Air Canada's 'biggest mistake'

The Ottawa resident who won against the airline in federal court explains what really set him off

Air Canada's 'biggest mistake'

Photograph by Blair Gable

Michel Thibodeau admits it: he is probably the loudest of the roughly one million French Canadians living outside Quebec. Over the last decade, the Ottawa resident and his wife have filed some 100 complaints over the dearth of French language services against the federal, provincial and Ottawa municipal governments—everyone, he says, except the police. The 43-year-old father of two may look about as threatening as a folded newspaper, but he has chalked up a number of victories: his complaints to the City of Ottawa are the main reason you’ll hear French announcements when riding the bus in the nation’s capital. Fluently bilingual, he’s been called unreasonable (among many other things) and fielded the occasional death threat for his efforts.

Yet Thibodeau scored his biggest success last week, when a federal court ruled against Air Canada, his foil in an 11-year case marked by the tension (and occasional absurdity) of the typical made-in-Canada language battle. As a former Crown corporation, the airline must, as a condition of its 1988 sale, conduct a language survey every 10 years and make French services mandatory at airports and on flights where there is at least a five per cent demand. According to the court, the company has repeatedly failed throughout the years to provide adequate services in French, and must pay the self-described soccer dad nearly $19,000 in costs and restitution.

“Air Canada must be able to provide services in both languages,” Thibodeau, who works as a computer technician in the House of Commons, told Maclean’s. “My rights are compromised if it doesn’t, and I have two choices. I can let it be, and my rights become non-existent, or I can do something. I decided to do something.”

It all started on a flight from Montreal to Ottawa in 2000, when Thibodeau asked to be served a soft drink in la langue de Molière. During the flight, operated by an Air Canada subsidiary, Thibodeau asked the flight attendant for a 7-Up; he was less preoccupied by the drink than the fact that, like the crew announcements, it couldn’t be delivered in French. He asked to speak to the captain, and was refused. A police officer was waiting for him in Ottawa. “That was their biggest mistake,” Thibodeau says today. “I can’t say that none of this would have happened, but if they hadn’t called the police I wouldn’t have been so angry.”

But he was angry—and how. “I don’t want to take away anything from English people,” he says. “They always get service in their language, no problem. All I say is that I want the same thing, and the law says I have that right.”

In 2002, armed with a report from the commissioner of official languages admonishing Air Canada for its lack of French services during the flight, Thibodeau filed suit in federal court. He won the case in 2005, as well as the appeal in 2007; the airline, having just emerged from bankruptcy, paid him in shares. Yet the fight was far from over. In 2009, Thibodeau filed seven complaints after trips to Atlanta and the Caribbean for a lack of French services, including being served a Sprite in English. In one instance, according to Thibodeau’s affidavit, an Air Canada employee at Toronto’s Pearson Airport said he was too busy to make an announcement in French because he “was in the middle of eating a sandwich.”

Thibodeau asked for $500,000 in restitution, and he is as adamant about the figure today as he is about pursuing the case in court. “Only the courts can force Air Canada to change. They’ve continued to systematically deny the rights of francophones. So I had to hit them hard in the wallet. It had to hurt a bit for it to change.”

Though Thibodeau didn’t receive anywhere near that amount, Air Canada may have to change its manner of providing bilingual service as a result of the judgment. Justice Marie-Josée Bédard wrote that there is a systemic problem at Air Canada in regard to providing French services on certain flights. The airline consistently failed Thibodeau, says Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser. “The judge took careful note of how Thibodeau was treated, and he was treated with contempt.” (Air Canada declined to comment on the case.)

Thibodeau, meanwhile, says he’s begging off the complaints process for a while—“I’m exhausted,” he says—though he hopes others follow his example. “I wish more francophones would complain when things like this happen to them. If they all did it, things would change in a hurry.”