As backlash in Quebec mounts, Air Canada's CEO apologizes and vows to studying French.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized and committed to improving his French in the face of widespread criticism from federal and provincial officials, including today's premier, who called Rousseau's Wednesday comments about not speaking French despite 14 years in Montreal shocking and disrespectful.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized and pledged to better his French following a barrage of criticism from federal and provincial politicians who described his recent remarks about not needing to speak French while living in Montreal for 14 years as startling and rude.
"I want to emphasize that I had no intention of disrespecting [Quebecers] or francophones throughout the country. I sincerely apologize to anyone who has been offended by my statements "Rousseau said in a statement Thursday, following hours of vehement criticism from officials.
He remarked that he had previously expressed to journalists his desire to learn French.
"I am determined to improving my French today," he declared, referring to the official language of Canada and the language spoken in Quebec.
"Montreal is home to the headquarters of this iconic organization, which is a source of pride for me and my whole management team. I reaffirm Air Canada's commitment to French language respect, and as a leader, I will set the tone."
The CEO conducted a 26-minute address Wednesday at Montreal's Palais des congrès, during which he spoke just around 20 seconds in French. Following the lecture, Rousseau was questioned in French by a journalist for Quebec television news channel LCN how he had managed to live in Montreal for so long despite his limited knowledge of the language.
He was unable to respond and requested that the question be posed in English. When challenged, he said that despite 14 years in Quebec, he is too busy running a business to learn French.
"I've been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, which I believe speaks much about the city," Rousseau added.
'It's ludicrous,' the premier declares.
Numerous public leaders in Quebec and Ottawa, including Canada's minister of official languages, have reacted negatively to Rousseau's original remarks.
Premier François Legault became the latest public figure to criticize Rousseau's approach toward the French language on Thursday.
"It's obscene. It gets me upset when he says, 'I've lived in Quebec for 14 years and have never had to learn French,' "Legault made the remarks on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in Scotland.
Rousseau demonstrated "contempt for our language and culture in Quebec," according to Quebec's Minister of the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette.
On Thursday, he reaffirmed his position, claiming Rousseau had proved that he is "unworthy of his duties."
According to a representative for Canada's Office of the Official Languages Commissioner, the office has received 60 complaints so far over Rousseau's virtually entirely English speaking.
"Over the last five years, we have received an average of more than 80 complaints per year against Air Canada regarding all official languages," spokesperson Jadrino Huot told Radio-Canada in an email.
'He needs to improve his French'
Jolin-Barrette later stated that while he appreciated Rousseau's clarification, he took issue with some of the statement's wording and stated that the apology is insufficient.
"When he says '[the language spoken] in Quebec is French,' he means that not only the language spoken, but also the official language of Quebec," the minister explained.
"It is insufficient for him to express regret to Quebecers; he must learn the language."
Jolin-Barrette is the minister in charge of Attempt 96, Quebec's bill to amend the province's law protecting the French language.
Minority rights groups have expressed concern that if the bill becomes law, it will erode the judiciary's independence by requiring judges to be bilingual, as well as exclude job hopefuls and hurt small businesses.
Jolin-Barrette believes the law can avert circumstances such to Rousseau's speech by extending its protections to cover federally regulated enterprises like as Air Canada.
Jolin-Barrette characterized the reform as a logical response to studies conducted by Quebec's French-language office indicating that French is declining in the province, notably in Montreal.
Rousseau's remarks have been denounced by Quebec's three opposition parties, with the Liberals and Québec Solidaire demanding for his resignation.
"What we are demanding today [...] is for Mr. Rousseau to apologize for his words about francophones and Quebecers, for him to resign from his position, and for federally regulated businesses to be bilingual," said André Fortin of the Quebec Liberal Party.