Justin Trudeau’s deputy urged Air Canada’s board of directors to enshrine French-language proficiency as a job requirement for senior managers after a speech by the airline’s top executive turned into a public relations nightmare.

In a letter to the airline’s chairman, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said “significant improvement” in Chief Executive Officer Michael Rousseau’s language ability “should be incorporated as one of his key performance goals.”

Rousseau caused a firestorm last week when he delivered a speech to Montreal’s chamber of commerce almost entirely in English, then struggled to answer questions asked by reporters in French afterward. A day later he apologized publicly and vowed to take lessons.

Freeland cited the Canadian government’s 6 per cent equity stake in the airline in her letter, which was released Monday by officials in her department.

“The ability of a candidate to communicate in French should become an important criterion for promotion to the most senior executive positions of the company,” she said in the letter to Chairman Vagn Sorensen. 

Rousseau was promoted to the top job at Canada’s largest airline in February and has worked at the Montreal-headquartered company for 14 years. He called his ability to function in English alone during that time “a testament to the city.”

But the incident touched a nerve in Quebec, Canada’s second-most populous province, where French language rights are fiercely defended.

The Canadian government took a stake in Air Canada as part of a $5.9 billion (US$4.7 billion) pandemic rescue package announced in April, making it a shareholder for the first time since the 1980s.