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The Unfriendly Skies

by Stephen Lautens


March 22, 2002

This is a story about what's wrong with Canada.

No, it's not about our underequipped military, why the dollar is now on par with Canadian Tire money, or how some people think we should buy more guns, drop our healthcare and call ourselves Americans.

So please don't get me wrong. I happen to think there's a lot right with this country. But the other day I saw an article in the paper that just about sums up one of our major problems.

A man is suing Air Canada because he couldn't get served in French.

It wouldn't be so strange except for the fact that the man who demanded to be served in French was perfectly able to speak English. He is a fluently bilingual House of Commons employee.

I know, I know - the French Canadians feel like they've been dominated by the English, even though most of the Anglos sold their houses and bugged out years ago. The right to speak French outside of Quebec has been treated as symbolic of how unappreciated and misunderstood they are in Canada. And being able to receive essential services in both official languages is important - although my own grandparents left Quebec when they couldn't get their driver's license application in English anymore.

Apparently our bilingual passenger wanted a 7-Up, but the flight attendant couldn't understand what he was asking for because she couldn't speak French. Funny, I always thought the French word for 7-Up is "7-Up".

Anyway, somehow it turned into an ugly "you're not serving me because I'm French, but I'm still going to refuse to speak to you in English because this isn't really about my wanting a 7-Up" sort of thing.

When he was finally served a Sprite, he demanded to see the captain. Of course, captains of all Air Canada flights are responsible for not only such trivial things as flying the airplane, they also have to make sure passenger drink orders are taken properly and mediate official languages disputes. Maybe he could have explained that in spite of the advertising, Sprite and 7-Up taste pretty much the same.

Anyway, it ended up with the police being called in case the disturbance got out of hand, and the thirsty passenger filing a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages. The Commissioner upheld the complaint, and so the passenger is now suing Air Canada for half a million dollars. That's a lot of 7-Up. Or Sprite.

The complaint is about the passenger's not being allowed to communicate in the language of his choice. Maybe I'm wrong but I always thought communication is all about making yourself understood. It's about getting along with people.

It's one thing to not be understood. It's another to refuse to be understood when you easily could be. And ideally, we'd all be able to speak English, French and a half dozen other useful languages. But I wasn't there and have no idea who was acting badly in this exchange, although I doubt any can of pop is worth all this fuss.

All I know is the whole incident made me think of what's wrong with this country - that we're perfectly capable of understanding each other, but sometimes we just refuse to.

What we should be doing is drinking our 7-Up and just trying to do our best to get along

© Stephen Lautens 2002

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