Complaints about Air Canada CEO’s English speech justified, languages ​​commissioner finds

A preliminary report from the Commissioner of Official Languages ​​says complaints about a predominantly English speech by Air Canada’s CEO last fall — that allege the speech didn’t meet the airline’s obligations under the Official Languages ​​Act — were founded.

However, languages ​​commissioner Raymond Théberge notes the conclusions are not final and the parties involved will have a chance to comment before the final report.

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau sparked an outcry last November when, following a 26-minute speech in English that included about 20 seconds of French, he told reporters he didn’t need to learn French to live in Montreal for 14 years.

Rousseau later apologized and has since started taking French lessons.

“I admit that I made a mistake by not learning to speak French when I joined Air Canada and I am correcting that mistake at this point,” he told the parliamentary standing committee on official languages ​​in March.

Rousseau told MPs he studies French every morning with tutors from reputable firms.

Most complaints ever received

As of Feb. 28, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages ​​had received 2,680 complaints about Rousseau’s Nov. 3 speech to the Montreal chamber of commerce — the most complaints ever received by the office in a single case.

Bilingualism is a crucial skill for leaders, Théberge said in his statement, especially those in institutions subject to the Official Languages ​​Act.

Citing testimonies from complainants, Théberge wrote they judged Rousseau’s comments to be contemptuous, disrespectful, insulting, hurtful, inexcusable and shameful, and they lacked sensitivity toward the French language and French-speaking Canadians.

French-language advocates protest Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s inability to speak French during a demonstration in Montreal on Nov. 13, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

Air Canada defends itself

In response, Air Canada said Rousseau’s remarks had been misinterpreted and the complaints should have been dismissed by the Office of the Commissioner, since the speech was made during a private activity.

According to Air Canada, the Montreal chamber of commerce had been advised that Rousseau’s speech would be in English and did not provide simultaneous translation to participants, according to the preliminary report.

French and English text versions of the speech were given to the chamber’s communications representative, and Air Canada claims also to have simultaneously posted French and English versions of the speech on its website, but did not specify when, according to the report.

Théberge found those arguments aren’t enough to clear the airline.

Air Canada occupies a special place in Canadian society, he wrote, adding the events of Nov. 3 caused harm to the status of French in Canada.

Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, wrote in a preliminary report that the events of Nov. 3 had a negative effect on the status of French in the country. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Recommendations

The commissioner’s preliminary report makes five recommendations.

The office wants the airline to ensure senior leaders and spokespeople know all communications from headquarters to the public — including speeches — must be made in both official languages ​​with equal quality, to implement a policy guaranteeing that, and to monitor compliance.

The commissioner also recommends adding specific and measurable official language performance objectives to the performance evaluations of all senior leaders, and asks Air Canada to update the commissioner’s office on initiatives undertaken to strengthen official languages ​​practices.

WATCH | See the full exchange between Rousseau and reporters after his speech in November:

​Air Canada CEO ​struggles to answer questions in English in Montreal

Michael Rousseau was asked in French by a journalist for Quebec TV news channel LCN how he’s managed to live in Montreal for so long despite speaking little French. 1:38

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