Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau apologized and pledged to improve his French amid a strong backlash from federal and Quebec officials who called his recent comments about not needing speak French despite living in Montreal for 14 years as shocking and disrespectful.
“I want to clarify that I did not want to disrespect in any way [Quebecers] and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my comments, “Rousseau said in a statement Thursday, following fiery criticism from officials hours earlier.
He noted that he had told reporters that he would, in fact, like to be able to speak French.
âToday, I am committed to improving my French, the official language of Canada and the language used in Quebec,â he declared.
âThe head office of this emblematic company is located in Montreal, and it is a source of pride for me and for my entire management team. I reiterate Air Canada’s commitment to respect French and, as a leader, I will set the tone. “
On Wednesday, the CEO gave a 26-minute speech at the Congress Palace in Montreal, during which he spoke in French for only twenty seconds. After the speech, Rousseau was asked in French by a journalist from the Quebec television news channel LCN how he managed to live in Montreal for so long despite the fact that he spoke little French.
He could not answer the question and requested that it be asked in English. When in a rush, he says he has lived in Quebec for 14 years, but is too busy running a business to learn French.
âI was able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal,â said Rousseau, who has been CEO since February.
WATCH | The CEO of Air Canada struggles to answer questions in French:
“It’s insulting,” said the prime minister
Several elected officials from Quebec and Ottawa, including Canada’s Minister of Official Languages, criticized Rousseau’s first remarks.
On Thursday, Prime Minister FranÃ§ois Legault also denounced Rousseau’s attitude towards the French language.
“It’s insulting. It makes me angry, because [of] his attitude of saying ‘I’ve been in Quebec for 14 years and I haven’t had to learn French’, âsaid Legault on the sidelines of the COP26 environmental summit in Scotland.
The Quebec Minister of the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, had declared that Rousseau showed “contempt for our language and our culture in Quebec”.
He doubled that Thursday, saying Rousseau had demonstrated that he was “not worthy of his duties”.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages ââfor Canada said Thursday it has received more than 200 complaints so far related to Rousseau’s speech on Wednesday.
âOver the past five years, we have received an average of more than 80 complaints per year against Air Canada relating to all official languages,â spokesperson Jadrino Huot said in an email to Radio-Canada.
The three opposition parties in Quebec also condemned Rousseau’s comments, with the Liberals and Quebec solidaire calling for his resignation.
“What we are asking today … is that Mr. Rousseau apologize for his remarks towards Francophones and Quebeckers, that he resign from his post and that companies under federal jurisdiction be subject to the French language. Â», Declared AndrÃ© Fortin, of the Liberal Party of Quebec.
English-speaking Quebecers overwhelmed by the comments
Members of Quebec’s English-speaking community also broadly condemned Rousseau’s comments, many noting that they played a role in stereotyping English-speaking Quebecers.
“Mr. Rousseau’s stubborn comment that he does not feel the need to learn French fuels the myth that English-speaking Quebecers are a privileged minority indifferent to French,” said Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network ( QCGN), an umbrella group made up of English-speaking community organizations.
In an interview shortly after, Jennings said, “I’m starting to get smoke coming out of my ears just thinking about it.”
She declared that Rousseau âhas just given the best possible gift to those who claim that to protect and promote French in Quebec, we must eradicate the English language and ultimately our community from the face of Quebecâ.
Robert Libman created the Equality Party in 1988, which focused on promoting the rights of Anglophones, and was a member of the Quebec National Assembly in 1989.
“It takes us all those decades back as a symbol of the power of Anglophone business and Anglophones who do not want to integrate into the reality of Quebec,” he said.
âThis is no longer the caseâ¦ 90% of Anglophones in Quebec speak French quite fluently today.
Quebec’s linguistic bill
Jennings and the QCGN denounced Quebec’s Bill 96, which proposes to revise the provincial law protecting the French language, saying that it goes too far and that it infringes on people’s rights.
The bill has also sparked controversy among other minority rights groups, who say if it becomes law it could undermine the independence of the judiciary by requiring judges to be bilingual and could exclude job applicants and hurt small businesses.
Jennings and Libman say Rousseau’s comments fuel nationalist sentiments and Quebec government officials by pushing the bill into law.
Jolin-Barrette, who is the minister responsible for Bill 96, said the bill could prevent situations like Rousseau’s speech by extending its provisions to federally regulated companies, like Air Canada.
He described the reform as a reasonable response to studies from the French-language office in Quebec indicating that French is in decline in the province, particularly in Montreal.
The Legault government once again invoked the notwithstanding provision to protect the bill from Charter challenges. The first time his government invoked the clause to pass a bill, it was for the law on secularism in Quebec.
Montrealer Alice Cai started learning French in China before immigrating to Quebec.
She says the language was not easy to learn, but being able to speak it helped her integrate into this country.
âTo live here in Montreal, it is necessary and, also, it is interesting to learn the language.