OTTAWA, Ontario — Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has criticized Canadian National Railway Co. for maintaining an English-speaking-only board of directors in a bilingual nation where 7.9 million citizens – 22% of the population – speak French as their first language.
“It’s unacceptable that the board of directors does not have a francophone representative on it,” he was reported as saying Monday in Canada’s National Post.
Alghabra was speaking at a parliamentary committee meeting held to discuss languages. Canada’s 1988 Official Languages Act mandates dual use of English and French in publications and public meetings, but its enforcement is currently limited to government agencies, not private companies.
“I think it is really important that CN and others like Air Canada set a leadership example,” Alghabra said in his testimony before members of Parliament. “Of course, they have a responsibility to meet their obligation under the Official Languages Act. But even on things . . . where the act was silent, they have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership.”
His mention of Air Canada, once owned by CN, referred to a firestorm stirred up by the airline’s CEO, Michael Rousseau, who last year made a mostly English speech before the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. He later admitted that his remarks were “insensitive” and began taking French lessons, repeating his apologies when testifying before the country’s Official Languages Committee.
Saying that CN had failed to learn from Air Canada’s gaffe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the railway in April. That same month, a CN vice president, Sébastien Labbé, said the absence of a French-speaking member of the CN board would be remedied in the next year. Two directors’ terms are ending soon, which will give CN the opportunity to name new board members.
Alghabra spoke in favor of Parliament adopting a measure, C-13, to strengthen the Official Languages Act. Member of Parliament Joël Godin asked Alghabra if he’d support amending the proposal to mandate that companies name a minimum number of French-speaking members, but he stopped short of endorsing that idea.