Terence Corcoran: English-speaking Air Canada CEO latest victim of Quebec fragility
Michael Rousseau’s inability to speak French hardly deserves the vicious criticisms and calls for his removal as the top executive of Canada’s largest airline
Almost 70 years ago, as an 11-year-old walking to St. Brendan’s Elementary School in the Rosemount district of east-end Montreal, I remember passing a group of French-language elementary school kids in their schoolyard. When they saw me walking by, a few of them began taunting me with a favourite Quebecois putdown: “ Maudit bloke! ”
As an 11-year-old, I had grown up around Molson Park, a Rosemount neighbourhood where — despite its name — we Corcorans were the only English family on the block, which means French was almost my first language, certainly my first street language, so I had already acquired the full linguistic capacity to shout back at the taunters: “ Mange la merde .” Then I just kept walking, and nothing happened.
Unfortunately for Michael Rousseau, the CEO of Air Canada, no such options existed last Wednesday after he delivered an English-only speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. Too bad, because his taunters deserved a good rebuke.
Before the speech, Air Canada had alerted all and sundry that the speech would be delivered in English. By the end of his speech — not a word of which was reported on Air Canada’s rising corporate fortunes — the school-yard media kids were ready with their taunts.
But when Air Canada’s CEO dared to praise Montreal for what he saw as its welcoming attitude, commentators, activists and political figures mocked his words with put-downs and diatribes, a stream of animosity and meanness that rose through CBC television’s At Issue panel all the way up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The At Issue crew laced into Rousseau personally, accusing him of cultural ignorance, of dismissing French as irrelevant and the language challenges it faced in Quebec as an issue he did not care about. Chantal Hebert said it reminded her of an era 50 years ago “when bosses spoke English and workers waited for orders.” She also said Rousseau had “kind of made the company (Air Canada) toxic.”
The catalogue of absurd charges and allegations grew by the hour. He showed “contempt” for the French language, said Quebec’s language minister. “It’s unspeakable. It shocks me,” said Premier Francois Legault. The head of the Quebec Liberal Party said Rousseau should not be CEO of Air Canada. Another Liberal said Rousseau “needs to go, one way or the other. And the board also should … ask him to go.” Prime Minister Trudeau said the executive’s comments were “unacceptable.”