When Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau was asked on Wednesday how he had managed to live in Quebec’s largest city for 14 years without speaking the language, he paused and asked for the question to be asked. in English.
In a 26-minute speech at the Palais des congrès de Montréal moments before, Rousseau spoke French for only about 20 seconds. Although his understanding of the language is “right,” he said, he struggles to speak it.
This drew rapid criticism from federal and provincial politicians and several Quebec commentators.
Several pointed out that Air Canada is subject to the Official Languages Act and must therefore serve customers in English and French, depending on the customer’s preference.
The Montreal Chamber of Commerce invited Rousseau to speak about the resumption of Air Canada after the pandemic. It was his first big speech since he was appointed CEO of the company, which was once a crown corporation, in February. He has held various positions within the company’s general management since 2007.
After the speech, Rousseau was asked in French by a journalist from the Quebec television news channel LCN how he managed to live in Montreal for so long despite the fact that he spoke little French.
Rousseau paused and said, “Can you do this again in English?” Because I want to make sure I understand your question before answering it.
Journalist Pierre-Olivier Zappa said he preferred Rousseau’s press secretary to translate the question to him. The attaché replied that Rousseau had spoken about it in his speech.
Finally, Zappa asked the question in English saying, “How can you live in Montreal without speaking French?” Is it easy? “
Rousseau stopped again.
“I was able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal,” Rousseau said.
He was also asked why he had not learned French, replying: “If you look at my work schedule, you would understand why.
Politicians condemn Rousseau, Air Canada
Michel Leblanc, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he was disappointed that Rousseau’s speech contained very little French, “and that the CEO of Air Canada did not publicly declare that his intention was to learn the French “.
Raymond Théberge, Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada, has said he hopes Rousseau will commit to doing so.
“Like any CEO of a company subject to the Official Languages Act, [Rousseau] should be able to communicate in the official languages, ”Théberge said in an interview with Radio-Canada.
Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette – who is responsible for Bill 96, the controversial and radical overhaul of the province’s French-language law – was quick to share his condemnation on Twitter.
“The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything that we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture at home in Quebec,” Jolin-Barrette wrote in French.
“These words are unworthy of the role he occupies.”
The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything that we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture at home in Quebec. These words are indignant at the functions he occupies. #polqc #assnat https://t.co/3V1xV7eOkU
Federal Minister of Official Languages Ginette Petitpas Taylor also criticized Rousseau, saying on Twitter: “Air Canada provides an important service to Canadians. It must do so in both official languages - and its leaders must be an example.
The leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, Dominique Anglade, also reacted, calling Rousseau’s remarks “appalling and disrespectful” and declaring that “Air Canada frankly does not understand the impact of its decisions” to appoint a CEO who does not speak French enough.
The The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada, an organization representing Francophone and Acadian communities in Canada, asked Rousseau to apologize.
“He must apologize for his insensitive attitude and his lack of respect for Francophones,” said Federation President Liane Roy.
“If the Commissioner of Official Languages had the power to issue orders and impose sanctions … maybe it would be taken more seriously,” added Roy.