Air Canada to review French policies as CEO begins private instruction

·4 min read

MONTREAL — It's back-to-school season for Air Canada's CEO.

The country's largest airline says chief executive Michael Rousseau has started French lessons, just days after public remarks that sparked an uproar over his inability to speak Quebec's common tongue.

In a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Air Canada chairman Vagn Sorensen said Rousseau has now begun what the board head called "intensive learning of French."

"This is not just a personal commitment on his part, but an element that will be an integral part of his performance evaluation," Sorensen wrote in French.

Rousseau also said in a letter — in French — to employees that he has started courses with a private tutor.

Following a speech almost entirely in English to the Montreal chamber of commerce last Wednesday, the CEO told reporters he did not need to learn French to get by in Montreal, words that sparked immediate and widespread backlash and for which he apologized the next day.

He reiterated that apology to Air Canada's 27,000 employees Tuesday, saying his remarks should have shown "more sensitivity regarding the importance of speaking French in Quebec" and that they do not reflect his values.

He also announced he has given the company's chief commercial officer and its head of human resources a "mandate to review and strengthen" its official languages practices.

On Monday, Freeland asked Air Canada's board of directors to make French communication an "important criterion" for senior management and incorporate improvement in Rousseau's French abilities into his annual evaluation.

In his reply, the chairman said he accepts Freeland's recommendations, agreeing to review French proficiency requirements for a broader swath of senior positions and to assess companywide policies around the use of French at the board's next governance committee meeting.

Executive headhunter Roger Duguay says stronger French-language standards at large Quebec companies would not noticeably shorten their candidate list or harm performance.

"It would have almost zero effect on the pool of candidates going there or refusing to come forward if we asked them, 'So, would you mind if you come in and take a few French lessons and improve it and show that you care?'" Duguay, a managing partner at Boyden Canada, said in an interview.

"They all want to speak a little bit of the local language."

Requiring top management to have a grasp of French — though not a mastery of it — is a feasible threshold for big corporations headquartered in the Montreal area to meet, he said. But for big companies with an international presence, English is the global language of business.

"If you're the CEO of Royal Bank, you could not get by just speaking a few words of English. Of course not," he said. "And we should never expect it to be both ways in a symmetrical sense."

As a former federal Crown corporation, Air Canada is subject to the Official Languages Act, which requires that it offer services in French for routes that include airports in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. But there is no specific rule that the CEO be bilingual.

Last June, however, the Liberal government tabled legislation to guarantee the right to be served and to work in French in businesses under federal jurisdiction in Quebec, as well as in regions with a strong predominance of francophones.

Bill 32 died on the order paper when the election was triggered in August, but the government has pledged to reintroduce legislation shoring up protection of French within its first 100 days.

A protest is slated for next Saturday in front of Air Canada's headquarters near the Montreal airport.

"We are going to Air Canada to remind them that they have not respected their own 2020-2023 linguistic action plan," Marie-Anne Alepin, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, said in an interview in French.

The plan states that Air Canada is "proud to offer services in both official languages and demonstrate true leadership among major Canadian companies in promoting bilingualism."

Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor of human resource management at the University of Guelph, said learning a new language may appear intimidating to unilingual adults, but that workers from executives to labourers take on the challenge daily.

"The beauty of it is that language can be trained. There's lots of tools or systems out there to train you on languages, which is very helpful for the more current conversation about diversity, inclusion and equity," she said in a phone interview.

Rousseau 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 at the 175-year-old company in French for video messages and begun working with a private tutor, said spokesman Merick Seguin.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:RY)

— With files from Lia Lévesque

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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