Antonia Maioni: Air Canada’s CEO embodies Canada’s language wars

Air Canada's CEO needs to, literally, talk the talk
French language advocates protest Air Canada's chief executive Michael Rousseau's inability to speak French in front of the airline's head office during a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

The kerfuffle over Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s incapacity to communicate in the French language may seem like another scuffle in Canada’s language wars. That’s as may be, but in this case, the causes and consequences go deeper than usual.

In Quebec, the headlines and analysis have focused on this episode as another example of the lack of “respect” for the French language, harkening to the historical slights of the English bosses and French workers, and the iconic anglophone salesperson who couldn’t serve francophone customers at Eaton’s downtown store. Mr. Rousseau’s recent speech at the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, to a room of business people, the majority of whom were francophone or bilingual, would have been an embarrassing moment for any CEO that leads a company in North America’s largest French-speaking city, but it was even more so given that the company in question, Air Canada, is a national enterprise that delivers its services in both English and French.

I’ve been to many of these business luncheons, they do drag on, but every major speech has displayed some sensitivity to the people in the room and the language outside the hotel walls. Every business leader—whatever his or her mother tongue—has made that effort, sometimes painfully, but always appreciated. In Mr. Rousseau’s case, though, one could argue it’s not a question of simply making an effort, it’s also a requirement for addressing his business audience in the language that their companies—and his—do business in.

Beyond being out of tune with his business environment in Montreal, Mr. Rousseau also showed a lack of respect for the people who work for him across the country. Employees of Air Canada are acutely aware that they work for a company that serves clients in both English and French; in fact, there is an announcement to this effect before every flight. Does this mean every employee is bilingual? No, but it assumes that every employee is expected to have a measure of respect for serving two language communities. When the CEO declares that speaking in French is not a priority, he lets down every employee who does, or who tries to, or who at least understands the necessity of providing services in that language. This is an epic failure on the part of the leader of a company such as Air Canada, but it is an even larger embarrassment for anyone who fails to lead by example.

It’s also a major problem for a company like Air Canada that has had countless language issues to contend with, most of which have centered around providing adequate services in the French language. The irony is that its CEO would, by his own actions, create another. If the company you lead provides services in two languages and promotes the use of both languages amongst its employees, the person in charge should be expected (literally) to talk the talk, as the chief communicator—internally and externally—and public face of an institution subject to the Official Languages Act.

While this does not mean that Air Canada is required to have a bilingual CEO, it does mean that employees have the right to work in the language of their choice in bilingual regions. How would that pan out if Mr. Brousseau is asked to run meetings in French? Indeed, the company itself has expended extensive efforts toward ongoing language objectives that include a specific “executive management commitment” to ensure that “official languages are respected and used across the organization.” Thus, even in terms of Air Canada’s own strategic leadership and governance objectives, Mr. Rousseau’s incapacity to communicate in both English and French is a glaring shortcoming.

Employees of Air Canada are acutely aware that they work for a company that serves clients in both English and French.

While there has been an uproar across Canada, mainly by francophones, this is an especially touchy subject these days in Quebec, as groups mobilize for language rights and the Quebec government prepares to pass updates to the Charter of the French Language (known familiarly as Bill 101), with Bill 78, An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Quebec. Much of the debate revolves around the “protection” of French and the language of education, but at its heart, it is an attempt to ensure the preservation of and access to the French language, especially in Montreal.

In this tense setting, Mr. Rousseau’s misstep is an even bigger deal. To claim that he has lived in Montreal for over a decade and still can’t communicate in French is not only an insult to English-speakers raised in Quebec but also to the many, many non-French speakers who have chosen to live and work here, and become as functionally bilingual or multilingual as they can. The apparent willingness that Air Canada’s CEO is now showing to learn French only adds insult to that injury. This is not simply another item on a CEO’s to-do list. It means actually embracing the language of business in Quebec, understanding what it means to lead a company that, by law, is required to function in both languages, and respect for employees and customers in two distinct language communities.

If you enjoyed this story, consider becoming a Hub Supporter.

Not only will you get full access to exclusive events, perks, and events, you'll be joining a community of like-minded individuals that inform The Hub’s reporting and analysis and shape the national conversation.