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Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau triggered a barrage of criticism for saying he doesn’t speak French and has managed to live in Montreal without knowing the language.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Air Canada chief executive officer Michael Rousseau apologized and pledged to learn French following a wave of criticism from political leaders in Ottawa and Quebec for saying he doesn’t speak the language and has managed to live in Montreal without it.

Mr. Rousseau triggered a barrage of criticism from political leaders starting Wednesday afternoon after a 25-minute speech he made to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. Apart from a few words of French in his introduction, the speech was entirely in English.

Answering questions from reporters after the event, he was asked by a journalist for Quebecor’s TVA network, in French: “How does one live in Montreal for more than 14 years speaking very approximative French?” His answer, in English: “Could you redo that in English because I want to make sure that I understand your question before I respond to it.”

Mr. Rousseau then said he would love to be able to speak French but that his current priority was Air Canada’s recovery amid the COVID-19 crisis. He said: “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French. And I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal.”

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As criticism against him grew more intense in the hours that followed, Mr. Rousseau, a long-time executive at the airline who took over as CEO from Calin Rovinescu this past February, issued a statement Thursday vowing to learn French. He said he did not mean to show disrespect for Quebeckers and francophones across Canada with his previous comments.

“I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks,” Mr. Rousseau said in the statement. “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.”

His comments on Wednesday sparked outrage from Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s Language Minister, who wrote on Twitter, “The big boss at Air Canada expresses everything we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture at home in Quebec.”

Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Canadian Heritage, said on Twitter that, “Air Canada owes explanations to Quebecers and Francophones across the country. This is a lack of respect for our language. ”

Speaking from Scotland Thursday morning where he was attending the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters he watched a video of Mr. Rousseau’s exchange with journalists and found his remarks insulting.

“It makes me angry, his attitude, to say that he’s been in Quebec for 14 years and he didn’t need to learn French,’’ Mr. Legault said. “It’s unspeakable. It shocks me.’’

Other parties in Quebec’s National Assembly went further than the Premier in their criticism.

Québec solidaire said Mr. Rousseau should resign. A spokeswoman for the party said the CEO’s apology comes too late and doesn’t respect the spirit of the federal language law.

The Quebec Liberal Party, led by Dominique Anglade, a businesswoman and former consultant for McKinsey & Co., said Mr. Rousseau shouldn’t be CEO. A spokesman for the party said his apology was insufficient, adding that his characterization of French as the common language used in Quebec when in fact it is the only official language shows his insensitivity to the issue.

André Fortin, who represents the provincial riding of Pontiac for the Liberals, said, “He needs to go, one way or the other. And the board also should have a reflection on his place and ask him to go.”

Air Canada is headquartered in Montreal and is subject to Canada’s Official Languages Act as a federally regulated company. The act, which requires all federal institutions to provide services in English or French on request, is aimed at ensuring Canadians have access to federal services in the official language of their choice.

Quebec wants federally regulated companies operating in the province, such as banks and airports, to adhere to its own language laws, which enshrine French as the only official language. Members of Quebec’s National Assembly passed a unanimous motion sent to the federal government on Thursday demanding Quebec’s language charter apply to those businesses. Ottawa needs to recognize the federal act is “failing to protect the French language in Quebec,” the motion states.

Language has always been a prickly subject in Quebec and it occasionally spills over into the business world. In 2011, Montreal’s La Presse newspaper caused a furor with a report that two senior managers at Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate arm of pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, couldn’t function in French and that some meetings they steered occurred in English so they could make themselves understood.

The issue has taken on even greater sensitivity now as Mr. Legault’s government tries to strengthen the province’s language laws with new measures designed to counter what it says is a retreat of French. Those measures include changes to commercial signage and making employers justify knowledge of a language other than French is necessary for positions in which they make that a criterion for hiring or continued employment.

The Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representing anglophone organizations, said, “No apology can undo the lasting damage that the CEO of Air Canada has inflicted on Quebec’s English-speaking community and the core national value of linguistic duality.”

Mr. Rousseau’s comment that he does not feel the need to learn French feeds the myth that English-speaking Quebeckers are a privileged minority indifferent to the French language, Marlene Jennings, the group’s president, said in a statement. She said his “tone-deaf” comments provide ammunition to what she described as language hard-liners at a time when language strife is being brought to the forefront.

“We are baffled that Air Canada – which is subject to the Official Languages Act – is led by an individual incapable of communicating in both of Canada’s official languages,” Ms. Jennings said, adding that the airline must ensure its senior leadership is functionally bilingual. “Such an apology might have been sufficient as a remedial action 10, 20 or 30 years ago. But in 2021, an apology without a concrete plan of action along with a clear timeline to get there is no longer enough.”

In a one-on-one interview with La Presse Wednesday, Mr. Rousseau said he would like to be able to speak French but has simply not had the time to learn. He said his wife and mother are both francophones and that all members of his senior management team are bilingual, except him. “Air Canada has a deep commitment to French,” he was quoted as saying.

With a file from Canadian Press

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