Air Canada CEO hires private tutor to learn French after 'insulting' comment leads to language uproar

The CEO of Air Canada has hired a private tutor in order to learn to speak and understand the French language, according to a letter written to employees of the company.

Michael Rousseau came under fire last week after telling journalists he had been "able to live in Montreal without speaking French and I think that’s a testament to the City of Montreal."

The Ontario-raised CEO was forced to apologize the next day for the comment, which ignited a language firestorm in the province.

"In no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks," he said.

In a letter written in French to Air Canada employees, Rousseau says he "regrets" the comments he made about his inability to speak or understand one of Canada's official language, despite living in Quebec for 14 years.

"People who know me well know that these words do not reflect my values and beliefs," he said. "I take and accept personal criticism. However, criticism of our employees and our practices hurts me deeply when you work so hard to serve our customers."

Rousseau goes on to confirm he has hired a private tutor and his "French learning" has already begun.

In addition, he says the company's official languages practices will be reviewed and strengthened.

"I will personally oversee this process to ensure that any required actions are implemented," Rousseau said.

AN 'IMPORTANT CRITERION'

Following the language fracas, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote a letter to Air Canada's board of directors asking that Rousseau's French-language skills be a determining factor in his annual performance evaluation.

She also demanded that French-language skills be made an "important criterion" for job promotion.

Vagn Sørensen, chairman of the board of Air Canada, responded to Freeland's letter, stating, "we have discussed our concerns about these events with Mr. Rousseau and we are confident that he will make every effort to meet our collective goal of promoting the use of French within the company."

Sørensen notes that the board has already issued several changes, which includes:

  • Intensive French-language training for Rousseau;
  • Reviewing French-language proficiency requirements for key positions in the company;
  • Evaluating French language policies and practices across the organization at the next governance committee meeting.

'IT MAKES ME ANGRY'

Quebec Premier François Legault spoke out following the incident, saying he was outraged by the CEO's attitude.

"I watched the video of Mr. Rousseau and I find it insulting. It makes me angry, his attitude, to say that it's been 14 years since he's been in Quebec and he did not need to learn French. It's unspeakable, it shocks me," he said. "It shows a lack of respect towards the French-speaking employees of Air Canada."

The company does have a history of not complying with the Languages Act, according to Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Theberge.

“It starts at the top. Example is given at the top and then the messaging is given to the organization by the leadership," he said. "I do think that it's very useful that leaders who lead bilingual institutions or organizations be able to address their employees, their customers, their stakeholders in both official languages."

He notes he has received dozens of complaints about the incident.

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