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

Pity all those poor chief executive officers who are scrambling to learn French.

They’ve managed to coast through their entire lives without feeling the need to acquire even a basic command of Canada’s other official language.

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau practically boasted about his inability to speak French even though he’s spent 14 years working at the flag carrier’s Montreal headquarters.

“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 told journalists this month.

Yikes. Talk about a slip of the tongue.

Mr. Rousseau has since apologized for offending francophones and has committed to conjugating his -er verbs like an earnest elementary school student.

Air Canada CEO pledges to learn French amid backlash in Quebec over language comments

Still, it must have been quite a shock for him to suddenly learn that being an effective business leader actually involves speaking to people, including Canada’s eight million francophones.

Spare a thought, too, for SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.’s CEO, Ian Edwards. He was forced to postpone a mostly English speech in Montreal to buy himself time to brush up on his French. He’s giving himself one year to do it even though his previous language classes yielded “mixed results.“

And let’s not forget those hapless directors of Canadian National Railway Co. who must now exert themselves to find yet another French-speaking CEO to replace the outgoing Jean-Jacques Ruest. It seems the current language controversy, sparked by Mr. Rousseau’s gaffe, is complicating their jobs.

The plight of these captains of industry cannot be understated. Imagine the burden of being a corporate director tasked with conducting a thorough executive search, or a CEO who must learn the language of Molière on someone else’s dime.

Of course, fluency is best achieved by embracing all things French. And what a slog it is to immerse oneself in French culture, said no one ever.

One would think that since Air Canada and CN Rail are subject to the Official Languages Act, and SNC-Lavalin is another of Quebec’s most-prized corporate jewels (all three companies have their head offices in Montreal), their respective directors would have the reflex to consider the necessity of a French-speaking CEO as a matter of compliance – if not common sense.

After all, Quebec Premier François Legault has made no secret of his intent to use Bill 96 to reinforce the primacy of French in daily life.

In light of the language debate, Mr. Legault wants to compile a list of “the small minority” of CEOs in his province who don’t speak French and persuade them to learn, according to the Montreal Gazette.

But many of us who made it a point to pick up at least some French in our youth can’t understand why this privileged group of business magnates needs any convincing at all.

What’s more, we’re scratching our heads trying to understand why the rest of Corporate Canada has failed to offer any thought leadership on this important issue – not even the usual suspects who claim to care about Quebec.

“I do not intend to be part of the political debate. It’s not my job to do so,” Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. “My job today is to run Quebecor and I’m paid for that. And I’ll try to do it as efficiently as possible.”

Mr. Péladeau is the former head of the Parti Québécois and his views on Quebec independence are well known. Is he losing his edge?

“Another controversy? No thanks,” he said after I expressed my disappointment with his refusal to wade into the language debate.

But if an avowed separatist won’t speak up in defence of French-language rights, then who will?

That brings us back to Mr. Rousseau’s remarks about not needing to speak French to live in Montreal – seemingly a reference to the city’s demographics.

It’s a fallacy to infer, even unintentionally, that people of colour don’t speak French.

Perhaps Mr. Legault should do a better job of making them feel welcome in his province. His language agenda would certainly be more successful if Quebec’s business leadership better reflected the diversity of the Francophonie, including its wide array of skin colours and accents.

That should be his goal instead of trying to convince coddled English-speaking CEOs to finally take their French lessons seriously.

Many ordinary Canadians (roughly 18 per cent of the population is bilingual) studied French without such prodding because they knew darn well that it would enhance their career prospects. So, no one should feel sorry for a CEO who landed a plum post in Quebec without bothering to learn French.

CEOs need to stop their whining. Communicating is your job. How can you lead if you can’t speak to your people?

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