Ottawa ramps up pressure on Air Canada CEO to learn French

·2 min read
Air Canada's new CEO, Michael Rousseau, spoke only 20 seconds of French during a speech in Montreal on Nov. 3. Now, the federal government says the company's board of directors should evaluate his French-language skills as part of his job performance. (Radio-Canada - image credit)
Air Canada's new CEO, Michael Rousseau, spoke only 20 seconds of French during a speech in Montreal on Nov. 3. Now, the federal government says the company's board of directors should evaluate his French-language skills as part of his job performance. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

In a rare move, the federal government's number two elected official is asking the chair of Air Canada's board of directors to demand that company CEO Michael Rousseau step up his efforts to learn French.

"Significant improvement in Mr. Rousseau's ability to communicate in French should be incorporated as one of his key performance goals," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a letter to Vagn Sørensen, chair of the private company's board.

Freeland also has asked the board to make knowledge of the French language a condition for promotion to senior executive positions, and to formally review policies and practices on the use of French throughout the company.

The letter comes after a week of controversy in Quebec over Rousseau delivering remarks to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce almost exclusively in English. He later told journalists he's been able to get by fine in Quebec without speaking French.

Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press
Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press

"I've been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that's a testament to the city of Montreal," he said.

Politicians of all stripes condemned the remarks, both in Quebec's National Assembly and in Ottawa.

"I'm disappointed by what Mr. Rousseau said. It's very important to respect our two official languages," Conservative Leader Erin O' Toole said today.

Bloc Québecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet suggested the federal government cut subsidies for the airline.

Freeland's letter does not go there — but it does remind the Air Canada board that Ottawa owns 6 per cent of the former Crown corporation's outstanding stock.

As a transportation company, Air Canada is also subject to the Official Languages Act.

Following the outcry last week, Rousseau apologized "to those who were offended" by his comments and vowed to improve his French.

CBC News has reached out to Air Canada for comment.

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