Edmonton airport ordered to pay $5K in damages for official language rights violations

A Federal Court judge has ordered two airports in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador to pay thousands in damages for official language rights violations.

In two decisions last Thursday, judge Sébastien Grammond took the St. John’s and the Edmonton airport authorities to task for adopting a “narrow interpretation” of official language obligations in neglecting to translate web pages, reports, slogans and social media posts.

In 2018, when Michel Thibodeau made 11 complaints to the federal official languages commissioner, the airports hadn’t translated information on their website, including the URL. Almost all of the airports’ social media posts were only in English, and annual reports and press releases also weren’t translated. 

“Such communications are intended for the public or the travelling public and must be in both official languages,” the judge wrote in the Edmonton airport decision.

Complaints filed after internet research

Grammond’s decision notes that Thibodeau, an Ottawa resident, had never visited the airports before making the complaints, which were based on internet research.

But Grammond wrote, “This is not a case in which damages are intended to compensate individual harm” and added that 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,” said the judge.

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 service in French in the country’s major airports,” said Thibodeau in an interview in French with Radio-Canada. “The court clearly said that the Edmonton International Airport and the St. John’s International Airport violated the Official Languages Act on multiple occasions, which is unacceptable.”

More than 500 complaints in 5 years

Thibodeau describes himself as an “ardent defender of language rights,” but in court documents, the Edmonton airport authority painted the retired civil servant as a “serial complainant” trying to “commodify” his language rights for profit.

“We do not believe individuals should benefit financially from a complaint system”, said Edmonton International Airport spokesperson Darrell Winwood in a statement.

Court documents show that between March 2017 and January 2019, Thibodeau made 253 complaints to the official languages commissioner. 

The complaints concern 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.

Thibodeau said he’s made more than 500 complaints in the last five years and received  “tens of thousands of dollars” in damages in the last decade. But he also emphasized the hundreds of hours spent researching and filing complaints, and shepherding many of them through the court system.

“If we look at the hundreds of hours I’ve spent defending language rights, the stress, the fatigue, the attacks to my person, the threats I’ve received, sometimes serious threats where the police has had to intervene, the amount of money is minimal,” said Thibodeau, whose 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.

‘Deep commitment’ to language rights

In his decision, Grammond wrote he had “no doubt that Mr. Thibodeau is motivated by his deep commitment to the defence 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 defence of language rights,” he wrote.

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

Liane Roy, the president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada, a francophone community organization and staunch defender of minority language rights, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision.

“It’s frustrating that this sort of situation repeats itself and that its 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,” Roy said Tuesday.

“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.”

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

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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