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

Commentary

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.

Derrick Hunter: We need to be honest about how long the energy transition will take

Commentary

Energy is the economy

This is not hyperbole. For decades, the correlation between energy consumption and GDP has been nearly perfect.

This makes sense if you stop to think about it; after all everything that makes up the stuff of our daily lives—our household furnishings, the iWatch on our wrist, the fast-fashion shirt on your back—has been produced and transported by machinery powered by fossil fuels. In a very real sense, the goods that we benefit from every day are really just transformed energy.

Energy is the backbone of modern life. Energy is life.

It is therefore axiomatic that if our voracious appetite for consumer goods and services were to disappear, so too then would our demand for energy. The loathsome energy companies that supply these essentials of life would disappear due to a lack of customers without any need for emissions caps, pipeline restrictions, or carbon taxes at all.

Except that, for the time being, those companies are sort of important. In total, fossil fuels comprise around 84 percent of all the energy consumed on earth. This is not much of a reduction on a relative basis from the 86 percent that they supplied 20 years ago and in real terms is a considerable increase. Net zero by 2050 might be a laudable dream but it isn’t going to happen without time to implement it and trillions of dollars being spent to upgrade power grids and invent the new technologies that the International Energy Agency says will be necessary. Even then, intermittency of solar and wind combined with physical limitations inherent to battery technology may keep that goal perpetually out of reach.

As citizens in the developed world, we want contradictory things. We want the trappings of modern life but not the guilt of producing the emissions that support that standard of living. We are unwilling to give up bananas in winter or the supercomputer in our pocket (itself dependent on massive, energy-intensive server farms), but according to surveys, Canadians are unwilling to pay very much to address the situation. In short, we want to believe that there is an easy, cost-free, and painless way to make our carbon footprint disappear without reducing our standard of living, and so that’s what we’ve been sold by our politicians. We’ve been told this appealing lie for so long now that we have come to believe their simple nonsense even when it boils down to mostly exporting our carbon footprint to other places or burying the true costs in the supply chain.

We have now reached the stage where investors, bankers, and endowments refuse to put their money into support for domestic oil and gas production while at the same time U.S. President Joe Biden begs OPEC to increase production rates and Europeans worry about freezing in their apartments this winter because they have come to depend on Vladimir Putin continuing to supply them with natural gas.

Energy is life and the developed world has ceded its energy security to nations that are not our allies. This is madness.

It is a strange strategy that purports to “solve” a problem like carbon dioxide emissions by destroying supply without first building its replacement, given the obviously inelastic nature of demand, particularly in a very large, very cold country like Canada. You might think that the apparent hypocrisy of government leaders flying on private jets to distant conferences might cause the veil to slip a little bit, but perhaps these leaders aren’t so different from the self-righteous university student who drives to campus but then lobbies their school’s endowment fund to divest from fossil fuels. Or the flying traveler who buys carbon offsets to assuage their guilt, much like purchasing indulgences from the Catholic Church in a bygone era.

The developed world has ceded its energy security to nations that are not our allies. This is madness.

Simple solutions to complex problems make us feel better because we are “doing” something, even if it is of little practical impact in the real world as long as the costs are negligible.

Which leads us to the simple “solution” that Canada can do its part by reducing the production of Alberta energy. Never mind that oil is Canada’s largest export industry, accounts for 10 percent of our GDP, and Canada has the free world’s largest hydrocarbon deposits which are subject to environmental regulations like nowhere else on earth. In a world with inexorable demand issues, we decide to punish our own economy while the world heads into an entirely foreseeable energy crisis and we watch our allies beg tyrants for more petroleum while refusing our own. They export dollars that could easily end up here to help support our own energy transition. It’s a lose/lose for Canada.

And it gets worse. With the recent announcement at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, upstream oil and gas producers, which have already made substantial improvements in emission-intensity, will be subject not only to a carbon tax, but a hard cap as well. In contrast, transportation which produces a roughly equivalent quantity of emissions, won’t be. This is neither fair nor rational.

A cynic would say that it is because energy is produced in Alberta and Saskatchewan where there are few Liberal votes to be lost whereas automobiles are built in Ontario where there are. In this case the cynic is probably correct. By similar logic, it’s perfectly acceptable that North America’s largest coal export terminal is based in Vancouver, since the coal is burned in China and there are votes to be harvested in British Columbia.

The double standard is particularly troublesome in Canada because it is such a divisive approach to take in a nation where the governing party garnered less than one-third of the recent vote and where there are apparently no federal leaders prepared to stand up and state the obvious: this is insanely hypocritical, will not improve the state of global emissions, will cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars, and will contribute to the continued fracturing of our fragile confederation.

All it will actually do is make some Canadians feel better about themselves while offloading the costs predominantly on the portion of the country which has no voice in its governing.

We need honesty: the energy transition will take time and Canadian energy is the best in the world. Every one of us represents a portion of energy demand. Pointing our fingers in blame at one industry that has done much to reduce its impact, and that generates enormous economic benefits to Canada might make citizens feel like the heavy lifting has been done but won’t solve the problem. A strategy that throws one critical industry under the bus so that the rest of Canada can pretend they have done their part is the very opposite of nation-building.