Michael Rousseau’s address to the Montreal business community was meant to trumpet Air Canada’s recovery and its crucial role in the Quebec economy. Instead, it became a public relations disaster for the new chief executive officer. 

The speech Wednesday, a rare in-person event for an executive who took over in the middle of the pandemic, turned into a nightmare after Rousseau revealed he’s not comfortable speaking in French despite 14 years at the Montreal-based airline. 

On Thursday morning, Rousseau issued an apology to Quebeckers and French-speaking people he offended, including Quebec Premier Francois Legault and ministers in Justin Trudeau’s federal government. 

“I pledge today to improve my French, an official language of Canada and the common language of Quebec, while tackling the serious commercial challenges facing Air Canada as we move from surviving the pandemic to rebuilding to normalcy,” Rousseau said in a statement. “I reiterate Air Canada’s commitment to show respect for French and, as a leader, I will set the tone.”

The episode started Monday, when tabloid newspaper the Journal de Montreal published a story on how Rousseau’s upcoming speech, hosted by the Montreal chamber of commerce, would be in English. Rousseau’s predecessor in the top job, Calin Rovinescu, spoke “impeccable French,” the newspaper said. 

A follow-up report Tuesday included a reaction from Legault, who called it “unacceptable.”

Canada’s largest airline is subject to the Official Languages Act, a federal law, and must deliver services both in English and French. Save for a few words of introduction, Rousseau’s address ended up being entirely in English. 

That in itself would have touched a nerve for many in Canada’s second-most populous province, where language rights are fiercely defended. But it got worse for Rousseau when local media started grilling him after the speech -- in French.

“How does one live in Montreal for more than 14 years speaking very approximative French?” one reporter asked.

Rousseau’s answer -- in English: “Could you redo that in English?” 

He then said he wished he spoke better French, but cited his busy work schedule and his focus on bringing the airline out of the industrywide Covid-19 crisis. Rousseau became CEO in February. 

“I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city,” he said.

Both French and English are heard on the streets of the city, and many residents can switch between languages. But Rousseau’s inability to do so proved infuriating to many French speakers.

“Air Canada boss Michael Rousseau is even worse than we thought,” La Presse columnist Paul Journet wrote on Thursday. “He doesn’t give a crap about French.”

Legault, speaking to reporters from the United Nations climate summit in Scotland, called the affair “embarrassing” and “insulting.”

The offense spread to the halls of power in Ottawa, the national capital. “Air Canada owes explanations,” Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, who is from Quebec, said on Twitter. “This is a lack of respect for our language. Unacceptable!”

His comments came on the heels of an invitation by Ginette Petitpas Taylor, the minister of official languages, to all Canadians “to make the effort to learn the beautiful French language.” 

Rousseau, in his apology, indicated he intends to do just that. “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.