OTTAWA — The Senate of Canada will not appeal a court ruling that found the upper house violated a francophone man’s language rights by utilizing English-only push-buttons on Parliament Hill drinking fountains.
The Federal Court last week ordered the Senate to pay former public servant Michel Thibodeau $1,500 in damages and to cover his $700 in court costs.
Thibodeau complained in 2016 that water fountains in the hallways of Parliament Hill’s East Block — which houses some Senate offices and committee rooms and is open for public tours during the summer — required thirsty folk to push a metal button embossed with the word “push.”
Some even included that instruction in braille but none included the French word “poussez.”
Justice Luc Martineau concluded in last week’s ruling that there is “no place in the buildings of Parliament” for “relics of the past” that give preponderance to “one official language to the detriment of the other.”
Watch: Visiting Centre Block with Sen. Mike Duffy as tour guide. Story continues below video.
Upon receiving Thibodeau’s initial complaint, the Senate immediately posted bilingual signs above all drinking fountains in East Block, which remains open despite undergoing renovations.
“To assure progress towards the equality of status and usage of French and English, linguistic biases must be eliminated,” Martineau ruled.
Alison Korn, spokeswoman for the Senate’s internal economy committee, says the upper house is now looking into possible options and costs for replacing the fountains altogether.
The Senate chamber itself and other offices and committee rooms have been moved to new digs in the newly refurbished, former Ottawa train station while Centre Block undergoes massive renovations. Korn says the drinking fountains in the new building are “neutral,” with no words embossed on them.
However, the new building also sports two refillable water bottle stations, to which the Senate has added stickers, in French, to ensure bilingual notification that they are sensor activated.
Philippe Hallee, the Senate’s law clerk and parliamentary counsel, said in a statement that the upper house “takes note” of Martineau’s Nov. 21 ruling.
“The Senate remains steadfast in its commitment to, and respect for, the equality of both official languages,″ he said, noting that the Senate “expressed its regrets” to Thibodeau and took immediate steps to rectify the problem.
This is not the first or last court challenge from Thibodeau over the federal government’s failure to adhere to linguistic equality.
In August, he and his wife, Lynda, were awarded $21,000 in damages for having their rights violated by Air Canada, some of whose aircraft identified emergency exit doors in English only or in English signs that were larger than those in French. The couple had also complained that seatbelts were engraved with the word “lift” with no French equivalent.
It's important because official languages are protected by the Constitution.Former public servant Michel Thibodeau
Thibodeau has other complaints still wending their way through the courts, particularly with respect to the failure to provide bilingual services and signage at major Canadian airports.
While some of the individual complaints might seem trivial, Thibodeau said there’s an important principle at stake.
“It’s important because official languages are protected by the Constitution. Language rights are part of who we are as individuals and that’s a core value to protect and defend,” he told The Canadian Press.
“Institutions offering services covered by the Official Languages Act must ensure that anglophones and francophones are treated equally.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2019.