A Federal Court judge has ordered two airports in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador to pay thousands of dollars in damages for violating official language rights.
In two rulings last Thursday, Judge Sébastien Grammond criticized airport authorities in St. John’s and Edmonton for adopting a “narrow interpretation” of official languages obligations by failing to translate web pages, reports, slogans and social media posts.
In 2018, when Michel Thibodeau filed 11 complaints with the federal Commissioner of Official Languages, airports had failed to translate information on their websites, including the URL. Almost all of the airports’ social media posts were only in English, and annual reports and press releases were also not translated.
“These communications are intended for the public or the traveling public and must be in both official languages,” the judge wrote in the Edmonton Airport decision.
Complaints filed after research on the internet
Grammond’s decision notes that Thibodeau, an Ottawa resident, had never visited airports before filing the complaints, which were based on internet searches.
But Grammond wrote: ‘This is not a case in which damages are intended to compensate for individual harm’ and added that damages are necessary to force airports to play by the rules.
“A declaratory judgment alone will not be enough to achieve these goals,” the judge said.
Thibodeau receives $5,000 in damages and $6,000 in costs from the St. John’s International Airport Authority. He also receives $5,000 in damages and $3,900 in costs from the Edmonton Regional Airport Authority.
“The Federal Court has reiterated that Francophones have the right to be served in French at major airports across the country,” Thibodeau said in a French interview with Radio-Canada. “The court clearly said that Edmonton International Airport and St. John’s International Airport violated the Official Languages Act on several occasions, which is unacceptable.
More than 500 complaints in 5 years
Thibodeau describes himself as a “strong defender of language rights”, but in court documents, the Edmonton Airport Authority portrayed the retired civil servant as a “serial plaintiff” trying to “commodify” his language rights to profit-making purposes.
“We do not believe individuals should benefit financially from a complaints system,” Edmonton International Airport spokesman Darrell Winwood said in a statement.
Court documents show that between March 2017 and January 2019, Thibodeau filed 253 complaints with the Commissioner of Official Languages.
The complaints involve airports from coast to coast (St. John’s, Halifax, Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria), as well as Air Canada, Via Rail, Parliament federal government, the Department of Defense and the National Capital Commission.
Thibodeau said he has filed more than 500 lawsuits over the past five years and has received “tens of thousands of dollars” in damages over the past decade. But he also pointed to the hundreds of hours spent researching and filing complaints, and guiding many of them through the court system.
“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, sometimes serious threats where the police had to intervene , the number of the money is minimal,” said Thibodeau, whose first high-profile language rights case, a complaint about English-only beverage service on an Air Canada flight, reached the Supreme Court. of Canada in 2014.
“Deep Commitment” to Language Rights
In his decision, Grammond wrote that he had “no doubt that Mr. Thibodeau is motivated by his deep commitment to the defense of French and linguistic rights.”
“Although 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 wrote.
“The Federal Court recognized that I am not someone who is just looking for money. The court saved my honor,” Thibodeau said.
Liane Roy, President of the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canadaa Francophone community organization and strong advocate for minority language rights, said she was not surprised by the decision.
“It is frustrating that this kind of situation is repeated and that it is the citizens who want to receive services in French who have to get to work to have their rights recognized, which is unacceptable in our country,” said Mr. Roy on Tuesday.
“Airports don’t seem to want to respect the Official Languages Act and spend huge sums of money to go to court instead of offering services.… We have to do better.
Airport authorities in St. John’s and Edmonton have not said whether they will appeal the decision.