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The Air Canada CEO's Cringey English-Only Incident Broke A Record For Complaints

Canada's official languages watchdog got more than 2,500 complaints related to the Michael Rousseau controversy.

Associate Editor
The Air Canada CEO's Cringey English-Only Incident Broke A Record For Complaints

After a mostly English speech at the Palais des Congrès in November, Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau made headlines for saying that the fact that he'd lived in Montreal for 14 without speaking French was "a testament to the city," leading him to get roasted by Quebec politicians and issue an apology.

As it turns out, this wasn't just another language-related faux pas in a country where bilingualism is a hot topic. Rather, it was THE language-related faux pas that has garnered the most complaints in the history of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (OCOL).

A spokesperson for the OCOL, Canada's official languages watchdog, told MTL Blog it got more than 2,500 complaints about Rousseau's November 3 speech, breaking the record for the most complaints the Office has ever received in connection with a single incident.

The previous record was from 1986 when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service sent an English-only document to its Quebec-based offices resulting in 1,784 complaints, said OCOL communication advisor Sonia Lamontagne.

The Office also received over 1,300 complaints regarding the appointment of Mary Simon as Governor General of Canada in 2021.

So what's normal in terms of complaints about particular incidents? How do these complaints stack up? In its 2020-2021 annual report, the OCOL recorded a total of 1,870 admissable complaints under the Official Languages Act in the entire fiscal year (the period between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021).*

Of these 1,870 complaints, 693 "involved communications with the public and service delivery" and 968 "involved the language requirements of positions." One hundred and thirty-eight were related to the COVID‑19 pandemic, mainly regarding government communications and public services.

"The volume of complaints we receive is still trending upward. Whereas several years ago we were receiving some 400 or 500 complaints a year, the trend over the past couple of years puts the annual number of complaints well over 1,000," wrote Raymond Théberge, commissioner of official languages, in the 2020-2021 annual report.

"The question that now needs to be asked, particularly at a time when the Act is in the process of being modernized, is how will federal institutions ensure compliance with the rules and principles regarding language of work and service to the public in this new work environment?"

On June 15, the Government of Canada introduced a bill to "modernize and strengthen" the Official Languages Act to "reflect a changing society." While the bill died on the order paper when the election was called, the government is expected to introduce a new bill at some point in 2022.*

*This article has been updated.

This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.

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