Michel Thibodeau? Troublemaker or Crusader?

Michel Thibodeau has recently won a judgment against Air Canada for failing to provide French language services. News media have jumped all over Michel Thibodeau for standing up for his rights under the official languages act. What must be known about Mr. Thibodeau is that he is a crusader. Most people think of him as a troublemaker but to most French-Canadians he is a defender of their rights. I know, I know, that it is hard for the English speaking community to grasp the concept that Thibodeau is like a minor hero… Small “h.”

When I was a child growing up in Ontario in the 60’s it was not easy for French-Canadians to receive services from the federal government in French. To receive French language services in Ontario government institutions and corporations was very difficult. There was an organization called l’ACFO that took it upon themselves to fight for the rights of French-speaking people in Ontario to receive French language services from government institutions and corporations. I have seen their representatives in action. It was always an uphill struggle. Over time they won hard earned concessions. Eventually, it became a quasi-right for Francophones to receive services from the government in French. It became mandatory in areas of the province, where 10% of the population were French, to receive government services in French.

Let us go back to the birth of the nation. Two major languages were spoken, English and French, in Upper and Lower Canada. These two colonies strove to enter into a union that would benefit both French and English speaking people. In the act of 1867, that made two people one, it was established that in Parliament, the justice system and other government institutions, that services in both languages would be, and have to be, provided. This was a small government with a small reach. As the decades slipped by the size of the federal government increased. Many corporations came into existence and extended the reach of the federal government into the lives of all Canadians. French language services were not guaranteed in this larger mega-government. In 1969 legislation was enacted extending the right for French-speaking Canadians to receive these government services in the French language. But it is not all one-sided, for the law that gave the right to the French-speaking Canadians also enshrined the same right for English-speaking Canadians to receive services in English. This Official Languages Act was amended in 1987. Under the Charter of Rights protection of French and English Canadians were enshrined. Since then, the courts have ruled on various cases and further defined the limits and obligations of the federal government and its Crown corporations to provide services in both languages.

Michel Thibodeau versus Air Canada is an example of the protections given to all Canadians whether they speak English or French. Many people will complain, especially the English-speaking Canadians, that this was unfair. Yet this ruling is the natural outcome based on the long history of two peoples, two cultures, two languages, that united us in the beginning.

The majority of people, English-speaking, want to see an end or at least a revision of the Official Languages Act. They do not wish to live up to the obligations that helped found our country. They think it a nuisance, something that is unfair, fundamentally wrong… Yet it is the one thing that keeps our country strong and united. The sad thing is, most Quebeckers also think it is a nuisance, something unfair, fundamentally wrong! They want to see their French culture thrive. Fortunately for Canada, in the province of Québec, there has never been enough discontent to tear the country in two. Yet I can tell you now, that the whining and complaining that is currently being generated from the results of this court case, is helping the cause of “Separation.” My country is not French and it is not English, it is both. We are two people made one.

Michel Thibodeau? Troublemaker or crusader? A little of both. Annoying? Yes! Yet his nitpicking is important to all those whose major language, and possibly their only language, is French. To others, it was a nuisance suit and he is a nuisance, a continuing drip that sets the nerves on edge. I do not want to praise him, nor do I want to belittle him, he is simply a buzzing fly that is necessary.

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