Air Canada issued this statement:
“I want to clarify a statement I made during my exchange with the media yesterday. As I indicated in my comments to the media, I would like to be able to speak French. I want to make it clear that in no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks.
I pledge today to improve my French, an official language of Canada and the common language of Québec, while tackling the serious commercial challenges facing Air Canada as we move from surviving the pandemic to rebuilding to normalcy. The fact that this iconic company is headquartered in Montreal is a source of pride for me and our entire executive team.
I reiterate Air Canada’s commitment to showing respect for French and, as a leader, I will set the tone,” said Michael Rousseau, President and Chief Executive Officer at Air Canada.
On Wednesday, when asked in French how he managed to live in Quebec’s largest city for 14 years without speaking the language, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau paused and requested the question be asked in English.
Rousseau only spoke French for roughly 20 seconds in a 26-minute lecture at the Palais des congrès in Montreal moments before. He added that while he understands the language “quite well,” he finds it difficult to speak it.
Several federal and provincial lawmakers, as well as Quebec critics, reacted angrily to this.
Many people pointed out that Air Canada is bound by the Official Languages Act, which means it must serve clients in either English or French, depending on their preference.
Rousseau had been invited to talk at the Montreal Chamber of Commerce about Air Canada’s recovery from the epidemic. It was his first significant address as CEO of the firm, which was previously a Crown entity, since February. Since 2007, he had served in several capacities in the company’s executive suite.
Following his lecture, a journalist from Quebec TV news channel LCN asked Rousseau in French how he’d managed to live in Montreal for so long despite speaking little French.
“Can you redo that in English?” Rousseau asked, pausing. “I want to make sure I understand your question before I respond.”
Pierre-Olivier Zappa, a journalist, said he’d rather have Rousseau’s press attaché translate the question for him. Rousseau had mentioned it in his speech, according to the attaché.
“How can you live in Montreal without speaking French? Is that easy?” Zappa eventually asked the question in English.
Rousseau hesitated once more.
“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.
“If you look at my job schedule, you’d understand why,” he said when asked why he hadn’t mastered French.
Politicians condemn Rousseau, Air Canada
The Chamber of Commerce’s president, Michel Leblanc, expressed disappointment that Rousseau’s address featured so little French, “and that the CEO of Air Canada did not publicly state his determination to study French.”
Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, expressed hope that Rousseau will make a pledge 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.
On Twitter, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is in charge of Bill 96, the province’s contentious and broad proposed revamp of its French-language law, expressed his displeasure.
“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.”
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.”
Dominique Anglade, the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, reacted as well, calling Rousseau’s remarks “appalling and rude,” and claiming that “Air Canada clearly does not grasp the implications of its decisions,” such as appointing a CEO who does not speak passable French.
Rousseau has been asked to apologize by the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada, which represents Canadian francophone and Acadian groups.
“He must apologize for his callous attitude and lack of respect for francophones,” said Liane Roy, president of the organization.
“If the Commissioner of Official Languages had the power to issue orders and impose penalties … maybe it would be taken more seriously,” Roy added.