Good thing he didn’t ask Alex to explain the Solow growth model (in French)

He asked an Air Canada fight attendant for 7Up and he got Sprite.

“I’m a little bit disappointed with the lower amount awarded,” Thibodeau said. “But the positive note is that the court recognized our rights were violated on several occasions.”

…So, in 2009, when Thibodeau ordered a 7Up in French, and the English-speaking attendant brought him a — gasp! — different brand of lemon-lime soda, he sued.

“If I take a flight and I’m not served in the language of my choice, and I don’t do anything about it, then my right is basically dead,” Thibodeau told The Globe and Mail. “I was not asking for anything other than what I was already entitled to. I have a right to be served in French.”

It’s a right that Thibodeau — who is a federal employee and happens to speak perfect English — takes very, very seriously.

The full story is here.  I suppose one could make a living this way.  Which are the French questions most likely to be misunderstood by an English-speaking Canadian?  From another article:

It is Thibodeau’s second successful legal action against the airline and its subsidiaries. In 2000, he was refused service in French when he tried to order a 7Up from a unilingual English flight attendant on an Air Ontario flight from Montreal to Ottawa.

Thibodeau filed suit in Federal Court for $525,000 in damages. The court upheld his complaint, ordered the airline to make a formal apology and pay him $5,375.95. Thibodeau was later honoured by the French-language rights group, Imperatif Francais.

For the pointers I thank Graham Rowe.  Alex and I explain the Solow growth model — in English — here.  Chinese, Spanish, and other editions are on the way.


As a French person, I find this most disturbing. There have been some similar cases in France. For instance, a bank employee sued and won because his colleagues often sent emails in English. (which he spoke) This is absurd cultural protectionism. I used to travel a lot and there is a name for someone who insists on speaking their native language despite knowing a language you share: An arrogant ass. I speak both English and French and I always switch to whatever language my interlocutor is most familiar with. It is just the most basic of courtesy.

This is quite odd. I've asked monolingual U.S. airline flight attendants, in English, for a Coke and been handed a Pepsi. Is it clear that the 7-Up/Sprite issue is actually due to speaking French, rather than the brand of carbonated beverage carried?

In the South, when you ask for a Coke, the response is often, "What kind?", to which "Pepsi", "Dr Pepper", and "Coke" are all both perfectly normal responses....


They did that to you because you're black.

Do flights carry both Coke and Pepsi? Seem close substitutes to me.

Typically not. Usually Coke and Pepsi demand that restaurants and airlines carry one brand or the other and specifically not both.

But IIRC they don't do the same thing with the Dr. Pepper beverage line, which includes 7 Up

That seems to depend on how populated the area is where you live, in more rural areas the Dr. Pepper franchise is handled by the Coke or Pepsi bottler and usually not seen sharing a machine with the competitor's products, but in bigger cities I've seen it with both.

As long as lawyers are making money off of corporations, I think it's safe to say we all win.

What a dickhead.

That's a serious violation of his civil rights. The gentleman has a right to be described as "quel connard."

Good thing we can still call him a douche.

Pencils down. We have a thread winner.

Why is it that language protectionism and arrogance so frequently arises in the French context? Is there a historical context embedded in this somewhere?

French replaced Latin as the language of diplomacy. When English replaced French, the French got...defensive.

Years ago my wife, Pat, and I vacationed at a Club Med. At Club Med the meals are served "family style," with groups thrown together pretty much in the order of arrival. At breakfast one day we were seated at a table with two French couples. As was the custom, Pat introduced herself to the French gal seated next to her. The gal answered "Sorry ... no English," and went on speaking in French to the other French folks with her.

Next day Pat played in a ping-pong tournament. Pat was a very good player, and she made it to the final, where by coincidence she was matched against that same French gal. Pat beat her handily. After the match, the woman extended her hand and said (in very good English) "Nice game, Pat. You play very well."

Pat, who was *extremely* quick, replied "Sorry ... no French."

Not all French are asses, though. The woman smiled broadly and said "Very good, Pat. Now we are even, I think." And for the rest of the week, she and Pat had many friendly conversations together.

It's not a French problem, it's a Quebec problem. Imagine that, instead of being annexed directly in a war with Mexico, New Mexico was annexed to the U.S. from Spain. Then imagine that they had 2-3 times as many native Spanish speakers and they didn't really want to be part of the U.S. so they kept speaking Spanish and made Catholicism their official state religion and kept a number of their old set of colonial laws.

That's basically the problem Canada has.

You don't have to "imagine" anything; there's an almost perfect parallel in the US annexation of Louisiana. It took them a good 100 years or so but they managed to squash out the French language here. Still lots of Catholics though.

Not to mention the law is based on the Napoleonic Code.

He's not from Quebec, he lives in Ontario. There are francophones all over the country, and they are often born outside Quebec and live their entire lives outside Quebec. Also, Quebec is less religious than pretty much anywhere else in North America, despite being part of a country that *very explicitly* does not have a distinction between church and state.

I did like his comment "Imagine if all announcements were made in French only" -- well, it's not hard to imagine, just cross the river.

The run the country -- i.e., manage it bureaucratically.

How? Because to inhabit that bureaucracy, you must speak French. (I'd like to see the stats on the number of civil servants from Quebec [either anglo, allo, or franco-phone] compared to the number from other regions/provinces.)

Why? Because giving the elite -- or quasi-elite -- from Quebec these civil servant jobs reduces separatist agitation. But it also ingrains the worst anti-entrepreneurial attitudes.

By "[t]here are francophones all over the country," I think you mistyped "there are francophones in Ontario as well as Quebec." Having lived on the east and west coast of Canada, and for a shorter time in Toronto, I think you're pretty unlikely to run into a francophone outside of the immediate vicinity of Quebec.

There's a francophone population off the coast of Newfoundland, although with nearly zero contact with the province. There's a small Acadian population in the Atlantic provinces, and to my knowledge that's about it.

There are also francophone communities in Manitoba (Louis Riel anyone?), Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick. Not large, but large enough to be communities.

As to the post, like gay marriage, we often view these kinds of laws through the prism of civil rights, which of course is not true. But then, I was often beat up as a child and if I were black, I wonder if I would have viewed those beatings as racist.

Cultural self-preservation laws leave themselves open to all kinds of abuse on both sides, not least of which is that it impedes upward mobility. In Quebec's case, the laws are rendered at least partly ironic since the province would still be driving on gravel roads but for Ontario's tax dollars. Does multi-culturalism really work? My two cents worth is that the marketing far over-promises the reality; better to rely on common decency, which is often in inverse proportion to force.

"better to rely on common decency"

My guess is that if you were to ask French speakers who lived in Qc before the 1950s/1960s, they would tell you that common decency by the minority English population towards the French majority was, to say the least, minimal, if not non-existent ;)

Actually this is not a very good analogy. Canada made French an official language, along with the law that the above air traveler used to sue that makes it obligatory for any business to serve its customers in the language of their choice.

This is not true. There is no such law forcing a private business operating, say, a gas station in Toronto to be able to serve customers in French, or a gas station in Quebec City to be able to serve in English.

I'm fairly certain that they would have done the Sprite/7-Up thing to someone who asked in English.

Usually they will verbally offer you the non-choice of Sprite, at which I usually order something else since Sprite is no substitute for 7-Up.

As someone whose French is not terrible (I studied it in France for 6 months after many years in the US), I have to laugh at the French - they have a huge chip on their shoulder that their language is not as important as it once was, but often (especially in Paris) they refuse to speak French to people trying, and will switch to English. Can you think of a better way to reduce the reach of your language than to discourage others who are trying to learn it?

I've learned to feel for the French in the last few years, as I realize it's likely that we'll feel the same way about Asia that they feel about us someday.

I was just in Paris and noticed that people would always answer me in English. However I read this as them being polite and I appreciated their knowledge of my language and general patience with an ignorant foreigner (that is, with me) rather than seeing it as somehow reflecting a national character flaw on their part.

My experience in France and other non-English speaking countries is that it is difficult to make generalizations. When I did not speak French, I met people who would only speak French to me, and some who spoke English. When I learned French, I met with the same variety of response.

I will say in my experience the Central and South American countries below Mexico have been kindest in accommodating my language travails. I wonder if there is a positive correlation between beautiful women and language accommodation. For Costa Rica would top both lists. Obviously more research is in order.

In my experience, especially with young people in both France and Italy, they're less interested in promoting the native language than they are in growing their own English skills. You are an available practice partner for English, skills in which are hugely beneficial as an employment differentiator. (It doesn't really matter if your passport gives you the right to work anywhere in the EU if you're only comfortable speaking one language.)

ditto for Germany. If I started speaking in German the natives default to English. Doesn't help that the typical German speaks better English than a typical non-German speaks German.

that the company pays the money from its magic stack of cash and we as customers won't be affected.

Canada pays off Quebec in the same manner.

The main problem is one of expectations: I've been on Air Canada flights many times, and they very proudly announce in their brochures that they can serve you in both Canadian official languages. If they can't deliver on that promise, then they shouldn't make it. It's a case of false advertising, as simple as that, and tons of companies have been sued on such grounds in the past. I don't see what's suprising in this particular case. Unless you start with a negative preconceived idea about French-speaking people. And really, how surprising would that be...

It is not a marketing ploy. It is Canadian law for any business in Canada, although I believe there is an exemption for very small business. It makes no difference that most Canadians go years without hearing French, other than at the beginning of televised official ceremonies and the like.

This is false. There is no law about bilingual service for private business, only federal government services and some provincial services. Check out the Government of Alberta Energy website. Or Whole Foods Canada. Do you see any French? Obviously, nationwide companies operate their Quebec branches in French, but does it mean that their out-of-Quebec branches have to be able to serve their clients in French if needed? No. Just think about Shell or Petro-Canada gas stations.

When Air Canada was a Crown Corporation (i.e. federal), it had to offer French service. It is now a private company. If it does not want to offer French services, then it's fine, as long as it is ready to accept the consequences, such as unhappy customers. But it has to advertise accordingly and truthfully. It cannot hope to have the best of both worlds.

Stop the French bashing. It is getting tiring.

Jim is indeed mistaken to repeatedly insist that Canadian law requires firms to offer services in both English and French. However, Air Canada does not offer bilingual service because they choose to, they offer bilingual service because they are required to by law under the Air Canada Public Participation Act ( WestJet and other competitors are not so bound and do not, as far as I know, offer a guarantee of bilingual service.

Well, yes, they should pay damages. Fair compensation for getting a can of Sprite instead of 7Up would be a can of 7Up.

Great comment, Will.

The wonderful thing about living in the States, rather than Canada, is that hardly anyone speaks English!

Get over it, losers.

Huh? Nobody speaks English in the US?

That was sarcasm.

What? You can successfully sue Air Canada for giving your Sprite instead of 7up, and not speaking French, when you can't sue them for being late on most flights?

I have mixed feelings about the protectionism by francophone of their culture. On the one hand you get silly situations like this one which like everyone else I find annoying to say the least (as a native english speaker), and as a libertarian, I hate silly restrictive laws. On the other hand, I really do appreciate aesthetically the difference between Quebec and the rest of North America and would really not want to see this disappear. Also, reading Tim Hartford latest (Adapt) he makes the point that there are benefits in diversity at a local level in terms of how things are done, countries are probably not as diverse as optimal in my view (especially a large country like US) and we can well do with more diversity at a local level, like Quebec. A**holes like this guy are doing the marginal work needed to keep this distinctiveness. Mind you I don't live in Canada (just visit frequently) so probably only get the benefits not the downsides.

As others have note, we have a control for whether Quebec's francophone laws support my intuition, with Louisiana. There there are no such francophone rights. When I compare Louisiana with Quebec, (I lived in New Iberia for a while) I would say the culture is much closer to standard North America and there is not much diversity in terms of culture. Interested to hear what others think on this though.

I don't really see why this guy is an asshole for asserting his right. The fact that he also speaks English is not really relevant, but does give the story its spin.

I can see a parallel with privacy in the sense that I do not have anything to hide, but that does not mean I should show everything.

How would the reactions have been if: "[Privacy] It’s a right that Thibodeau — who happens to have nothing to hide — takes very, very seriously." ? I am guessing the reactions would be quite a bit more understanding. Probably because people empathize a lot more with rights they themselves can exercise as well.

I wonder if I ordered a Sprite in English and they made the same mistake would my rights have been violated too? If they were violated by Air Canada not understanding French, are they any less violated by them not understanding English? Does the minority enjoy rights superior to the default?

Whether or not he got a sprite or a 7-up is immaterial to the suit. It's about his right to be served in his own language. The sprite/7-up, is just added, just as the irrelevant fact that he also speaks English, to give a spin to the story confirming to our popular biases.

He has a right to be served in French. I am surprised. I just would have assumed some airline somewhere would make a point of advertising to the Quebequois that their attendants speak French. Maybe they are too small of a market or something. Even then there are small airlines aren't there. Heck they are almost captive customers if they want to speak French so badly.

Snark aside, this is a fairly simple issue, and Turpentine above explains it well: Air Canada says it provides service in both Canadian official languages (yes, French is one of two official Canadian languages). The individual asked to be served in French, and when he wasn't, he sued. Only Canadian Federal agencies and Crown Corporations provide this service; regular businesses don't have to. As Turpentine says, Air Canada being now privatized, it could stop advertising this service, and then there'd be no problem.

Yes, of course, the individual is being an @$$ -- 99% of francophones who speak English will gladly switch to English in such a situation (when service in French is guaranteed but not honored), and if they travel to English-speaking Canada they do not expect others to speak French.

Still, he was technically correct to sue.

But the actual damages are zero, except for unverifiable claims of psychic costs. Thus, he should get nothing. Or he should rewarded for psychic damages, but I should get to kick him in the nuts because his stupidity and douchebaggery has inflicted psychic costs on me. Problem solved.

"he was technically correct to sue"

The Law is an ass. As is he.

You guys are very anglo centric to the point of missing the guy's core complaint: air canada has been hiring uniligual staff to deal with flights to and from the province of Quebec. This is directly against the law that privatized the company and it's just plain bad business. I too am someone who prefers to speak french and I have faced these air canada clowns who cant handle simple french. Guys like thibodeau are required to keep air canada in line with the law. It's not like hiring bilingual staff is hard thing to do. They are negligent and need to be punished by the court until they correct this staffing behavior.

I prefer to speak Esperanto. Fly another airline, asshole.

Will someone please tell this joker that he's a "sal con"?

Learn the language of your dominant culture, no matter how tough it is. My brother and his wife had to go to language school to learn Dutch, because climbing the hill to fluency was constantly foiled by everyone they met instantly switching to utterly perfect English. As for me, I'm highly proficient in Spanish (near bilingual on a good day) but it took me a long time. People with a chip on their shoulder about language are generally nasty little chauvinists (hey: French coinage!) and should be squashed, not pandered to. What a cretin (and there we go again!) is this Thibodeau.

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