The French Language, Respect, And The Air Canada CEO

I’ve thought about this issue for several days and come to the conclusion that the Air Canada CEO needs to learn French.

Air Canada CEO In Trouble For Not Speaking French

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau found himself embroiled in controversy last week when addressing an audience of business leaders in Montreal, Quebec. It was his first major speech as Air Canada’s Chief Executive, and despite being in the heart of French-speaking Canada, he delivered his speech exclusively in English.

After finishing, a reporter asked him a question…in French. Rousseau’s response startled the audience:

“Can you redo that in English? Because I want to make sure I understand your question before I respond to it.”

The journalist, offended, told Rousseau’s to have his aide translate the question. She responded by noting that Rousseau had already addressed the question in his speech. The reporter responded (in English):

“How can you live in Montreal without speaking French? Is it easy?”

Rousseau responded:

“I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal.”

The exchange unleashed a firestorm of criticism. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Rousseau, promoting an “apology” for those who were offended and a promise to improve his French:

“I want to make it clear that in no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks.

I pledge today to improve my French, an official language of Canada and the common language of Québec, while tackling the serious commercial challenges facing Air Canada as we move from surviving the pandemic to rebuilding to normalcy. The fact that this iconic company is headquartered in Montreal is a source of pride for me and our entire executive team. I reiterate Air Canada’s commitment to show respect for French and, as a leader, I will set the tone.”

Calls continue for his resignation.

My Take

I’ve visited over 135 countries. In traveling the world over the last 15 years, I’ve come to see what an important tool language is not just for communication, but for respect.

My initial reaction was to chuckle at those crazy Québécois who seem totally fixated on preserving French culture in a very diverse nation. After all, the international business language remains English and the fact that Rousseau could grow up with two French-speaking parents and spend 14 years in Montreal without learning conversational French is a testament to how cosmopolitan Montreal is and the English dominance in Canada.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important French is to Quebec. A half century ago, French speakers were routinely discriminated against and treated as second-class both professionally and socially. That still stings today and French-speaking Canadians have fought long and hard to ensure that will never happen again.

It’s not about the French, it’s about the respect. I realize that when I think about my habit of trying to learn simple greetings in the local language of the country I am visiting. The cliche is that the French (in Metropolitan France) sneer at Americans trying to say merci and au revoir. But that is simply not the case, at least in my experience. Rather, I cannot think of a nation where a small effort to speak the local language is not appreciated, even if the speaker quickly reverts to English.

I’m sure Rousseau took French in school…hopefully he can read it. While hindsight is always 20-20, it was truly an odd omission not to at least include a few lines of French in his speech.


As someone who struggled to learn German, I know how difficult it is for an adult to learn a second language. The road won’t be easy for Rousseau, but the greatest apology he can offer is by learning French.

And let this be a reminder for all of us when we travel. Even a simple attempt to say hello or goodbye or please or thank you in the local language goes a long way. Make it a point when you visit a new place to have a phrase card ready and be ready to engage the local language, even if it is just a few words. It will be greatly appreciated and help us all to better get along.

What is your take on the French controversy at Air Canada?

image: Air Canada