French Canadian Language Activist Michel Thibodeau wins victory against airports

A Canadian Federal Court has ordered two airports in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador to pay thousands in damages for official language rights violations, stemming from complaints by language activist Michel Thibodeau. 

Judge Sébastien Grammond ruled St. John’s International Airport Authority and the Edmonton Regional Airport Authority must translate its websites, press releases, and annual reports into Canadian French as well as English. In a set of April 21st court decisions, the Judge took the airport authorities to task for adopting a “too narrow interpretation” of official language obligations in neglecting to translate those. The two airports in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador now must pay thousands in damages for official language rights violations.

The decision stems cases filed by Thibodeau, an Ottowa resident who had never set foot in either airport before making the complaints based on online research. Judge Grammond clarified, “This is not a case in which damages are intended to compensate individual harm. The damages are necessary to force the airports to respect the rules.” “A declaratory judgment will not be sufficient on its own to achieve these objectives,” claimed the judge.

Thibodeau admits he probably is one of the loudest of the roughly 1 million French Canadians living outside of Quebec. The majority of Francophones (85.4%) live in Quebec. A little less than 23% of Canadians, 7.7 million, speak French.

Over the past two decades, Thibodeau and his wife, Lynda, have actively fought the lack of French language services against the federal, provincial, and Ottawa municipal governments. Although some have called the 54-year-old unreasonable, his activism prompted the City of Ottawa to adopt French bus announcements when riding in the nation’s capital. 

His first high-profile language rights case, a complaint regarding English-only drink service on an Air Canada flight, reached the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014.

From 2017 through 2019, Thibodeau made 253 complaints to the official language commissioner. The complaints were filed against airports coast to coast (St. John’s, 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 Defence and the National Capital Commission.

In the last 10 years Michel has received tens of thousands of dollars in damages but he also highlighted the hundreds of hours of work that go into doing the research and going to court. Thibodeau identifies himself as an “ardent defender of language rights”. The Edmonton airport authority, however, painted the retired civil servant as a “serial complainant” trying to “commodify” his language rights cases for profit. 

Judge Grammond wrote in his decision that he had “no doubt that Mr. Thibodeau is motivated by his deep commitment to the defense of French and language rights.”

“While he has received significant sums in damages since 2017, the monetary aspect cannot overshadow the immense personal investment he has made in the defense of language rights,” he continued.

“The Federal Court recognized that I am not someone who is simply looking for money. The court saved my honor,” said Thibodeau.

Liane Roy, who is president of la Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA) du Canada, a francophone community organization and staunch defender of minority language rights, said: “It’s frustrating that this sort of situation repeats itself and that the citizens who want to receive services in French have to put in the work to have their rights recognized, which is unacceptable in our country,” 

“The airports don’t seem to want to respect the Official Languages Act and are spending enormous amounts of money to go to court instead of offering services.… We have to do better,” she added.

The St. John’s and Edmonton airport authorities have not said whether they will appeal the decision.

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Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.

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