When Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau was asked in French on Wednesday how he managed to live in Quebec’s largest city for 14 years without speaking the language, he paused and requested the question be posed in English.
In a 26-minute speech at the Palais des congrès in Montreal moments before, Rousseau only spoke French for about 20 seconds. While his understanding of the language is “fair,” he said, he struggles to speak it.
That prompted swift criticism from federal and provincial politicians and several Quebec commentators.
Many 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.
Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce had invited Rousseau to speak about Air Canada’s recovery after the pandemic. It was his first major speech since he was appointed CEO of the company, which used to be a Crown corporation, in February. He had held various roles in the company’s executive suite since 2007.
After the speech, Rousseau was asked in French by a journalist for Quebec TV news channel LCN how he’s managed to live in Montreal for so long despite speaking little French.
Rousseau paused and said: “Can you redo that in English? Because I want to make sure I understand your question before I respond to it.”
The journalist, Pierre-Olivier Zappa, said he’d rather Rousseau’s press attaché translate the question to him. The attaché replied that Rousseau had addressed it in his speech.
Eventually, Zappa asked the question in English, saying, “How can you live in Montreal without speaking French? Is it easy?”
Rousseau paused again.
“I’ve been 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, responding: “If you look at my work schedule, you’d 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 French.”
Raymond Théberge, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, said he hopes Rousseau will make a commitment to do 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 province’s controversial and sweeping proposed overhaul of its French-language law — was quick to share his condemnation on Twitter.
“The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything 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.”
Le grand patron d’Air Canada exprime tout ce que nous avons rejeté il y a des décennies: le mépris pour notre langue et notre culture chez nous au Québec. Ces propos sont indignes des fonctions qu’il occupe. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/polqc?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#polqc</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/assnat?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#assnat</a> <a href=”https://t.co/3V1xV7eOkU”>https://t.co/3V1xV7eOkU</a>
The federal Minister of Official Languages Ginette Petitpas Taylor also criticized Rousseau, stating on Twitter that, “Air Canada offers an important service to Canadians. It must do so in both official languages — and its leaders must be an example.”
Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade also reacted, calling Rousseau’s comments “appalling and disrespectful” and stating that “Air Canada frankly does not understand the impact of its decisions,” to appoint a CEO who does not speak adequate French.
The Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, an organization representing Canadian francophone and Acadian communities, has asked Rousseau to apologize.
“He must apologize for his insensitive attitude and his lack of respect for francophones,” said the federation’s president, Liane Roy.
“If the Commissioner of Official Languages had the power to issue orders and impose penalties … maybe it would be taken more seriously,” Roy added.