MONTREAL — Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized for comments he made about not needing to learn French to get by in Montreal, words that sparked immediate and widespread backlash.
A day after giving a speech almost entirely in English at the Palais des congrès in Montreal, Rousseau pledged to improve his French and said he meant no disrespect toward Quebecers.
The statement comes after heated criticism of the chief executive's remarks from federal and provincial politicians, including François Legault, who deemed the utterance "insulting."
The Quebec premier demanded Rousseau apologize for saying he had not learned how to speak French despite living in the province since 2007.
"It makes me angry, his attitude, to say that he's been in Quebec for 14 years and he didn't need to learn French," Legault told reporters in French at the United Nations climate talks in Scotland. "It's unspeakable; it shocks me.
"Imagine tomorrow morning someone who would agree to become president of a French company in France and who would not speak French and who, in addition, would brag about it," he said Thursday.
Calling the comments disrespectful to French-speaking Air Canada employees, Legault added that the airline's board of directors should consider whether Rousseau should be at the head of country's largest carrier.
Following a 26-minute speech — with less than 30 seconds of French — to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Rousseau told reporters he didn't have time to learn French and was focused on moving Air Canada forward after the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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. Asked why he hadn't learned the language, Rousseau replied: "If you look at my work schedule, you'd understand why."
About 20 hours later, Rousseau offered a mea culpa — in both languages.
"I want to make it clear that in no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country," Rousseau's statement read. "I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks."
Ahead of the apology, criticism poured in from Ottawa and Quebec City.
"This is adding insult to the injury. Air Canada owes explanations to Quebecers and francophones across the country. This is a lack of respect for our language. Unacceptable!" federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Wednesday on Twitter.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet was equally blunt in his native tongue. "The boss has no regard for French," he posted.
"I find these words appalling and disrespectful," Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade stated in French. "Air Canada frankly does not understand the impact of its decisions."
The stage had been set for a confrontation — in this case with media in the corridor of a downtown convention centre — since Rousseau in February took over the top job at Air Canada from fluent French speaker Calin Rovinescu, who helmed the company for 12 years.
Quebec Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette demanded Tuesday — a day before Rousseau's speech — that the company and its management "must do better."
Canada's official languages commissioner has called out Air Canada for failing to meet its obligations in the past.
In 2016, then-commissioner Graham Fraser tabled a rare special report to Parliament calling on legislators to modernize the official languages enforcement scheme for the airline.
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 in French for video messages, including one wishing them a happy Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in June. She is also working with a private tutor, says the company, which was founded in Montreal in 1846.
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.
George Cope, CEO of BCE Inc. between 2008 and 2020, spoke virtually no French during his tenure and sparked outcry from sovereigntists over his role heading the Quebec-based telecommunications giant, whose roots as the Bell Telephone Company date back to 1880.
American Robert Card did not learn the language when he served as chief executive of the 110-year-old engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. between 2012 and 2015.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2021.
Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:ATD.B, TSX:LB, TSX:BCE, TSX:SNC)
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press