SHAWINIGAN, Que. — The Quebec government will work to identify leaders of companies based in the province who don't speak French and try to persuade them to learn the language, Premier François Legault said Friday.
His comments came in reaction to the recent admissions by the CEOs of two major Montreal-based companies that they speak little French. Legault said corporate leaders in Quebec should be able to speak the language of the majority in the province, adding that his government was "looking at different approaches to ensure this."
On Thursday, Ian Edwards, head of engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, cancelled an upcoming speech to a local business group, saying he wanted time to improve his French. In a letter to the Canadian Club of Montreal, Edwards said he doesn't speak French well despite living in Quebec since 2014.
That move came after Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau spoke little French in a Nov. 3 speech to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal and then told reporters he didn't need to learn the language to get by in Quebec's largest city. His comments drew strong condemnation from politicians and media pundits across the province.
Legault said Friday he thinks the two CEOs don't represent the majority of Quebec's business elite.
"I think that the large majority of corporate presidents in Quebec are able to speak French," Legault told reporters in Shawinigan, Que., where he announced an economic plan he said would help close the wealth gap between Quebec and Ontario.
He promised to work with the "small minority" of the province's business leaders who don't. "We have to act with this small minority, to help them, to support them, to convince them," he said.
Legault said he would also talk with Charles Emond, president and CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the manager of Quebec's public pension fund and the largest investor in SNC-Lavalin, about whether the fund has a role in promoting French among executives at Quebec companies in which it invests.
"The Caisse has a social responsibility," said Legault, whose government has made the promotion of the French language a priority.
Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia 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. The airline is subject to the Official Languages Act.
In his reply to the minister, Air Canada chairman Vagn Sorensen said Rousseau has begun intensive French lessons. The CEO's knowledge of the language, Sorensen wrote in French, will be "an integral part of his performance evaluation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2021.
— by Jacob Serebrin with files from Christopher Reynolds
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press