Ashley Nunes is director for competition policy at the R Street Institute and a research fellow at Harvard Law School.
Quebec’s language quagmire has long been a sore spot for politicians. Last week, Air Canada chief executive officer Michael Rousseau got in on the action. He delivered a near 30-minute speech at the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, during which he spoke in French for some 20 seconds. When later questioned about why – after 14 years in the province – his French language skills weren’t up to par, Mr. Rousseau responded, “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city.”
The outrage has been swift. Quebec Premier François Legault denounced Mr. Rousseau’s attitude as “insulting.” The province’s Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said that Mr. Rousseau showed “contempt for our language and our culture in Quebec” and subsequently opined that the CEO was “not worthy of his duties.” And then there’s Justin Trudeau. The Prime Minister called Mr. Rousseau’s position “an unacceptable situation,” adding that the Minister of Official Languages is “following up.”
I learned French during a Parisian stint years ago. The going was rough, the progress slow. Cueing in on the subtleties of French grammar was particularly challenging, something my colleagues (and the local butcher) never let me forget. Nor was I spared critiques of my anglophone accent. But over time, things improved. My grammar got better, my vocabulary larger, and I managed to fine-tune my French accent. It did not take me 14 years to converse in French. Pas du tout! So I have little sympathy for Mr. Rousseau. But I have even less sympathy for the those seemingly aggrieved by Mr. Rousseau’s French faux pas.
Air Canada is a business, and the goal of a business is to make money. It would be nice – given Canada’s history – if the company’s chief showed fluency in English and French. It would be desirable – given that Air Canada is headquartered in Montreal – if his bilingualism passed provincial muster. But Mr. Rousseau isn’t there to be nice or desirable. He’s there to get a job done. This means maximizing returns for shareholders while keeping fares low (something consumers care about) and goods across the country moving (something the government cares about). There’s little evidence to suggest he has been unable to meet that challenge because his French skills aren’t up to par.
To the contrary, all the available evidence suggests that Mr. Rousseau’s comments are being grossly exaggerated by a select few.
The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is the parliamentary agency tasked with promoting “the equality of English and French in Canadian society.” That office typically receives about 80 complaints annually about Air Canada. In the past week alone, that number has soared to more than 1,000. What’s behind this spike? Well, Air Canada is either suddenly failing its French-speaking clientele (more so than usual at least) or a vocal group of fliers are suddenly manufacturing outrage because they see which way the wind is blowing. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to figure out the answer.
Our politicians are no better. Instead of explaining to the masses that being unilingual is not a fireable offence, instead of clarifying that the Official Languages Act does not compel Canadians to speak a particular language (rather it enshrines the right to receive federal services in English and French), federal and provincial lawmakers have instead opted to fan the flames to curry public favour. Mr. Trudeau, who was predictably quick to fault Mr. Rousseau, would be wise to remember that many of his predecessors, including Lester B. Pearson, did not speak French. And Mr. Pearson had more to worry about than whether the peanuts on a plane came salted.
The same goes for Mr. Jolin-Barrette. Instead of decrying Mr. Rousseau’s work competencies (which the Minister is frankly ill qualified to assess), Mr. Jolin-Barrette should remember that – and I’m quoting one of his own predecessors here – “for most positions, bilingualism should be an asset, not a basic requirement.” Consequently, Diane De Courcy, the Parti Québécois’ then-minister for language, reasoned businesses should stop making bilingualism a requirement when hiring staff.
It’s probably just as well because were such a requirement enforced, the ranks would thin out, particularly in corporate boardrooms. C-suite execs such as Mr. Rousseau are hired because they have a number of highly valued skills, such as subject-matter expertise, strategic thinking and change management. Bilingualism is – admittedly to the chagrin of many – not among those skills. I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t be, rather that shareholders have more pressing concerns. Alors laissez tomber.
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