When Michel Thibodeau couldn’t order a 7-Up in French on an Air Canada flight in spring 2009, the federal-government worker didn’t just grumble about poor service. He and his wife Lynda sued the airline for more than half a million dollars.
They weren’t just upset about the can of pop. The soft-drink incident was one of half a dozen times the couple said they were denied service in French over the course of two trips they took with Air Canada and its contract carrier, Jazz, in 2009.
The incident helped prompt the Ottawa residents to take their case to federal court with a lawsuit that touches on one of the most basic aspects of being Canadian: the language laws that give French and English equal status and compel federal institutions to offer services in both. As a former Crown corporation, Air Canada, like VIA Rail, retained its language obligations when it was privatized.
“If I take a flight and I’m not served in the language of my choice, and I don’t do anything about it, then my right is basically dead,” said Mr. Thibodeau, who is fluently bilingual. “I was not asking for anything other than what I was already entitled to. I have a right to be served in French.”
A Federal Court judge on Wednesday agreed, granting the couple $12,000 in compensation for four occasions when Air Canada failed to serve them in French. The judge also ordered the airline to apologize to the couple and introduce a system to track potential violations of its language duties.
“Awarding damages in this case will serve the purpose of emphasizing the importance of the rights at issue, and will have a deterrent effect,” Justice Marie-Josée Bédard wrote.
Reached by e-mail on Wednesday, Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said he could not comment on the ruling. “At present we are studying the ruling, so we have no comment to offer at this time,” he wrote.
Graham Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, said Air Canada has “serious challenges” meeting its language obligations. His office is currently auditing the company.
“There’s a lot of good will, a lot of capacity, but there are gaps in the system,” he said. “Had Mr. Thibodeau not complained, Air Canada wouldn’t have even known these incidents had taken place.”
As of March, 2010, 47 per cent of Air Canada's flight attendants were bilingual, Federal Court heard. Twenty-six per cent of the airline’s employees in contact with the public, and 59 per cent of its call-centre employees, were also bilingual.
Michel and Lynda Thibodeau originally sought $25,000 each in compensation for the occasions they were not served in French and $500,000 in punitive damages based on their claim that Air Canada’s language breaches were systemic and that some employees were arrogant.
While the judge agreed that the problem is systemic, she stopped short of awarding punitive damages because she said Air Canada has tried to meet its language obligations and was neither malicious nor oppressive.
“I’m a little bit disappointed with the lower amount awarded,” Mr. Thibodeau said. “But the positive note is that the court recognized our rights were violated on several occasions.”
This is the second time Mr. Thibodeau has been involved in legal action against Air Canada over its language services. He also sued the company after an incident in 2000 when a flight attendant was unable to serve him in French on a flight between Ottawa and Montreal.