The Air Canada chief executive apologized to a parliamentary committee in his first comments since his poor understanding of the French language sparked a huge outcry last fall.
“I’m sorry. I apologize again here,” Michael Rousseau said in labored French during videoconference testimony before the Standing Committee on Official Languages.
Rousseau said his comments last November were “insensitive” when he said he had managed to live 14 years in Montreal without speaking French, which is “to the credit” of the city.
The CEO was also criticized for giving a business speech in Montreal only in English.
“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 said.
Questioned by Bloc Québécois MP Mario Beaulieu, Rousseau said he studied French every morning with tutors from reputable firms.
Rousseau also told the committee that Air Canada, which is subject to the Official Languages Act, understands its obligation to communicate with its customers in the official language of their choice.
Rousseau said unilingual English-speaking employees unable to serve a French-speaking customer, both at the airport and on the plane, are instructed to say “one moment please” while they put them in contact with a French-speaking employee.
Conservative Joël Godin, the committee’s vice-chair, told Rousseau that “it’s been 45 years” since the majority of official languages commissioners described “a systemic problem” at Air Canada.
When Rousseau responds that the language spoken on the Board of Directors is English, the MP asks how the importance of respecting the French language can be reflected throughout the organization.
Rousseau said the company speaks to its employees in both official languages and that half of its employees are bilingual.
NDP MP Niki Ashton said she was disappointed not only that the Air Canada CEO’s presentation was not half in French, which would be the “minimum”, but also that all of his answers were in English.
She said Air Canada showed a “lack of respect” for French, citing the CEO as an example.
Training for employees
Since 2016, Air Canada says it has given more than 130,000 hours of lessons to 10,000 employees to teach them to speak French. The air carrier claims to do “maintenance of learning” for its bilingual employees and develop courses so that employees can “qualify” as bilingual.
“If I calculate quickly, that’s 13 hours per employee,” said Conservative MP Jacques Gourde, who was unimpressed.
In response to a Liberal MP asking him how Air Canada would measure its performance on bilingualism, Rousseau said a decrease in complaints would be a “key indicator.”
Called to assure parliamentarians that Air Canada will fight the decline of French, Rousseau said bilingualism is “very important” for the company and for him personally.
“I believe promoting bilingualism is in the best interests of Canada and Air Canada because it’s part of our brand. It’s part of our capital and I take it very seriously,” he said. .
Air Canada says it has set up a dedicated official languages service in recent weeks to monitor the carrier’s progress, spent more on training and created an award for promoting bilingualism. In addition, it will offer a bonus to employees who refer a bilingual candidate for a position.