Ottawa should force companies subject to the Official Languages Act, such as Air Canada and Canadian National (CN), to have a minimum proportion of French-speaking directors, provided elected officials can legally compel it, said René Arseneault, chair of the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

These companies, "however independent they may be," should represent "the linguistic demography of the country," said the Liberal MP for Madawaska-Restigouche, New Brunswick, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

This would mean making it mandatory that "at the very least" a quarter of the board of directors be francophone.

"I think it makes sense. I (don't) think it's asking for much," said Arseneault.

His comments come days after a public outcry over the absence of francophones on the board of directors of Canadian National Railway (CN). The controversy followed one last fall when Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau gave a speech in Montreal delivered primarily in English.

Arseneault, a lawyer by training, said he believes it is highly unlikely the federal government would have such influence over organizations at arm's length from the government and wants to know "where the disconnect is."


The committee he chairs is preparing to study a bill to modernize the Official Languages Act.

It will allow the Commissioner of Official Languages to "impose orders" on Air Canada, Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told the parliamentary committee last month.

Bill C-13 will also create a new law that will give the right to work and be served in French in private companies under federal jurisdiction in "regions with a strong Francophone presence."

"We will start by studying our Bill C-13 here in committee... and see what the possibilities are," said Arseneault.

He notes that successive commissioners of official languages have been "incredibly helpful" in informing elected officials on legal and official languages issues.

Upon entering cabinet on Tuesday, Taylor carefully avoided saying whether the government feels it is appropriate to add terms and conditions on the composition of boards of directors to the bill.

"I think we should always have francophones on boards of directors," she said. "It is very important. We live in a country that is bilingual."

Last week, in the wake of the CN controversy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau avoided answering the same question twice.

Instead, Trudeau expressed his outrage and said he believes francophones "should have the chance to sit on all national companies, like CN, like Air Canada, (...) should be reflected in our great national institutions."


The Conservatives, for their part, appeared to want to improve Bill C-13.

In a written statement, their official languages critic, Joel Godin, criticized the fact that the government "has shown no intention of putting an end to this unacceptable situation."

"The CN case, in addition to the Air Canada case, proves that the federal government is not acting and that the Official Languages Act does not prevent this from happening again. Moreover, we feel that this government wants to rush C-13 through without allowing amendments," he wrote.

The Bloc Québécois would be in favour of C-13 if the bill added provisions on the composition of boards of directors.

"French should be strengthened as much as possible,'' said BQ official languages critic Mario Beaulieu.

Beaulieu reiterated, however, that his party wants the new law to specify that all Quebec-based companies will be subject to Bill 101, which is currently not the case for companies under federal jurisdiction.

"All parties, except the Liberals, agree that Quebec should be able to apply Bill 101 to businesses under federal jurisdiction, which has a very broad consensus in Quebec," he said.

In the New Democratic Party (NDP), deputy official languages critic Alexandre Boulerice said he "doesn't think it's up to the federal government to dictate who gets hired or not" to make up boards of directors.

"That might be going a bit too far, but at least I think the Official Languages Act needs to be strengthened, and the Commissioner needs to be given more power to investigate and perhaps fine," he said. "That would be a step in the right direction."

In the wake of the controversies at the former Crown corporations, CN promised to "correct the situation" when two directors finish their terms "in the next few months" and Air Canada's top executive committed to learning French.

The office of the Commissioner of Official Languages had not responded to a request from The Canadian Press at the time of publication.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 26, 2022.