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Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau giving a speech at the Montreal Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 3, 2021.Mario Beauregard/The Canadian Press

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says learning to speak French should become part of Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s performance review, wading into an uproar over his inability to speak the language.

In a letter to Air Canada’s chairman Vagn Soerensen on Monday, Ms. Freeland also said the airline should make the ability to communicate in French one of the qualifications of anyone holding a senior position at the company.

The unusual spectre of a high-ranking elected official scolding the chairman and CEO of a publicly traded company underscores the tensions in Quebec over the thorny issue of protecting and promoting the French language in Canada’s second-most populous province. Quebec is in the midst of strengthening its language laws to fend off what is seen as a steady rise of English in advertising, culture and business.

Mr. Soerensen issued a response to Ms. Freeland on Monday night, assuring the Deputy Prime Minister the board of directors is “fully engaged” on the controversy. He said Mr. Rousseau is taking French lessons, and that the ability to speak the language is an important qualification for promotion to many senior jobs at the airline. He also said the board will include at the next meeting Ms. Freeland’s call for a review of policies and practices of the use of French.

“We have discussed our concerns with Mr. Rousseau about these events and are confident he will further dedicate himself to our collective goal of promoting the use of French at Air Canada,” Mr. Soerensen said in a letter to Ms. Freeland released by Air Canada .

Mr. Rousseau, who has headed the Montreal-based airline since February, ignited the controversy last Wednesday by giving a speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce almost entirely in English. Later, he was unable to answer a reporter’s question posed in French: “How does one live in Montreal for more than 14 years speaking very approximative French?”

Mr. Rousseau responded after asking for a translation: “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French. And I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal.”

Mr. Rousseau was born in Cornwall, Ont., and trained to become an accountant at Toronto’s York University. He joined Air Canada in 2007 after leaving retailer Hudson’s Bay Co. Despite boasting a common Quebec surname, Mr. Rousseau told reporters last week he was too busy to learn French even though his mother and wife speak it. Air Canada’s senior managers are bilingual, he said.

Opinion: Sure, it would be better if Air Canada’s CEO spoke French, but it’s not essential

Ms. Freeland said she was writing to Mr. Rousseau’s boss to express the government’s “disappointment” in the CEO’s comments and his English-only speech.

“Both his decision to deliver a speech essentially entirely in English and his subsequent comments about his use of the French language are utterly inconsistent with the company’s commitment to both official languages that has been in place for decades – from the very first days of Air Canada’s privatization,” Ms. Freeland wrote. “They are also, I believe, inconsistent with the expectations that many Canadians – the clients of Air Canada – have for their national airline.”

Mr. Rousseau apologized last week and said he planned to improve his language skills. “I would like to be able to speak French. I want to make it clear that in no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebeckers and francophones across the country,” he said in a statement.

The federal government is one of the airline’s largest shareholders. Ottawa took a 6-per-cent stake after providing bailout money, 13 months into the pandemic, which halted most air travel.

Mr. Rousseau’s speech and comments spurred about 1,000 people to complain to Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Raymond Théberge, who said he might investigate the matter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec political leaders also criticized Mr. Rousseau.

Ms. Freeland said in the letter that Air Canada should launch a review of French-language practices across the company and make the results of that study public.

“Ultimately this issue raises questions about the quality of governance exercised by the Board of Air Canada with respect to the treatment of the French language within the management ranks of the company,” she wrote.

Air Canada is governed by the Official Languages Act and must deliver services to the public in both French and English. The CEO is not required under the law to speak French, although his predecessor, Calin Rovinescu, was fluent in Quebec’s dominant language.

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