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SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.’s chief executive has called off a largely English-language speech he was set to give next week in Montreal as scrutiny intensifies over the French-language abilities of Quebec’s non-francophone business leaders.

In a letter to the chairman of the Canadian Club of Montreal and released by the engineering company late Thursday, Ian Edwards says he has decided to postpone the speech he was set to give to the organization Monday in order to sharpen his French skills first. He’s given himself up to one year to do so.

“I want to take the necessary time to better prepare my presentation and make sure it contains more French, the official language of Quebec, in order to better respond to expectations,” Mr. Edwards writes in the letter, adding that recent events related to the use of French at Quebec and Canadian companies led him to take the decision.

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Questions about the use of French in the executive suites of corporate Quebec have multiplied since the chief executive of Air Canada, Michael Rousseau, made a speech in Montreal Monday that was almost entirely in English and later told reporters he has managed to live in the city for 14 years without learning French. He said it was a “testament to the city.”

The comments triggered an almost instant uproar in the political capitals of Quebec City and Ottawa as elected officials rushed to denounce what some called Mr. Rousseau’s contempt for French. The Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representing anglophone organizations, said the comments were “tone-deaf” and provided ammunition to French language hardliners.

The headquarters of both Air Canada and SNC-Lavalin are located in Montreal.

Mr. Rousseau apologized and pledged to learn French. The affair took on even greater amplitude when Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote to Air Canada’s chairman and said Mr. Rousseau’s decision to deliver an English-only speech and his subsequent comments were “utterly inconsistent with the company’s commitment to both official languages that has been in place for decades.”

She said learning French should become part of Mr. Rousseau’s performance review.

Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government, meanwhile, urged business leaders to speak in French from now on when they are invited to address audiences at events in Quebec.

“It’s a question of respect,” a spokesman for Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language in Quebec, told the Journal de Montréal in a story published Thursday.

Mr. Edwards, a Brit who joined Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin in 2014 and later took over as chief executive, said he understands that Quebec reality. He said he took French courses after he arrived in the province “with mixed results,” but that he vowed last month in a meeting with the company’s board to make a concerted effort to improve his capabilities in the language.

SNC has been hobbled for years by corruption allegations and a business model under which it bled cash on lump-sum, turnkey construction contracts, which requires the company to assume responsibility for any cost overruns. Mr. Edwards has been trying to reshape it into a lower-risk engineering-services company focused on more consulting-type work. It has also put in place more rigorous ethics and compliance policies.

The CEO’s speech was supposed to be about the solid progress his team has made toward those goals. Instead, his planned appearance got swept up in the continuing language controversy and the message risked being lost.

Language, always a thorny issue in Quebec, has taken on even greater sensitivity now as Mr. Legault’s government tries to strengthen the province’s 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 that knowledge of a language other than French is necessary when they hire new people.

“The declarations of Michael Rousseau were so strong that they were like a shock wave and we’re still in it. So better wait,” said Bernard Motulsky, a communications and public-relations specialist at the University of Quebec at Montreal. The consequences of not speaking now are less damaging than going ahead and saying something unfortunate, he said.

“It’s the exact right thing to do and I would imagine some other CEOs will be doing the same,” said Karl Moore, who teaches strategy and corporate leadership at McGill University. “This is a bit of a watershed moment.”

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