With Canadian National Railway Ltd. announcing Tracy Robinson as its next chief executive officer, the company was quick to get ahead of a potential crisis before it even began.

"Ms. Robinson fully understands and respects Quebec’s rich cultural and linguistic reality and distinctiveness and has made it a personal priority to build proficiency in French," CN said in a statement late Tuesday announcing the company's management and board changes as JJ Ruest plans to step down next month.

The line, buried near the bottom of the news release, recalled how Quebec-based corporate giants are looking to steer clear of angering the province's francophone population by appointing highly-skilled candidates in top executive positions.

When Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau took over the airline's top job last year, there was a significant outcry - including one protest demanding his resignation - once it was discovered that he didn't speak French fluently.

"I have been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal," Rousseau told reporters at the time.

The comment led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to state Rousseau’s lack of French was "an unacceptable situation.” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote a letter to Air Canada's board of directors that asked for Rousseau's French-language skills to be one of the factors used when evaluating his annual performance while also ensuring that speaking French be an "important criterion" for job promotions at the airline.

It also led SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. CEO Ian Edwards to cancel a speech in Montreal after he decided his French-language skills needed some improvement.

Rousseau later told Air Canada's employees in an email that he has begun intensive French training with a private tutor.

Richard Leblanc, who teaches governance, law and ethics at York University, told BNN Bloomberg that typically a board that seeks the best possible CEO for the job would not want to set a geographic limit on their search, although it may be appropriate for large Quebec-headquartered companies to be explicit with anglophone candidates that a requirement may be to learn French.

"Quebec is primarily French-speaking, and an incoming anglophone CEO who wishes to learn French to enhance communication with employees and other stakeholders, demonstrates respect and a sincere desire to engage all French-speaking stakeholders in a native tongue," Leblanc said.

When Robinson does take over the top job at CN Rail next month, becoming the first woman to ever run the company and making her one of very few female CEOs of a TSX-listed company, she won't be the first non-native French speaker to take on the role.

The Wall Street Journal reported that when the late Hunter Harrison was CN Rail's CEO between 2003 to 2009, the Tennessee-native would typically begin management meetings with a friendly "Bonjour, y'all" greeting. ​

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