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Monday, September 5, 2011

Imposing French on Private Companies is Wrong for Canada and Quebec

Imagine if you could walk into any business in Canada and demand that you be served in your language. Wherever, whenever: if you want to be served in your language you have to be, by law. And then imagine that your language is only spoken by 22% of Canadians. And finally imagine that, if this ridiculous demand isn’t met, you’re allowed to sue that business for $525,000.

Sounds ridiculous right? According to Justice Marie-Josée Bédard in Thibodeau v. Air Canada, this is absolutely acceptable. Such is the crusade of Michel Thibodeau, an angry Quebecer with a vengeance for any business that can’t provide bilingual services.

In 2000, Thibodeau sued Air Canada when he couldn’t order a 7-Up in French from his English flight attendant. Apparently offended that he was served a Coca Cola product instead of a Pepsi Co. product (clearly that debate still lives on), he sued for $525,000.

The best part is that 7-Up wasn’t even available on-board: Air Canada’s soft drinks are Coca Cola products! So the unilingual flight attendant, at least hearing “7-Up,” went for the almost identical-tasting beverage: Sprite.

By the way, non-alcoholic beverages are free on Air Canada flights – just so you can truly appreciate how frugal Mr. Thibodeau must be to turn a free soft drink into a $525,000 discrimination lawsuit. (He ended up being awarded $5,376 and Air Canada was forced to apologize. )

Then, in 2007 he filed a complaint against the City of Ottawa for not offering “sufficient,” bilingual bus drivers. And then there’s this gem of frivolous lawsuits, where Thibodeau complains that in 2009 he wasn’t offered sufficient French services when traveling to the United States.

Let’s turn away from these laughable peripheral facts of Mr. Thibodeau’s crusade for French superiority and look at the legal considerations.

When Air Canada was a Crown corporation, it was required to provide bilingual services in accordance with the Official Languages Act (OLA). This is the same act that provides you the right to walk into any federal government building and be served in English or French, so it makes sense that the same right would apply to a Crown corporation.

But when Air Canada became a private company 1988 it foolishly allowed itself to continue to be bound by the OLA, this time under s. 10 of the Air Canada Public Participation Act. This requirement was written into the ACPPA because otherwise, as a private corporation, the OLA would not apply. S. 10 states

“the Corporation has the duty to ensure that any of the subsidiary’s customers can communicate with the subsidiary in respect of those services, and obtain those services from the subsidiary, in either official language in any case where those services, if provided by the Corporation, would be required under Part IV of the OLA to be provided in either official language.” (emphasis added)

So let’s look at the OLA. S. 20 states

“Every federal institution has the duty to ensure that any member of the public can communicate with and obtain available services from its head or central office in either official language, and has the same duty with respect to any of its other offices or facilities… where there is significant demand for communications with and services from that office or facility in that language.” (emphasis added)

Knowing this, let’s look back at Mr. Thibodeau’s complaints. He says that French service was not available at the following points of his trip:

• On-board flying from Toronto to Atlanta
• At the check-in counter in Atlanta, Georgia
• At the boarding gate in Atlanta, Georgia
• On-board flying from Atlanta to Toronto
• During an announcement made at the Ottawa airport

When Thibodeau and his wife took another trip five months later, they complain that there was no French service available from Charlotte, North Carolina to Toronto and that a baggage collection announcement in Toronto was only made in English.

According to Mr. Thibodeau, not only should Air Canada be forced to provide bilingual services where there is a “significant demand” in Canada, but in foreign countries as well. French speakers comprise 0.5% of the United States population and 1.1% of Toronto residents – is that a significant enough French population to warrant the extra hassle and expense of ensuring bilingual servers? Can you imagine how hard our government would laugh at an American if they complained they weren’t able to be served in Spanish in a Canadian airport? (Spanish is spoken by 1.1% of Canadians but French is only spoken by 0.5% of Americans.)

In fact, the Official Languages Commissioner dismissed the Atlanta check-in counter complaint because “it was not an airport where there is significant demand requiring the provision of services in French.” And if there isn’t a significant French population in Atlanta, Georgia surely there also isn’t a significant enough French population in Charlotte or Toronto.

Let’s delve one level deeper into this lunacy. Two of the planes Thibodeau flew on included an Airbus A319 and a Canadair Regional Jet 705LR. The Airbus A319 offers 124 seats; the Canadair: 50. Assuming their eight flights were on similar aircraft and the aircrafts were full, these freedom fighters were only two of 696 passengers on board. Put differently, one third of one percent of the passengers on board were offended they couldn’t be served in French. The rest on board were either unilingual English speakers or bilingual and more than happy to use the predominant, international language.

Sounds like tyranny of the minority, doesn’t it? Apparently when one third of one percent of the passengers demand French-speaking attendants, that’s a “significant demand” to warrant ensuring French-speaking attendants are on board.

Unfortunately none of this matters though because Air Canada did agree to continue to be bound by the OLA. The next step is clear: amend the ACPPA. What business does government have dictating in which language(s) a company operates? In a country as diverse as Canada, where 21 languages are recognized and almost two million people speak “other” languages, it makes no sense to be able to dictate in which language a company can operate. English should be a given considering it is the predominant language spoken across Canada and increasingly in the world. But if a company wants to do business in Cantonese, Ukrainian, or Cree, let them. Perhaps Mr. Thibodeau can attempt to find a French-only airline as he so desperately desires, but he might be waiting a while.

Mr. Thibodeau should reflect on the words of French Canadian Maxime Bernier before he tries to fight a private company for not providing service in his minority language: “French will survive if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it; it will flourish if Quebec becomes a freer, more dynamic and prosperous society, not by imposing French and by preventing people from making their own decisions in matters that concern their personal lives.”