Air Canada CEO apologizes, commits to learning French as backlash in Quebec grows

·5 min read
Following heavy backlash from federal and provincial officials, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau issued a statement Thursday apologizing for his comments about the French language and promising to improve his French. (Bloomberg - image credit)
Following heavy backlash from federal and provincial officials, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau issued a statement Thursday apologizing for his comments about the French language and promising to improve his French. (Bloomberg - image credit)

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized and committed to improving his French amid heavy backlash by federal and Quebec officials who called his recent comments about not needing to speak French despite having lived in Montreal for 14 years shocking and disrespectful.

"I want to clarify that I did not want in any way to disrespect [Quebecers] and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my words," Rousseau said in a statement Thursday, following fiery criticism from officials hours earlier.

He noted that he told journalists he would, in fact, like to be able to speak French.

"Today, I am committed to improving my French, the official language of Canada and the language used in Quebec," he said.

"The head office of this emblematic company is located in Montreal, and it is a source of pride for me as for my entire management team. I reiterate Air Canada's commitment to show respect for French and, as a leader, I will set the tone."

On Wednesday, the CEO delivered a 26-minute speech at the Palais des congrès in Montreal, during which he spoke French for only about 20 seconds. 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.

He was unable to answer the question and asked that it be posed in English. When pressed, he said despite living in Quebec for 14 years, he's too busy running a company to learn French.

"I've been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that's a testament to the city of Montreal," said Rousseau, who has been CEO since February.

WATCH | Air Canada CEO struggles to answer questions in French:

'It's insulting,' premier says

Several elected officials in Quebec and Ottawa, including Canada's minister of official languages, have criticized Rousseau's initial comments.

On Thursday, Premier François Legault also denounced Rousseau's attitude about the French language.

"It's insulting. It makes me angry, because [of] his attitude to say 'I have been in Quebec 14 years and I did not have to learn French,' " said Legault on the sidelines of the COP26 environmental summit in Scotland.

Quebec's minister for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, had said Rousseau showed "contempt for our language and our culture in Quebec."

He doubled down on that Thursday, saying Rousseau had demonstrated that he is "not worthy of his duties."

Dany Pilote/Radio-Canada
Dany Pilote/Radio-Canada

A spokesperson for the Office of the Official Languages Commissioner of Canada said Thursday it has so far received more than 200 complaints related to Rousseau's Wednesday speech.

"In the past five years, we have received an average of more than 80 complaints per year against Air Canada in relation to the official languages as a whole," said spokesperson Jadrino Huot in an email to Radio-Canada.

All three opposition parties in Quebec have also condemned Rousseau's remarks, with the Liberals and Québec Solidaire calling for his resignation.

"What we are asking today … is that Mr. Rousseau apologize for his remarks toward francophones and Quebecers, that he resign from his post and that companies under federal jurisdiction be subject to the French language," said André Fortin, of the Liberal Party of Quebec.

English-speaking Quebecers upset by comments

Members of the English-speaking community in Quebec also widely condemned Rousseau's comments, with many pointing out that it plays into stereotypes about anglophone Quebecers.

"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," said Marlene Jennings, the president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), an umbrella group made up of English-speaking community organizations.

In an interview shortly after, Jennings said, "I'm starting to get smoke coming out of my ears just thinking about it."

Sean Henry/CBC
Sean Henry/CBC

She said Rousseau "has just handed the best gift possible to those who claim that in order to protect and promote French in Quebec, one has to eradicate the English language and ultimately our community from the face of Quebec."

Robert Libman created the Equality Party in 1988, which focused on promoting anglophone rights, and was a member of Quebec's National Assembly in 1989.

"This just throws us back all those decades as a symbol of anglophone business power and anglophones who don't want to integrate into the reality of Quebec," he said.

"That's not the case anymore … Ninety per cent of Quebec anglophones can speak French fairly fluently today."

Quebec's language bill

Jennings and the QCGN have denounced Quebec's Bill 96, which proposes to overhaul the provincial law protecting the French language, saying it goes too far and infringes on people's rights.

The bill has also raised controversy among other minority rights groups, who say if it becomes law, it could undermine the independence of the judiciary by requiring judges to be bilingual and that it could exclude job candidates and harm small businesses.

Jennings and Libman say Rousseau's comments feed nationalist sentiments and Quebec government officials in pushing the bill into law.

Jolin-Barrette, who is the minister responsible for Bill 96, said the bill could prevent situations like Rousseau's speech by extending its provisions to include companies under federal jurisdiction, such as Air Canada.

He has described the reform as a reasonable response to studies by Quebec's French-language office indicating French is on the decline in the province, particularly in Montreal.

The Legault government has once again invoked the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to shield the bill from charter challenges. The first time his government invoked the clause to pass a bill into law was for Quebec's secularism law.

CBC
CBC

Montrealer Alice Cai started learning French in China before immigrating to Quebec.

She says the language hasn't been easy to learn, but that being able to speak it has helped her integrate in this country.

"For living here in Montreal, it's necessary and, also, it's interesting to learn the language."

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