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Air Canada CEO apologizes for not being able to speak, understand French

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MONTREAL -

Air Canada's president and CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized for not being able to speak or understand the French language after igniting a language firestorm in Quebec.

"In no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks," he said Thursday. "I pledge today to improve my French, an official language of Canada and the common language of Quebec."

This comes after Rousseau told reporters Wednesday he has been "able to live in Montreal without speaking French and I think that’s a testament to the City of Montreal."

He had just addressed Montreal's Chamber of Commerce almost entirely in English.

His comments were met by fierce criticism, including Canada's minister of official languages.

"Air Canada offers an important service to Canadians," wrote Ginette Petitpas on Twitter. "It must do so in both official languages – and its leaders must set an example."

Rousseau has been living in Montreal for 14 years, but grew up in Ontario.

During his 26-minute speech, the majority of which was in English, he admitted that his command of the French language is weak. 

"Quebec is now my home and I have acquired some conversational French, but while my comprehension is fair, my ability to speak it fluently remains limited," he said.

During a press scrum later, when asked in French how he managed to live in Quebec's largest city for so many years without speaking the language, Rousseau paused and requested the question be posed in English to "make sure I understand before I respond."

Following his request, the reporter continued in French, stating it was understood that Rousseau's language skills were "functional" before he was named CEO earlier this year, forcing him to glance at his attaché for help.

"I think he addressed questions about language earlier if we could move onto other topics," she stated; leading another reporter to ask a second question in French about his language skills.

Seemingly stumbling to comprehend, Rousseau answered in English: "I would love to speak French, while my family has a French background, but right now my priority is ensuring Air Canada gets back to where they were."

The CEO invited reporters to "look at my work schedule," implying that he simply does not have the time to attend language classes.

DEMANDING AN APOLOGY

Quebec Premier François Legault is now demanding Rousseau apologize for not attempting to take French lessons, despite his many years living in the province.

The premier, who is currently in Glasgow, SC for the United Nations Summit on Climate Change (COP26), says he was outraged by the CEO's attitude and wants him to make amends.

"I watched the video of Mr. Rousseau and I find it insulting. It makes me angry, his attitude, to say that it's been 14 years since he's been in Quebec and he did not need to learn French. It's unspeakable, it shocks me," he said. "It shows a lack of respect towards the French-speaking employees of Air Canada."

In fact, on the eve of Rousseau's speech, Quebec Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was already demanding that the company and its management "do better."

"It would be respectful to address the business community in Montreal, Quebec's French-speaking metropolis, in its official language, French," he stated.

Federal and provincial politicians also weighed in, meeting the matter with widespread criticism.

"This is adding insult to the injury. Air Canada owes explanations to Quebecers and francophones across the country. This is a lack of respect for our language. Unacceptable," Federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Wednesday on Twitter.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet was equally blunt, posting in his native language: "The boss has no regard for French." 

"I find these words appalling and disrespectful," Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade stated in French. "Air Canada frankly does not understand the impact of its decisions."

The head of Montreal's Chamber of Commerce, Michael Leblanc, added he was also surprised by Rousseau's choice to not address the community in French.

"We expected that the CEO would recognize the importance of knowing French," he said. "For the leader of a major corporation in Quebec, I would hope that he would commit publicly to learning French."

Parti Québécois Language Critic Pascal Bérubé referred to the incident as an example of "Westmount privilege." 

"For the most part, for the bosses, for those who decide, for those who live in Westmount, there is an English-speaking privilege in Quebec. Let's name it. It exists through Mike Rousseau and then it exists through a lot of contempt asserted on a daily basis," he said in French.

Marlene Jennings, president of English-language advocacy group the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), was also dismayed at Rousseau's handling of the situation and how it reflected on the English community.

“Mr. Rousseau’s narrow-minded comment that he does not feel the need to learn French feeds the myth that English-speaking Quebecers are a privileged minority indifferent to French. His attitude simply does not reflect the values of our community,” she said.

DOZENS OF COMPLAINTS

Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Theberge says his office has received more than 60 complaints about the matter.

Air Canada has a history of not complying with the Languages Act, he noted.

“Air Canada seems to invest in language training and in other programs. However, the results don't seem to be as what we would expect,” he said. “Therefore, the question one has to ask is: to what degree are we committed to official languages within the organization?"

The dozens of complaints raise questions about how Air Canada implements official languages within its organization.

“It starts at the top. Example is given at the top and then the messaging is given to the organization by the leadership. So, I do think that it's very useful that leaders who lead bilingual institutions or organizations be able to address their employees, their customers, their stakeholders in both official languages,” he said.

NOT THE ONLY ONE

Rousseau was named CEO when Calin Rovinescu retired in February after leading the country’s largest airline for almost 12 years, but he is not the only CEO of a major Quebec company who speaks little to no French.

Rania Llewellyn, who came on board as CEO at Laurentian Bank Financial Group in October 2020, is multilingual but did not speak French on arrival.

However, she has addressed employees in French via video, including one that wished them a happy Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in June. She is working with a private tutor, confirmed the company, which was founded in Montreal in 1846.

Iowa-raised Brian Hannasch, CEO of Quebec's Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., spoke only English when he joined the company in 2001, as well as when he was named CEO in 2014, though he did pledge to learn French.

George Cope, CEO of BCE Inc. between 2008 and 2020, spoke almost no French during his tenure and sparked outcry from sovereigntists over his role at the Quebec-based telecommunications giant, whose roots as the Bell Telephone Company date back to 1880.

American Robert Card did not learn the language when he served as chief executive of the 110-year-old engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. between 2012 and 2015.


LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: How the Air Canada CEO is tone deaf. Tom Mulcair weighs in

With files from CTV News' Rob Lurie and Lillian Roy, and The Canadian Press

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