Air Canada Fined $12,000, Failed To Offer Services In French To Ottawa Couple, Court Finds

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THE CANADIAN PRESS -- TORONTO - Air Canada must pay $12,000 and apologize to an Ottawa couple after admitting it failed to provide them with services in French, a Federal Court judge ruled Wednesday.

However, the judge decided against imposing punitive damages, saying the carrier has tried to comply with its obligations under the Official Languages Act.

The case arose out of two trips Michel and Lynda Thibodeau made in the first half of 2009 between Ottawa and the United States.

They argued they could not get service in French when they checked in, at the boarding gate and aboard the flight, and that an announcement about a change of baggage carousel was made only in English.

The Ottawa couple each sought $25,000 in compensation.

"The applicants' language rights are clearly very important to them," Madam Justice Marie-Josee Bedard said in her ruling.

"The violation of their rights caused them a moral prejudice, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of their vacation."

Under the Official Languages Act, Air Canada is required to communicate and provide services in both official languages where there is significant demand in the minority language.

Air Canada conceded the Thibodeaus had four legitimate complaints, but argued they did not suffer damages that should be compensated.

The judge disagreed.

"I recognize that it is impossible to be perfect, and despite all efforts, there are always likely to be flaws," Bedard wrote.

"Awarding damages in this case will serve the purpose of emphasizing the importance of the rights at issue, and will have a deterrent effect."

After considering the various factors at play, Bedard set the amount at $6,000 each -- $1,500 for each of the four admitted breaches.

At the same time, she rejected the request by the Thibodeaus for $500,000 in exemplary and punitive damages, which they based in part on what they described as arrogance on the part of Air Canada's employees.

Thibodeau expressed disappointment with the amount awarded, saying it's the third time a court has ruled in his favour against Air Canada over the years.

"'For a major company like that to continue violating the rights of francophones year after year, you have to hit them hard," Thibodeau told The Canadian Press.

Graham Fraser, the official languages commissioner, thanked the court for its judgment and said the ruling ''strengthens the importance of the Official Languages Act.''

''The judge said very clearly that she accepted our argument that, yes, there are systemic problems,'' Fraser told The Canadian Press. His office intervened at the court proceedings on behalf of the couple.

''It (Air Canada) is one of the institutions that continues to face challenges.''

Bedard found the carrier had acted in good faith and was trying to do better, but agreed the breaches pointed to a systemic problem.

"The breaches in question cannot be characterized as being isolated or out of Air Canada's control," the judge noted.

Bedard ordered the carrier to make "every reasonable effort" to fulfil all its duties under the languages act.

She also said the carrier had to implement a monitoring process to allow it to identify and document occasions where its planes do not have the required bilingual personnel -- a requirement triggered if one in 20 passengers wants services in French.

The francophone advocacy group Imperatif francais welcomed the ruling.

"We hope that Air Canada will get the message and stop insulting francophones and the French fact in Canada," said president Jean-Paul Perrault.

As of March 15, 2010, 47 per cent of Air Canada's flight attendants were bilingual as were about one-quarter of its airport employees in contact with the public, court heard.

Also, 59 per cent of its call-centre employees were bilingual.

In its draft letter of apology to the Thibodeaus which was submitted to the court, Air Canada general manager Chantal Dugas said the carrier was striving to do better.

"I would like to assure you that Air Canada and Jazz take their language responsibilities very seriously and are constantly working to offer their clients service in the official language of their choice," Dugas said.

The Montreal-born Thibodeau, who has lived in Ottawa for the past 15 years, called it "extremely important" for him to be able to live in French.

-- With files from Philippe Teisceira-Lessard in Montreal

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