should consider whether Rousseau should be the head of the country’s largest carrier.

Following a 26-minute speech – with less than 30 seconds of French – at the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Rousseau told reporters he did not have time to learn French and that he was focusing on Air Canada’s progress after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal,” he said. When asked why he hadn’t learned the language, Rousseau replied, “If you look at my work schedule, you’ll understand why. “

About 20 hours later, Rousseau offered a mea culpa – in both languages.

“I would like to point out that in no case did I want to disrespect Quebeckers and Francophones across the country,” we read in Rousseau’s statement. “I apologize to those who were offended by my words.”

Before the apology, criticism poured in from Ottawa and Quebec.

“It adds insult to injury. Air Canada owes Quebeckers and Francophones across the country an explanation. It is a lack of respect for our language. Unacceptable! ”Federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said on Twitter on Wednesday.

The leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, was just as outspoken in his mother tongue. “The boss has no respect for French,” he posted.

“I find these words appalling and disrespectful,” Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said in French. “Air Canada frankly does not understand the impact of its decisions. “

The stage had been set for a confrontation – in this case with the media in the hallway of a downtown convention center – since Rousseau took over in February as the top Air Canada post from French-speaking Calin Rovinescu, who led the company for 12 years.

The Quebec Minister of Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, demanded Tuesday – one day before Rousseau’s speech – that the company and its management “must do better”.

The Commissioner of Official Languages ​​for Canada denounced Air Canada for failing to meet its obligations in the past.

In 2016, then-commissioner Graham Fraser tabled a rare special report in Parliament calling on legislators to modernize the airline’s official languages ​​enforcement regime.

Rousseau is not the only CEO of a large Quebec company who speaks little or no French.

Rania Llewellyn, who joined Laurentian Bank Financial Group in Montreal in October 2020, is multilingual but does not speak French.

George Cope, CEO of BCE Inc. between 2008 and 2020, hardly spoke French and aroused the indignation of the sovereignists at the head of the Quebec telecommunications giant.

The American Robert Card did not learn the language when he was CEO of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. between 2012 and 2015.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on November 4, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX: AC, TSX: LB, TSX: BCE, TSX: SNC)

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