November 5, 2021

Language office eyes probe after Air Canada English-only speech

Nicolas Van Praet | The Globe and Mail

Michael Rousseau’s first speech to business leaders in Montreal was supposed to be his coming out party, a chance for Air Canada new chief executive to build credibility and tell the story of an airline – a pillar of the Quebec economy – in recovery mode. Instead, the CEO’s English-only talk, during which he revealed that he’s not comfortable speaking in French even after living in the city for more than a decade, has become a public relations nightmare for his employer.

Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, said in an interview on Friday that his office has received about 1,000 complaints about the speech and is now weighing whether to launch an investigation. He said his office warned the company days in advance to rethink the CEO’s plan to communicate in English.

“The depth of the reaction shows to what point he’s touched a very sensitive nerve with the francophone public,” Mr. Théberge said. “It’s very much a leadership issue.”

Mr. Rousseau’s admission has also become a political problem for Air Canada, which is federally regulated. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec politicians from across the political spectrum have criticized the airline publicly.

In his speech Wednesday to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Mr. Rousseau made a few words of introduction in French before switching to English. While answering questions from reporters after the event, he was asked in French: “How does one live in Montreal for more than 14 years speaking very approximative French?” His answer, in English: “Could you redo that in English?


As a federally regulated corporation, Air Canada is subject to Canada’s Official Languages Act, which means it has to communicate and deliver services to the public in both English and French. There is no obligation in the act for Air Canada’s CEO to be able to speak French.

The question now is whether Mr. Rousseau’s speech constitutes a communication with the public. If the Commissioner of Official Languages finds Air Canada at fault, his enforcement options are limited: he only has the power to make recommendations for change to the airline.

The federal government had previously been working on an update to the Official Languages Act that would include strengthening the commissioner’s enforcement powers. Following this incident, Quebec has called on Ottawa to make sure any overhaul includes a closer watch on Air Canada.

Air Canada’s board of directors as a whole is responsible for appointing the CEO, according to the board’s charter. A description of the CEO position on the company’s website, dating from November, 2006, makes no mention of knowing French as a condition of employment.

John Gradek, a former Air Canada manager who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said the airline’s board members now have to answer for Mr. Rousseau’s comments and whether they understood the implications of hiring a non-French-speaking CEO. He said Ottawa can “exert some muscle” as a shareholder if the government feels this is an unsalvageable situation.

François Dauphin, chief executive of Montreal’s Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations, said Mr. Rousseau had been “very clumsy” in his role as the public-facing guardian of Air Canada’s culture, which includes bilingualism. But he said the board also failed to coach the CEO in the importance of bilingualism to the wider community.

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