OTTAWA -- The top executives of Air Canada, Canadian National (CN), Crown corporations and other organizations subject to the Official Languages Act, such as port and airport authorities, will not be required to clearly speak and understand French, as the Quebec government has called for.

Liberal and Conservative members sitting on the Standing Committee on Official Languages rejected the Bloc Québécois' amendment to Bill C-13 on Tuesday. The New Democratic Party is the only other political party that said it was in favour.

Such an amendment aims to avoid "things like we see, for example, CN having no French-speaking directors," said Bloc Québécois official languages critic Mario Beaulieu.

The fact that the top executives of Air Canada and CN — two Montreal-based companies — are unable to speak French is "scandalous" and shows that "they have no interest in respecting their social contract with us," said NDP MP Niki Ashton.

"The CEOs of these companies are the CEOs because the government privatized these companies," she added. "One of the few obligations that remain is the Official Languages Act."

The Liberals did not comment directly on the amendment, preferring to ask questions of experts invited by the committee.

"Would it mean that, for example, the Port Alberni or Nanaimo or Halifax port authority, or the authorities that govern airports like, for example, in Calgary or Vancouver ... all these CEOs would have to be bilingual," asked Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount MP Marc Garneau, who was answered in the affirmative.

If the amendment is adopted and C-13 becomes law, this provision provides for "an obligation that would limit" the choices of directors of private companies, said Julie Boyer, Assistant Deputy Minister at the Department of Canadian Heritage, in response to a question from Patricia Lattanzio, the Liberal MP for Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel.

The Conservative official languages critic, Joel Godin, also said he was against the amendment despite the many examples where "French has been flouted in certain companies, including Air Canada."

However, Godin felt that the amendment is "too general" and that it risks "limiting unilingual people to not having access to these directorships." He said he would prefer to "develop a bilingual culture."

CN faced criticism last year when it was revealed that it had not selected any francophone candidates for its board of directors after the resignation of former Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was "blown away" by the situation.

CN subsequently said it intended to recruit a francophone director. Finally, last fall, Michel Letellier was appointed as the new francophone director on the board.

Air Canada's CEO, Michael Rousseau, also caused an uproar after a speech he gave in Montreal, which was mostly in English. He also said he was happy to have been able to work and live in Quebec for years without having to learn French.

The Air Canada boss apologized and said in a statement that he had not meant "any disrespect to Quebecers and francophones across the country." He also promised to improve his French.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Feb. 14, 2023.