The head of Canada’s largest airline is facing public outrage and calls for his resignation after giving a speech in English to business leaders in Quebec – a misstep that has inflamed longstanding grievances over linguistic rights and and protections in the lone province where French is the only official language.
The row began last week, when in his first major public appearance as head of Air Canada, Michael Rousseau chose to address the city’s chamber of commerce without speaking French.
Rousseau’s gaffe comes as the Quebec government attempts to dramatically strengthen protections for the French language amid fears English is overtaking it, especially in large cities.
After his speech, Rousseau told reporters that despite having lived in Montreal for 14 years, he had not learned Quebec’s official language – and dodged questions posed to him in French.
“I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal,” he said, adding that his schedule did not allow him time to take French courses.
Local outlets have reported that the company, which is headquartered in Montreal, was warned in advance by both the province’s premier and the federal language commissioner that an English-only speech could prompt backlash.
But despite a quick apology – and pledge from Rousseau to immediately learn French – the incident has reignited resentments over language rights.
For many, the incident evoked the 1950s, when company bosses would speak only English to their workers – and often refuse to allow French to be spoken. Those dynamics helped spark the Quiet Revolution – the bloodless overthrow of Catholicism and the anglophone ruling classes in the province – and a Quebecois separatist movement.
“The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture at home in Quebec. These words are beneath the job he holds,” tweeted Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province’s minister responsible for the French language.
Others expressed disbelief that Rousseau, whose mother and wife both speak French, had somehow avoided picking up a conversational ability after more than a decade in the city.
“It is possible, but very, very, very difficult to live in Montreal for 15 years and not be able to understand that question. You really have to be actively trying not to pick up a single thing,” tweeted one citizen.
Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, called the situation “unacceptable” and various political figures have called for Rousseau to step down.
On Monday, Chrystia Freeland wrote to Air Canada’s board, calling the remarks “utterly inconsistent” with the company’s pledge to language diversity after the airline – which was once operated by the government – went private.
In the letter shared with the Guardian, the deputy prime minister and finance minister noted that the government still owns 6% of the company’s stock, and called for a “significant” improvement to Rousseau’s French – and for his language skills to be tied to his annual performance review.
Canada’s language commissioner usually receives 100 complaints about the airline per year – but since Wednesday, the office has received more than 1,000 complaints, a spokesperson said.
The language row also comes under the shadow of legislation pushed by the provincial government that would significantly strengthen language laws.
Bill 96 would change the country’s constitution to define Quebec as a nation, with its official and common leagues being French. It would also require all provincial communication with immigrants to be in French, starting six months after they arrive in Quebec.
The bill would create a French language ministry and give new powers to the French-language watchdog.