Accused of “commodifying his language rights” for filing a series of complaints against Canadian airports, Michel Thibodeau wins the case. The Federal Court orders two airports in Alberta and Newfoundland to pay the plaintiff thousands of dollars for violations of the Official Languages Act.
In two decisions handed down last Thursday, the judge Sebastien Grammond attacks the unilingual communications of the airport authorities of Saint-Jean (NL) and Edmonton in Alberta, which had, according to him, adopted too “narrow” a vision of their linguistic obligations.
In 2018, when the complainant Michel Thibodeau filed 11 complaints with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the airports had not translated several pieces of information on their websites, including their URL addresses. The vast majority of their social media posts, as well as their annual reports and press releases were also in English only.
Judge Grammond acknowledges that Mr. Thibodeau, an Ottawa resident, had never physically visited the airports before filing his complaints. “He found the facts by researching the Internet,” he wrote.
However, he considers that “this is not a case where the damages are intended to compensate for individual injury”. He adds that “it is necessary to award damages to ensure the defense of language rights and deterrence”.
Ultimately, Mr. Thibodeau was awarded $5,000 in damages and $6,000 in costs from the Saint-Jean Airport Authority (AAISJ). The Edmonton Regional Airports Authority (AARE) must also pay him $5,000 in damages and $3,900 in costs.
“I think this is a great victory for Francophones,” according to Michel Thibodeau.
500 complaints in 5 years
Michel Thibodeau describes himself as an “ardent defender of language rights”. But in court documents, the Edmonton Airport Authority, which admits it broke the law, calls the former official a “repeat plaintiff” trying to “get rich” and ” commodify their linguistic rights”.
“We don’t believe people should benefit financially from a complaints system,” said the Edmonton International Airport spokesperson, Darrell Winwood.
According to these same documents, between March 2017 and January 2019, Mr. Thibodeau made more than 250 complaints to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
These complaints are directed at a dozen airports (Saint-Jean, Halifax, Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria), as well as Air Canada, VIA Rail, the federal Parliament , the Department of National Defense and the National Capital Commission.
Michel Thibodeau specifies that he filed “more than 500 complaints” in the last five years and received “several tens of thousands of dollars over the last ten years”.
But he points to efforts to report violations of the law.
“If you look at the hundreds of hours I spent defending language rights, the stress, the fatigue, the attacks on my person, the threats I received, serious threats where I had to the police intervene in the file, the amounts of money are minimal,” he specifies.
The Court “saved my honor”
In his decision, Judge Grammond maintains that there is “no doubt that Mr. Thibodeau is motivated by his deep commitment to the defense of French and linguistic rights”.
“Even if he has received significant sums in damages since 2017, the monetary aspect cannot eclipse the immense personal investment he has devoted to the defense of language rights”, “continues” he .
“(The decision) saved my honor,” believes Michel Thibodeau.
“The Court has rightly recognized that my approach is humble, my approach is correct, my approach is essential to change things in the country”, according to Michel Thibodeau.
“It is frustrating that this type of situation is repeated and that it is citizens who want service in French who must take the steps to have their rights recognized and this is unacceptable in a country like ours” , says the President of the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities, Liane Roy.
“Airports show no interest in wanting to comply with the Official Languages Act and spend enormous sums to go to court instead of offering services. (…) We have to do better, ”said Ms. Roy.
The airport authorities of Saint-Jean and Edmonton have not wanted to say whether they will appeal the decision.