A French speaking couple will receive a hefty payout from Air Canada, after a federal court ruled that the airline violated the couple’s bilingual language rights.
According to court documents, Michel and Lynda Thibodeau filed 22 complaints in 2016 with the Commissioner of Official Languages (the Commissioner) under section 55 of the Act, alleging violations of their language rights.
“Mr. and Mrs. Thibodeau each filed nine identical complaints, while Mr. Thibodeau filed four additional complaints,” the documents state.
The complaints, according to the documents centred around the argument that “Air Canada systematically violates the linguistic rights of Francophones, since the unilingual English or predominantly English display, of unequal quality in both official languages, contravenes the Act and the Charter. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms .”
In response, Air Canada argued that the couple’s complaints “result from an overly strict interpretation of the Act, which requires ‘real equality,’ rather than ‘formal equality’ and which does not require identical treatment for both languages, but rather a treatment that is substantially the same.”
Air Canada furthered that requiring identical communications in both languages “is contrary to the spirit of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in DesRochers v Canada (Industry) , 2009 SCC 8 [ DesRochers ] and that, rather, it is necessary to achieve real equality, evaluate if the communications are substantially equal.”
According to court records, the Thibodeau’s argued that the unilingual English “exit” sign on the plane violates the Act and violates the language rights of Francophones. The couple also argued that the display of the word “exit” in smaller print also contravenes the Act since the display is not of equal quality in both languages.
In response, Air Canada argued “that the word ‘exit’ is an accepted term in French for an exit or exit.”
The Thibodeaus also argued that the seat belt display must be of equal quality in both official languages, and that the display of the single unilingual word ” lift ” contravenes the principles of equality of the Act and Charter.
Air Canada responded that the engraving of the word ” lift ” alone does not constitute a communication or service within the meaning of the Act, that it is rather the initiative of the manufacturer of belts.
They also noted that the airline offers a fully bilingual audiovisual service on the use of seat belts.
The couple also argued that the airline’s boarding announcement at the Fredericton International Airport “was much less complete in French than in English.”
According to court documents, the English version of the announcement last 15 seconds, while the French version only lasts 5 seconds.
The Thibodeaus argued that “this contravenes the provisions of the Act since the English version of the advertisement contains more elements of information than the French version, and that the two versions are consequently not of equal quality.”
In the end, Federal Court Justice Martine St-Louis sided with the Thibodeaus and their complaints. “I find that Air Canada has failed to meet its linguistic obligations with respect to the four issues raised,” she wrote.
“In connection with the use of the single word ‘exit,’ I cannot agree with Air Canada’s argument that this is an accepted word in French to designate an exit or an issue,” she wrote in her decision. “It seems clear that this word is used in a theatrical context to mean that someone is coming out.”
As for the ‘lift’ issue on the seatbelt, St-Louis wrote she “cannot accept Air Canada’s argument that the inscription of the word ‘lift’ alone would not be subject to the requirements of the Act since it is the result of an initiative of the manufacturer.”
The inscription of the word, she wrote, “constitutes a communication from Air Canada to its passengers and, being unilingual, it contravenes the requirements of the Act. If Air Canada displays this word, it must display the French equivalent.”
St-Louis ordered the airline to write apologies to both Michel and Lynda, as well as pay them damages of $21,000.