By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) -Air Canada chief executive officer Michael Rousseau on Thursday apologized for remarks suggesting he did not need to speak French, Canada's second language, even though the airline is officially bilingual.
"In no way did I mean to show disrespect for Quebecers and francophones across the country. I apologize to those who were offended by my remarks," Rousseau said in a statement. "I pledge today to improve my French".
Rousseau was backtracking from remarks to reporters in Montreal on Wednesday that triggered widespread criticism in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where the airline is headquartered.
Rousseau, who took over in February, stumbled after being grilled over his inability to speak French properly despite having lived in Montreal for 14 years.
The comment that drew criticism was: "I've been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that's a testament to the city of Montreal". He also blamed his busy schedule.
The issue is sensitive in Quebec, the second most populous province, where unhappiness over the dominance of English helped the rise of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the 1970s. Quebec has had several PQ governments.
Canada also has a federal separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, which is a potential partner for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority Liberal administration. Trudeau needs the support of opposition parliamentarians to govern.
"We ask the federal government to use its position as an Air Canada shareholder to demand Mr. Rousseau's resignation," the Bloc said in a statement.
In April Ottawa took a stake in Air Canada, which is subject to the Official Languages Act and must serve customers in English and French.
Provincial Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is pushing draft legislation to strengthen the use of French, condemned Rousseau's comments as unworthy.
"The big boss of Air Canada expresses everything we rejected decades ago: contempt for our language and our culture," he tweeted.
Federal Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Air Canada's leaders had to set a good example.
Air Canada this week reported a better-than-expected quarterly revenue. [nL4N2RT2GH
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio)