The company has received more than 2,000 complaints after CEO Michael Rousseau acknowledged that, after 14 years, he has not had time to learn French. The president, and also CEO of Air Canada, has faced criticism and accusations in recent days. Michael Rousseau has been in charge of the main airline in the country since February of this year.
However, the chorus of protests began on November 3rd, when he delivered a speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce; a 26-minute speech in English and only 20 seconds in French. At the end of the event, a group of journalists asked him why he does not speak French despite living in the metropolis of Quebec for 14 years. Rousseau pointed out -among other points and in English- that his multiple occupations have prevented it. Air Canada operates under federal regulations, in which Canadian bilingualism is essential; or at least, on paper.
The reactions did not delay. Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, declared: “It seems to me that this is an unacceptable situation”. For his part, François Legault, Prime Minister of Quebec, said: “It is an insult. I hope he apologizes and learns French. “Legault added that it seemed inconceivable to him on the part of a manager of a company based in Quebec.
The company’s headquarters are located in Montreal. According to the La Presse newspaper, the airline company ignored the recommendations of the Québec government and the Commissioner for official languages of Canada to deliver the speech in both languages. In Ottawa, the New Democratic Party and the Québec Bloc demanded Rousseau’s resignation.
Michael Rousseau was born in Cornwall (province of Ontario). Graduated from York University in accounting, he began his career at Air Canada in 2007, after working for Hudson’s Bay Company. His mother and his wife, he claimed, speak French. Rousseau published a message on Twitter on November 5th, noting that he never wanted to disrespect Quebecers and Francophone people from other parts of the country.
In addition, he promised to “improve” his level of French, a language that he defined as “common use” in Quebec. Simon Jolin-Barrette, Québec minister for the French language, was quick to respond: “French in Québec is not just the common language. It is the official language”. The Government of François Legault presented a few months ago a parliamentary initiative to strengthen this language in shops and work spaces. Anglophone organizations in Quebec, critical of some points of this project, have stressed that they do not agree with the conduct of Michael Rousseau.
Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, sent a letter to Air Canada’s board of directors on Monday. In the letter, Freeland requested that Rousseau’s French skills be part of the evaluation of her annual performance. She also stated that the firm must pay special attention to its policies and practices regarding bilingualism. The Canadian Government owns 6% of the shares of Air Canada; the company has a market value of Canadian $ 9.46 billion (about US$ 7.6 billion).
Air Canada and Michael Rousseau issued statements Tuesday in response to Freeland’s letter. The company agreed that the president and CEO be subjected to said evaluation; she also pledged to be more vigilant about the use of French in company activities. The Commissioner for Official Languages of Canada indicated that it receives, on average, some 80 complaints per year related to the airline, but that it has received more than 2,000 in recent days due to the controversy that surrounds Michael Rousseau.
On his part, Rousseau reported that he is already receiving “private” and “intensive” French lessons. In the event that Air Canada decides to dispense with its services, the executive would have to receive compensation of Canadian $ 5.4 million (about US$ 4.3 million).