Official bilingualism in Canada

Official bilingualism in Canada
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The official languages of Canada are English and French, which "have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada" according to Canada's constitution.[1] Official bilingualism is the term used in Canada to collectively describe the policies, constitutional provisions, and laws which give English and French a special legal status over other languages in Canada’s courts, Parliament and other federal institutions.[2][not in citation given]

Official bilingualism should not be confused with personal bilingualism, which is the capacity of a person to speak two languages. This distinction was articulated in the 1967 report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which stated:

A bilingual country is not one where all the inhabitants necessarily have to speak two languages; rather it is a country where the principal public and private institutions must provide services in two languages to the citizens, the vast majority of whom may well be unilingual."[3]

Nonetheless, the promotion of personal bilingualism in English and French is an important objective of official bilingualism in Canada, and is addressed more fully below.

In addition to the symbolic designation of English and French as official languages, official bilingualism is generally understood to include any law or other measure which:

  • mandates that the federal government conduct its business in both official languages and provide government services in both languages;
  • encourages or mandates lower tiers of government (most notably the provinces and territories, but also some municipalities) to conduct themselves in both official languages and to provide services in both English and French rather than in just one or the other;
  • places obligations on private actors in Canadian society to provide access to goods or services in both official languages (such as the requirement that food products be labeled in both English and French);
  • provides support to non-government actors to encourage or promote the use or the status of one or the other of the two official languages. This includes grants and contributions to groups representing the English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French-speaking minorities in the other provinces to assist with the establishment of an infrastructure of cultural supports and services.

At the provincial level, New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province and only Quebec has declared itself officially unilingual (French only). In practice, all provinces, including Quebec, offer some bilingual services and some education in both official languages up to the high school level. English and French are official languages in all three territories. In addition, Inuktitut is also an official language in Nunavut, and nine aboriginal languages have official status in the Northwest Territories.



Bilingual (English/French) stop sign on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. An example of bilingualism at the federal government level.
Bilingual (French/English) sign for Preston Street (rue Preston) in Ottawa, placed above a sign marking that the street is in Little Italy. An example of bilingualism at the municipal government level.

French has been a language of government in the part of Canada that is today Quebec, with limited interruptions, since the arrival of the first French settlers in 1608, and has been entrenched in the Constitution of Canada since 1867. English has been a language of government in each of the provinces since their inception as British colonies.

Institutional bilingualism in various forms therefore predates the Canadian Confederation in 1867. However, for many years English occupied a de facto privileged position, and French was not fully equal. The two languages have gradually achieved a greater level of equality in most of the provinces, and full equality at the federal level. However in Quebec, the trend has been away from equality. In the 1970s English lost its status of full legal equality with French in Quebec, and today French is, both in practice and in law, the province's sole official language.

Personal bilingualism in Canada

At least 35% of Canadians speak more than one language. Moreover, fewer than 2% of Canadians cannot speak at least one of the two official languages.[4] However, of these multilingual Canadians, somewhat less than one fifth of the population (5,448,850 persons, or 17.4% of the Canadian population) are able to speak both of the official languages.[5] However, in Canada the terms "bilingual" and "unilingual" are normally used to refer to bilingualism in English and French. In this sense, nearly 83% of Canadians are "unilingual".

Knowledge of the two official languages is largely determined by geography. Nearly 95% of Quebecers can speak French, but only 40.6% speak English. In the rest of the country, 97.6% of the population is capable of speaking English, but only 7.5% can speak French.[6] Personal bilingualism is most concentrated in southern Quebec and a swath of territory sometimes referred to as the “bilingual belt”, which stretches east from Quebec through northern and eastern New Brunswick and west through Ottawa and that part of Ontario lying to the east of Ottawa, as well as north-eastern Ontario. In all, 55% of bilingual Canadians are Quebecers,[7] and a high percentage of the bilingual population in the rest of Canada resides in Ontario and New Brunswick.

Constitutional provisions on official languages

Constitution Act, 1867 (section 133)

English and French have had limited constitutional protection since 1867. Section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 guarantees that both languages may be used in the Parliament of Canada, in its journals and records, and in court proceedings in any court established by the Parliament of Canada. The section also provides that all Acts of the Parliament of Canada are to be printed and published in both English and French. Section 133 also establishes a corresponding set of linguistic rights for French and English in Quebec—but not in any other province.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (sections 16 - 22)

The Constitution Act, 1982 entrenched stronger and more detailed guarantees for the equal status of the two official languages in sections 16-23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sections 16-19 guarantee the equal status of both languages in Parliament, in all federal government institutions, and in federal courts. These sections also mandate that all statutes, records and journals of Parliament be published in both languages, with the English and French versions both holding equal status before the courts. Section 20 guarantees the right of the Canadian public to communicate in English and French with any central government office or with regional offices where there is "a significant demand for communication with and services from that office." Significant demand is not defined in the Charter of Rights. One of the purposes of the Official Languages Act of 1988 was to remedy this omission.

The Charter of Rights includes similar constitutional obligations making New Brunswick the only officially bilingual province in Canada.[8]

Section 21 ensured that the new Charter of Rights would be read as supplementing, rather than replacing any rights of the English and French languages which had been constitutionalized prior to 1982. Section 22 ensured that the new Charter of Rights would not be interpreted by the courts as placing any new restrictions on non-official languages.

Education Rights (section 23 of the Charter and section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982)

Section 23 provides a limited right to receive publicly-funded primary and secondary-schooling in the two official languages when they are "in a minority situation"—in other words, to English-language schooling in Quebec, and to French-language schooling in the rest of the country.

Asymmetrical application of education rights in Quebec versus elsewhere in Canada

The right applies asymmetrically because section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that not all of the language rights listed in section 23 will apply in Quebec. Specifically:

  • In Quebec, a child may receive free public education in English only if at least one parent or a sibling was educated in Canada in English.
  • In the rest of Canada, a child may receive free public education in French if at least one parent or a sibling was educated in Canada in French, or if at least one parent has French as his or her mother tongue (defined in section 23 as "first language learned and still understood").

None of these education language rights precludes parents from placing their children in a private school (which they pay for) in the language of their choice; it only applies to subsidized public education.

One practical consequence of this asymmetry is that all migrants who arrive in Quebec from foreign countries only have access to French-language public schools for their children. This includes immigrants whose mother tongue is English and immigrants who received their schooling in English. On the other hand, Section 23 provides a nearly universal right to English-language schooling for the children of Canadian-born anglophones living in Quebec.

Section 23 also provides, in theory, a nearly universal right to French-language schooling for the children of all francophones living outside Quebec, including immigrants from French-speaking countries who settle outside Quebec, and who are Canadian citizens.

Another element of asymmetry between Quebec and most anglophone provinces is that while Quebec provides public English-language primary and secondary education throughout the province, most other provinces provide French-language education only "where numbers warrant."

Additional restrictions on education rights

There are some further restrictions on minority-language education rights:

  1. the rights attach to the parent, not the child, and non-citizens residing in Canada do not have access to this right (even if their children are born in Canada);
  2. If the parents' English-language or French-language education took place outside Canada, this does not enable the child to be educated in that language; and
  3. the right to receive public funding can only be exercised in localities where "the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds ....".[9]

Ambiguous definition of entitlement to education rights

The phrase, "where numbers ... warrant" is not defined in Section 23. Education is under provincial jurisdiction, which means that it has not been possible for Parliament to enact a single nationwide definition of the term, as the 1988 Official Languages Act did for the constitutional obligation to provide federal services where “there is a sufficient demand.” As a result, disputes over the extent of the right to a publicly-funded minority-language education have been the source of much litigation.

The defining case was Mahe v. Alberta (1990), in which the Supreme Court of Canada declared that section 23 guaranteed a "sliding scale." In certain circumstances, the children whose parents could exercise the right might be so few that literally no minority language education may be provided by the government. With a greater number of children, some schools might be required to provide classrooms in which the children could receive minority language education. An even greater number would require the construction of new schools dedicated solely to minority language education. More recent cases, which have significantly extended these rights, include Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island (2000) and Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) (2003).

Language of the official text of the Constitution

Many of the documents in Canada's Constitution do not have an official French-language version; for official legal purposes only the English-language version is official and any French translations are unofficial. In particular, the Constitution Act, 1867 (which created Canada as a legal entity and still contains the most important provisions of governmental powers) has no official French-language version, because it was enacted by the United Kingdom Parliament, which functions in the English language exclusively. Similarly, all other parts of the Constitution that were enacted by the United Kingdom (with the important exception of the Canada Act 1982) have no official French-language version.

Sections 55 – 57 of the Constitution Act, 1982 set out a framework for changing this situation. Section 55 calls for French versions of all parts of the Constitution that exist only in English to be prepared as quickly as possible. Section 56 provided that, following adoption of the French versions, both the English-language and French-language versions would be equally authoritative. To avoid the situation where an inaccurately-translated French version would have a weight equal to the English original, Section 55 requires that the French-language versions be approved using the same process under which actual constitutional amendments are adopted.

Pursuant to section 55, a French Constitutional Drafting Committee produced French-language versions of all the British North America Acts in the decade following 1982. However, these versions were never ratified under the Constitution’s amendment procedure, and therefore have never been officially adopted.[10]

Section 57 states that the “English and French versions of this Act [ie. the Constitution Act, 1982] are equally authoritative.” The purpose of this provision is to clear up any ambiguity that might have existed about the equal status of the two versions as a result of the novel way in which this part of Canada's supreme law came into force. Had the Constitution Act, 1982 been enacted as most preceding amendments to Canada's constitution had been, as a statute of the British parliament, it would, like any other British statute, have been an English-only document. Instead, the British parliament enacted a very concise law, (the Canada Act 1982), written in English only. The operative clauses of the Canada Act, 1982 simply state that an appendix to the Act (the appendix is formally referred to as a "schedule") is to be integrated into the Canadian constitution. The schedule contains the complete text of the Constitution Act, 1982, in both English and French.[11]

Federal legislation on official languages

Official Languages Act

A bilingual sign in Quebec.

Canada adopted its first Official Languages Act in 1969, in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The current Official Languages Act was adopted in 1988 to improve the 1969 law's efforts to address two basic policy objectives: (1) to specify the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions relevant to official languages; (2) to support the development of linguistic minority communities. As well, following the adoption in 1982 of the Charter of Rights, it was necessary to create a legislative framework within which the Government of Canada could respect its new constitutional obligations regarding the official languages.[12]

In addition to formalizing Charter provisions in Parts I through IV, the Act adopts several specific measures to achieve these objectives.[13] For example, Part V specifies that the work environment in federal institutions in the National Capital Region and other prescribed bilingual regions be conducive to accommodating the use of French and English at work.[14] Part VI mandates that English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians not be discriminated against based on ethnic origin or first language learned when it comes to employment opportunities and advancement.[15]

Finally, the Act establishes a Commissioner of Official Languages [16] and specifies his duties to hear and investigate complaints, make recommendations to Parliament, and delegate authority in matters pertaining to official languages in Canada.[17] Canada's current Commissioner of Official Languages is Graham Fraser.[18]

Section 32 of the Official Languages Act authorizes the Governor in Council (i.e. the federal cabinet) to issue regulations defining the geographic regions in which services will be offered by the federal government in the relevant minority language (English in Quebec and French elsewhere).[19]

This provides a legal definition for the otherwise vague requirement that services be provided in the minority official languages wherever there is "significant demand." The definition used in the regulations is complex, but basically an area of the country is served in both languages if at least 5,000 persons in that area, or 5% of the local population (whichever is smaller), belongs to that province's English or French linguistic minority population.[20]

Regulations were first promulgated in 1991.[21]

Official bilingualism in the public service

The issue of proportional hiring and promotion of speakers of both official languages has been an issue in Canadian politics since before Confederation. Members of each linguistic group have complained of injustice when their group have been represented, in public service hiring and promotion, in numbers less than would be justified by their proportion of the national population. For the greater part of Canada’s history, French-speakers were underrepresented, and English-speakers were overrepresented in the ranks of the public service, and the disproportion became more pronounced in the more senior ranks of public servants. However, this trend has reversed itself in recent decades.

The first high-profile complaint of preferential hiring took place in 1834. One of the Ninety-Two Resolutions of the Lower Canadian House of Assembly drew attention to the fact that French Canadians, who at the time were 88% of the colony's population, held only 30% of the posts in the 157-member colonial civil service. Moreover, the resolution stated, French Canadians were, "for the most part, appointed to the inferior and less lucrative offices, and most frequently only obtaining even them, by becoming the dependent of those [British immigrants] who hold the higher and the more lucrative offices...."[22]

With the advent of responsible government in the 1840s, the power to make civil service appointments was transferred to elected politicians, who had a strong incentive to ensure that French Canadian voters did not feel that they were being frozen out of hiring and promotions. Although no formal reform of the hiring and promotion process was ever undertaken, the patronage-driven hiring process seems to have produced a more equitable representation of the two language groups. In the period between 1867 and the turn of the Twentieth Century, French-Canadians made up about one-third of the Canadian population, and seem also to have represented about one-third of civil service appointments at junior levels, although they had only about half that much representation at the most senior level.[23]

Support and opposition

Poll Data

Polls show that Canadians consistently and strongly support two key aspects of Canadian official languages policy:[citation needed]

  • bilingual federal government services,
  • the right of official-language minorities to receive an education in their maternal language.

However, among English-speaking Canadians there is only limited support for broadening the scope of official bilingualism, and reservations exist among Anglophones as to the intrusiveness and/or fairness of the policy. Among Francophones, polls have revealed no such reservations.

Strong support among both Anglophones and Francophones for bilingual government services

Among Anglophones, support for providing federal French-language services to French-speakers living outside Quebec has remained consistently high over a quarter-century period—79% in 1977 and 76% in 2002.[24] Over the same period, support among English-speakers for the “right to French language education outside Quebec where numbers make costs reasonable” has ranged from 79% to 91%.[25] Among French-speaking Canadians, support for these policies was even higher.

A lack of consensus on other aspects of official bilingualism

The national consensus has, at times, broken down when other aspects of official bilingualism are examined. However, a significant shift in anglophone opinion has occurred since the mid-2000s, in favour of bilingualism.[26]

According to a review of three decades’ worth of poll results published in 2004 by Andre Turcotte and Andrew Parkin, “Francophones in Quebec are almost unanimous in their support of the official languages policy” but “there is a much wider variation in opinion among Anglophones….”[27]

This variation can be seen, for example, in responses to the question, “Are you, personally, in favour of bilingualism for all of Canada?” Between 1988 and 2003, support for this statement among Francophones ranged between 79% and 91%, but among Anglophones support was never higher than 48%, and fell as low as 32% in the early 1990s.[28] The ebb in support for bilingualism among anglophones can likely be attributed to political developments in the late 1980s and 1990s, including the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.[26]

By 2006, affirmative responses to the question "Are you personally in favour of bilingualism for all of Canada?" had increased considerably, with 72% of Canadians (and 64% of anglophones) agreeing. 70% of Canadians, and 64% of anglophones were "in favour of bilingualism for [their] province."[26] Support for bilingualism is thought likely to continue to increase, as young anglophones are more favourable to it than their elders.[26]

According to Turcotte and Parkin, other poll data reveal that “in contrast to Francophones, Anglophones, in general, have resisted putting more government effort and resources into promoting bilingualism …. What is revealing, however, is that only 11% of those outside Quebec said they disagreed with bilingualism in any form. Opposition seems to be directed to the actions of the federal government, rather than to bilingualism itself …. [T]his distinction is key to understanding public opinion on the issue.”[29] This helps to explain results that would otherwise seem contradictory, such as a 1994 poll in which 56% of Canadians outside Quebec indicated that they either strongly or moderately supported official bilingualism, but 50% agreed with a statement that "the current official bilingualism policy should be scrapped because it's expensive and inefficient."[30]

In English Canada, there is some regional variation in attitudes towards federal bilingualism policy, but it is relatively modest when compared to the divergence between the views expressed by Quebecers and those expressed in the rest of the country. For example, in a poll conducted in 2000, only 22% of Quebecers agreed with the statement, “We have gone too far in pushing bilingualism,” while positive response rates in English Canada ranged from a low of 50% in the Atlantic to a high of 65% in the Prairies.[31]

Generally positive attitudes towards personal bilingualism

Both French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians tend to regard the capacity to speak the other official language as having cultural and economic value,[32] and both groups have indicated that they regard bilingualism as an integral element of the Canadian national identity. Once again, however, there is a marked divergence between the responses of French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians. In a 2003 poll, 75% of Francophones indicated that “having two official languages, English and French”, made them proud to be Canadian. Among English-speakers, 55% said that bilingualism made them proud, but far higher percentages (86% and 94%, respectively) indicated that multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights made them feel proud.[33]

Findings of Public Hearings

From time to time, boards or panels are commissioned, either by the federal government or the government of one of the provinces, to conduct hearings into the public’s views on matters of policy. Some of these hearings have dealt largely, or even primarily, with official languages policy, and the responses that they have collected provide snapshots into the state of public opinion at particular points in time.

Findings of the public hearings into the Poirier-Bastarache Report (1985)

The Advisory Committee on the Official Languages of New Brunswick was commissioned by the provincial legislature as a way of determining the response of the population to the 1982 Poirier-Bastarache Report, which had recommended a considerable expansion of French-language services.[34] Public hearings were conducted in twelve cities and towns across the province in 1985, and a report was submitted by the committee in 1986.[35]

The briefs submitted to the Advisory Committee were subsequently summarized in an academic study of the hearings in the following terms:

Qualitative analysis illustrate[s] that, as the majority, anglophones are reticent about extending opportunities and services to the francophone minority for fear of placing themselves at a disadvantage, whether it be in the education system or civil service employment. Francophones, as the minority, resent the anglophone hesitancy to make available rights and privileges secured under the Official Languages Act of New Brunswick of 1969 and the Constitution Act (1982)….They favour their own schools, control over their education, increased access to civil service positions and services in their own language through separate institutions and administrations. [36]

Findings of the Spicer Commission (1990)

In late 1990, a six-man Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future was established by the federal government with a mandate to engage in "a dialogue and discussion with and among Canadians ... to discuss the values and characteristics fundamental to the well-being of Canada." The Forum, which was headed by former Commissioner of Official Languages Keith Spicer, published a report in June 1991, which included a detailed discussion of Canadians’ reactions to a variety of issues, including federal official languages policy.

These comments, which probably represent the most extensive consultation ever with Canadians on the subject of official bilingualism, were compiled statistically by the Spicer Commission, and tend to reinforce the findings of pollsters, that Canadians are favourable towards bilingual services, but frustrated with the implementation of official languages policy. Thus, for example, nearly 80% of group discussions sponsored by the Commission produced favourable comments from participants on what the Commission’s report refers to as “bilingualism generally,” but nearly 80% of these discussions produced negative comments on “official languages policy.” [37]

These results prompted Spicer to write,

Canada’s use of two official languages is widely seen as a fundamental and distinctive Canadian characteristic. Among many, especially the young, the ability to speak, read and write both French and English is accepted as a significant personal advantage. Even many parents who dislike ‘official bilingualism’ are eager to enrol their children in French immersion.

On the other hand, we find that the application of the official languages policy is a major irritant outside Quebec, and not much appreciated inside Quebec….

In spite of real and needed progress in linguistic fair play in federal institutions, a sometimes mechanical, overzealous, and unreasonably costly approach to the policy has led to decisions to that have helped bring it into disrepute. Citizens tell us that bilingual bonuses, costly translation of technical manuals of very limited use, public servants’ low use of hard-acquired French-language training, excessive designation of bilingual jobs, and a sometimes narrow, legalistic approach are sapping a principle which they would otherwise welcome as part of Canada’s basic identity.[38]

Advocacy Groups

Advocacy in support of expanding / extending official bilingualism

A number of groups exist, which, as part of their mandate, seek to promote official bilingualism or to extend the scope of the policy (although advocacy is not always the sole, or even the primary activity, of the groups). Among these groups:

  • Alliance Quebec (defunct)
  • L'Association des municipalités francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick
  • Canadian Parents for French, established with the assistance of the Commissioner of Official Languages in 1977, promotes French second-language education for children whose mother tongue is English;
  • Commission nationale des parents francophones
  • Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada serves as an umbrella for 22 groups representing French-speaking minorities in different provinces and territories;
  • Fédération des jeunes francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick
  • Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones
  • Francophone Association of Municipalities of Ontario seeks to oversee the maintenance and development of municipal government services in French, in Ontario municipalities with French-speaking populations.
  • Impératif français seeks to promote the use of French within Quebec, and to challenge inequalities between the languages that may arise within areas of federal administration.
  • Quebec Community Groups Network serves as an umbrella for 38 English language community organizations across Quebec for the purposes of supporting and assisting the development and enhancing the vitality of the English-speaking minority communities;
  • Société des Acadiens et Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick

Advocacy in favour of restraining or abolishing official bilingualism

A number of groups have existed, since the first Official Languages Act was proclaimed in 1969, which sought to end official bilingualism or to reduce the scope of the policy. Among these groups:

In the first decade or so following the 1969 adoption of the Act, opposition to the new policy sometimes took a radical form that has subsequently nearly disappeared. Books such as Jock V. Andrew's Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, advocated either the repeal of the Official Languages Act or an end to the policy of official bilingualism. Leonard Jones, the mayor of Moncton, New Brunswick, was an aggressive opponent of bilingualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jones challenged the validity of the Official Languages Act in court, arguing that the subject matter was outside the jurisdiction of the federal government. In 1974, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Jones, and found the law to be constitutional. In 1991, a local resurgence in anti-bilingualism sentiments allowed the Confederation of Regions Party to win 21.2% of the vote in New Brunswick's provincial election and to briefly form the official opposition with eight seats in the provincial legislature.

Positions of the federal political parties

Language issues currently dividing the parties

The issues on which Canada’s political parties have most recently shown divergent voting patterns are two private members’ bills.

The first, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) (Bill C-482), was introduced by Bloc MP Pauline Picard. If adopted, it would have had the effect of amending the Official Languages Act, the Canada Labour Code, and the Canada Business Corporations Act, to cause them to conform to the Charter of the French Language, “effectively making the federal government French-only in the province,” according to Maclean’s.[41] This bill was defeated on May, 2008, with Bloc and NDP MPs voting in favour and Conservative and Liberal MPs opposed.[42]

The second private member’s bill is NDP MP Yvon Godin’s Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages) (Bill C-232). If adopted, this bill will have the effect of blocking any candidate who is not already sufficiently bilingual to understand oral arguments in both official languages from being appointed to the Supreme Court. This bill was passed at third reading on March 31, with all NDP, Liberal and Bloc members in support and all Conservative MPs opposed.[43] and is currently before the Senate.

Conservative Party of Canada and its predecessors

The Conservative Party of Canada was created in 2003 by the merger of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance. The new party adopted the principles of the old Progressive Conservatives as its founding principles, with only a handful of changes. One of these was the addition of the following founding principle, which is lifted almost verbatim from Section 16(1) of the Charter of Rights:

“A belief that English and French have equality of status, and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.”

At its founding convention in 2005, the new party added the following policy to its Policy Declaration (the official compilation of the policies that it had adopted at the convention):

“The Conservative Party believes that Canada’s official languages constitute a unique and significant social and economic advantage that benefit all Canadians.
"i) A Conservative Government will support the Official Languages Act ensuring that English and French have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.
"ii) The Conservative Party will work with the provinces and territories to enhance opportunities for Canadians to learn both official languages."[44]

Prior to this, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Reform Party of Canada had advocated the policy's repeal. However, the party's position moderated with time. By 1999, the Blue Book (the party's declaration of its then-current policies) stated that "The Reform Party supports official bilingualism in key federal institutions, such as Parliament and the Supreme Court, and in critical federal services in parts of the country where need is sufficient to warrant services on a cost-effective basis."[45] By 2002, the policy declaration of the Reform Party's political successor, the Canadian Alliance, had been moderated further, and stated that it was "the federal government's responsibility to uphold minority rights" by providing services in both languages in any "rural township or city neighbourhood where at least ten percent of the local population uses either English or French in its daily life."[46]

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberal Party sees itself as the party of official bilingualism, as it was a Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who enacted the first Official Languages Act in 1969 and who entrenched detailed protections for the two official languages in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The depth of the party’s commitment to official bilingualism is demonstrated by the fact that the constitution of the Liberal Party contains provisions modeled almost word-for-word on Section 16(1) of the Charter of Rights: "English and French are the official languages of the Party and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions of the Party. In pursuing its fundamental purposes and in all its activities, the Party must preserve and promote the status, rights and privileges of English and French."[47]

New Democratic Party

New Democrat MPs voted in favour of the 1969 Official Languages Act, the 1988 Official Languages Act, and the protections for the two official languages contained in the Charter of Rights. More recently, the party has edged towards supporting an asymmetrical version of bilingualism. Early in 2008, the party’s languages critic, Yvon Godin, stated that its MPs would vote in favour of a bill, sponsored by the Bloc Québécois, which would cause federal institutions to operate on a French-preferred or French-only basis in Quebec.[48]

Bloc Québécois

Although the main objective of the Bloc Québécois is to assist in the secession of Quebec, the party’s parliamentary caucus has maintained an active interest in issues relating to official languages policy (for example, sending MPs to participate in the standing Commons committee on official languages). The party seeks to alter federal language policy, as it applies within Quebec, so as to eliminate the statutory equality of English that is guaranteed under the Official Languages Act and other federal legislation. In recent years, this has included introducing a private member's bill (An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) (better known as Bill C-482), intended to cause the Official Languages Act to be superseded by the Charter of the French Language for all federally-regulated corporations within Quebec.

Language policies of Canada's provinces and territories

Canada's thirteen provinces and territories have adopted widely diverging policies with regard to minority-language services for their respective linguistic minorities. Given the wide range of services, such as policing, health care and education, that fall under provincial jurisdiction, these divergences have considerable importance.

New Brunswick

Of Canada's ten provinces, only one (New Brunswick) has voluntarily chosen to become officially bilingual. New Brunswick's bilingual status is constitutionally entrenched under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sections 16 - 20 of the Charter include parallel sections guaranteeing the same rights at the federal level and at the provincial level (New Brunswick only).

  • Section 16(2) is a largely symbolic statement that "English and French are the official languages of New Brunswick" with "equality of status";
  • Section 17(2) guarantees the right to use English or French in the New Brunswick legislature;
  • Section 18(2) states that New Brunswick's laws will be bilingual, with both texts being equally authoritative, and that official publications will be bilingual;
  • Section 19(2) guarantees the right to use either official language in all New Brunswick court proceedings;
  • Section 20(2) guarantees the right to receive provincial government services in either official language.


Bilingual sign in a Quebec supermarket with markedly predominant French text

French has been the only official language in Quebec since 1974, when the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa enacted the The Official Language Act (better-known as "Bill 22"). However, the province's language law does provide for limited services in English. As well, the province is obliged, under Section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, to allow the provincial legislature to operate in both French and English, and to allow all Quebec courts to operate in both languages. Section 23 of the Charter applies to Quebec, but to a more limited degree than in other provinces; Quebec is required to provide an education in English to all children whose Canadian citizen parents were educated in English in Canada, while all other provinces are required to provide an education in French to the children of Canadian citizen parents who either received their education in French in Canada or have French mother tongue.

In 1977, the Parti Québécois government of René Lévesque introduced the Charter of the French Language (better known as "Bill 101") to promote and preserve the French language in the province, indirectly disputing the federal bilingualism policy. Initially, Bill 101 banned the use of all languages but French on most commercial signs in the province (except for companies with four employees or fewer), but those limitations were later loosened by allowing other languages on signs, as long as the French version is predominant. Bill 101 also requires that children of most immigrants residing in Quebec attend French-language public schools; the children of Canadian citizens who have received their education in Canada in English may attend English-language public schools, which are operated by English-language school boards throughout the province. The controversy over this part of Quebec's language legislation has lessened in recent years as these laws became more entrenched and the public use of French increased.[49]

Quebec's language laws have been the subject of a number of legal rulings. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the case of Ford v. Quebec (A.G.) that the commercial sign law provisions of Bill 101, which banned the use of the English language on outdoor signs, were unconstitutional. In 1989, the Quebec National Assembly invoked the "Notwithstanding Clause" of the Charter of Rights to set aside enforcement of the court ruling for five years. A UN appeal of the 'McIntyre Case' resulted in a condemnation of Quebec's sign law — regardless of the legality of the notwithstanding clause under Canadian law. In response, in 1993 Quebec enacted amendments to the sign law, availing itself of the suggestions proposed in the losing 1988 Supreme Court ruling by allowing other languages on commercial signs, subject to French being markedly predominant .

On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the interpretation made by the provincial administration of the "major part" criterion in Quebec's language of instruction provisions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This criterion allows students who have completed the "major part" of their primary education in English in Canada to continue their studies in English in Quebec. The Court did not strike down the law but, as it had done in its 1988 ruling on sign laws, presented the province with a set of criteria for interpreting the law in conformity with the Charter of Rights, broadening the interpretation of the phrase "major part."

Elsewhere in Canada

Although no Canadian province has officially adopted English as its sole official language, English is the de facto language of government services and internal government operations in Canada's eight remaining provinces. Service levels in French vary greatly from one province to another (and sometimes within different parts of the same province).

For example, under the terms of Ontario's 1986 French Language Services Act, Francophones in 25 designated areas across the province—but not in other parts of the province—are guaranteed access to provincial government services in French. Similarly, since 2005, the City of Ottawa has been officially required under Ontario law (City of Ottawa Act) to set a municipal policy on English and French.

In Alberta, the Alberta School Act protects the right of French speaking people to receive school instruction in the French language in the province.

In Manitoba, the French Language Services Policy guarantees access to provincial government services in French, and various kinds of French-language education is provided,[citation needed] despite the overwhelming rejection of these policies in referendums across the province in 1983.[50] These services were the result of a compromise after the Federal courts overturned the province's over 70-year history of recognition of only the English language in cases like Reference re Manitoba Language Rights.[51] A case brought by the Societe Franco-Manitobaine threatened to overturn every single law passed since 1890.[52]

French and English are official languages in the Yukon.

In addition to English and French, Inuktitut is also an official language in Nunavut.

In addition to English and French, the Northwest Territories accords official status to nine aboriginal languages (Chipewyan, Cree, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tłįchǫ or Dogrib). NWT residents have the right to use any of the territory's eleven official languages in a territorial court and in debates and proceedings of the legislature. However, laws are legally binding only in their French and English versions, and the government only publishes laws and other documents in the territory's other official languages when asked by the legislature. Furthermore, access to services in any language is limited to institutions and circumstances where there is significant demand for that language or where it is reasonable to expect it given the nature of the services requested. In practice, this means that only English language services are universally available and there is no guarantee that other languages will be used by any particular government service except for the courts. Following a 2006 court ruling,[53] universal French-language services are also mandatory.

Second-language education

Canada’s thirteen provincial and territorial education systems place a high priority on boosting the number of bilingual high school graduates. For example, in 2008 New Brunswick's provincial government reconfirmed its goal of boosting the percentage of bilingualism among graduates from its current rate of 34% to 70% rate by 2012.[54] In 2003, the federal government announced a ten-year plan of subsidies to provincial education ministries with the goal of boosting bilingualism among all Canadian graduates from its then-current level of 24% to 50% by 2013.[55]

French second-language education (FSL)

Three methods of providing French second language education (known as “FSL”) exist side-by-side in each of the provinces (including Quebec, where extensive French-language education opportunities are available for the province’s large population of non-Francophone children):

  • Core French
  • French Immersion
  • Extended French

Core French

Non-Francophone students learn French by taking courses on the French language as part of an education which is otherwise conducted in English. In Quebec and New Brunswick, French classes begin in Grade 1. In the other provinces, French classes typically start in Grade 4 or 5. Students normally receive about 600 hours of French-language classes by the time of graduation.[56] The goal of “Core French” programs is not to produce fully bilingual graduates, but rather “ provide students with the ability to communicate adequately in the second language, and to provide students with linguistic tools to continue their second-language studies by building on a solid communicative base.”[57]

One result of this is that levels of comprehension are often lower than those which parents would probably prefer. A scholar who interviewed a former New Brunswick premier, as well as the province’s deputy ministers of education and health and the chairman of its Board of Management and Official Languages Branch reports: “[A]ll expressed reservations about the effectiveness of the Core program in promoting individual bilingualism and believed the program must be improved if anglophone students are to obtain a level of proficiency in the French language.”[58]

French immersion

Non-Francophone students with no previous French-language training learn French by being taught all subjects in the French language, rather than by taking courses on the French language as part of an education which is otherwise conducted in English.[59] In “early immersion”, students are placed in French-language classes starting in kindergarten or Grade 1.

In “late immersion”, the children are placed in French-language classes in a later grade. Currently, 7% of eligible students outside of Quebec are enrolled in French immersion programs.[60]

Extended French Program

Some schools in Ontario offer a third method of FSL education: the Extended French program. Students enter into this program as early as Grade 4—the starting grade is set by each region's school board—and may continue the program through to graduation.[61] The program can also be entered when beginning secondary school; however, as there is a prerequisite number of previous instruction hours, usually only students previously enrolled in the Extended French or French Immersion programs can enter. In this program, at least 25% of all instruction must be in French. From Grades 4 through 8, this means that at least one course per year other than "French as a Second Language" must be taught solely in French. From Grades 9 through 12, along with taking the Extended French language course every year, students must complete their mandatory Grade 9 Geography and Grade 10 Canadian History credits in French. Students who complete these required courses and take one extra credit taught in French receive a certificate upon graduation in addition to their diploma.

English second-language education (ESL)

Quebec’s educations system provides ESL on a more restricted basis to the children of immigrants and to students who are members of the province's Francophone majority.

  • Core English: Most non-anglophone students are required to enroll in French-language schools. English is taught to all students, starting in Grade 1, in a program that is essentially identical to the “Core French" taught to English-speaking students in the other provinces.
  • Programs of English immersion have existed for French-speaking students in Quebec but these programs are often in conflict with the official language policies of the Quebec government.[62]

See also


  1. ^ "Subsection 16(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982".  (See Section Sixteen of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)
  2. ^ "Official Languages Act - 1985, c. 31 (4th Supp.)". Act current to July 11th, 2010. Department of Justice. Retrieved 2010-15-08. 
  3. ^ Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Book I (General Introduction), Ottawa: Queen's Printer, p. xxviii, at paragraph 29.
  4. ^ Statistics Canada, 2006 Census Profile of Federal Electoral Districts (2003 Representation Order): Language, Mobility and Migration and Immigration and Citizenship. Ottawa, 2007, p. 6, line 108. In 2006, Canada’s population was 31,241,030. Of this, 520,385 Canadians, or 1.7%, did not speak either official language.
  5. ^ Statistics Canada, 2006 Census Profile of Federal Electoral Districts (2003 Representation Order): Language, Mobility and Migration and Immigration and Citizenship. Ottawa, 2007, pp. 2, 6. Statistics Canada collects data on mother tongue, on “first official language spoken,” and on bilingualism in French and English. However, the agency does not collect data on bilingualism in non-official languages (either persons who speak more than one non-official language, or who have an official language as their mother tongue and afterwards learn a non-official language). Thus, it is possible only to determine that 6,147,840 Canadians have a non-official language as their mother tongue (see p. 2, line 5), and that 520,385 Canadians do not speak either official language (see p. 6, line 108). Since all persons who speak neither official language must have a non-official language as their mother tongue, simple subtraction shows that 5,627,455 Canadians, or 18.0% of the population, are bilingual in a non-official language plus an official language.
  6. ^ Statistics Canada, 2006 Census Profile of Federal Electoral Districts (2003 Representation Order): Language, Mobility and Migration and Immigration and Citizenship. Ottawa, 2007, pp. 6, 60.
  7. ^ Statistics Canada, Population by knowledge of official language, by province or territory (2006 Census), The 2006 census shows that 3017,860 Quebecers are bilingual, out of a total of 5,448,850 bilingual Canadians.
  8. ^ "Canadian charter of rights and freedoms: Official Languages of Canada". Department of Justice Canada. 1982-04-17. 
  9. ^ "Canadian charter of rights and freedoms: Minority Language Educational Rights". Department of Justice Canada. 1982-04-17. 
  10. ^ "Introduction". Final Report of the French Constitutional Drafting Committee. Archived from the original on 2005-08-25. Retrieved 2007-12-18. 
  11. ^ Schedule 'A' of the Canada Act is a French version of the operative clauses of the Canada Act. Schedule 'B' contains the text of the Constitution Act, 1982, in both English and French.
  12. ^ "Official Languages Act". Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2003-09-01. 
  13. ^ "Official Languages Act Annotated version - Explanatory notes". Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2003-09-01. 
  14. ^ "Official Languages Act - Part V - Language of Work". Department of Justice Canada. 2007-04-04. 
  15. ^ "Official Languages Act - Part VI - Participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians". Department of Justice Canada. 2007-04-04. 
  16. ^ "Welcome to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages!". Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2003-09-01. 
  17. ^ "Official Languages Act - Part VIII - Commissioner of Official Languages". Department of Justice Canada. 2007-04-04. 
  18. ^ "Graham Fraser Appointed Sixth Commissioner of Official Languages". Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2003-09-01. 
  19. ^ "Definition of English or French Linguistic Minority". Department of Justice Canada. 2007-04-17. 
  20. ^ "Calculation of Population Numbers". Department of Justice Canada. 2007-04-17. 
  21. ^ "Official Languages Regulations". Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2003-09-01. 
  22. ^ Resolution 75. Resolved, That the number of the Inhabitants of the country being about 600,000, those of French origin are about 525,000, and those of British or other origin 75,000; and that the establishment of the civil government of Lower Canada, for the year 1832, accordingly to the yearly returns made by the Provincial Administration, for the information of the British Parliament, contained the names of 157 officers and others receiving salaries, who are apparently of British or foreign origin and the names of 47 who are, apparently, natives of the country, of French origin; that this statement does not exhibit the whole disproportion which exists in the distribution of the public money and power, the latter class being, for the most part, appointed to the inferior and less lucrative offices, and most frequently only obtaining even them, by becoming the dependent of those who hold the higher and the more lucrative offices; that the accumulation of many of the best paid and most influential, and at the same time incompatible, offices in the same person, which is forbidden by the laws and by sound policy, exists especially for the benefit of the former class; and that two-thirds of the persons included in the last commission of the peace issued in the province, are apparently of British or foreign origin, and one-third only of French origin.
  23. ^ Eugene Forsey writes: “In the Dominion Civil Service, Côté’s ‘’Political Appointments’’, 1867-1895, shows that, over that period, eliminating duplications, the French Canadians had rather over a third of the official of the House and of the two Dominion Courts; rather less than a third of other officials of the rank of Deputy Minister and, of the officials from Chief Clerk up to Deputy Minister rather less than one-seventh.” Source—Eugene Forsey, ‘’Freedom and Order: Collected Essays.’’ Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1974, p. 243.
  24. ^ Andrew Parkin and Andre Turcotte, Bilingualism: Part of Our Past or Part of Our Future?. CRIC Paper #13. Ottawa: Centre for Research and Information on Canada. March 2004, p. 6.
  25. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 9. This is the wording used in the 2002 poll. In the 1977 poll, respondents were asked whether they supported “the provinces providing opportunities and facilities for education in French wherever practicable.”
  26. ^ a b c d "OCOL - 1. General Support for Bilingualism". 2009-09-24. Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  27. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 2.
  28. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 8. A parallel question, “Are you in favour of bilingualism for your province?”, also received a much more favourable response from Francophone respondents (most of whom were located in Quebec) than from Anglophone respondents, indicating that Francophones were consistently more supportive than Anglophones of a fully bilingual Quebec within a fully bilingual Canada, whereas Anglophones were consistently more supportive than Francophones of a unilingual French Quebec within a Canada where the other provinces are for the most part unilingual English.
  29. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 10. The specific reference is to a 1977 poll in which 54% of non-Quebecers but only 34% of Quebecers identified with the statement, “I generally agree with or support the principle of bilingualism but I disagree with the form bilingualism has taken under the present federal government.”
  30. ^ Angus Reid Group, "The National Angus Reid/Southam News Poll: Canadians' Views on Official Bilingualism." Release date: April 29, 1994.
  31. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 11.
  32. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, pp. 20-21.
  33. ^ Parkin and Turcotte, p. 13.
  34. ^ New Brunswick. Official Languages Branch (Bernard Poirier and Michel Bastarache). Towards Equality of Official Languages in New Brunswick. 1982.
  35. ^ New Brunswick (Irene Grant-Guerette and Lloyd B. Smith). Report of the Advisory Committee on Official Languages of New Brunswick. 1986.
  36. ^ Catherine Steele, ‘’Can Bilingualism Work? Attitudes Towards Language Policy in New Brunswick: The 1985 Public Hearings on the Poirier-Bastarache Report.’’ Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990, p. 89.
  37. ^ Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, Report to the People and Government of Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1991, p. 161.
  38. ^ Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, Report, pp. 125-126.
  39. ^ "Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada: Change of name and relocation of head office". Canada Gazette. 2000-02-26. 
  40. ^ "Supplementary letters patent (name change)". Canada Gazette Part I, p. 3872. 2001-10-06. 
  41. ^ Martin Patriquin, “Are you still here?” Maclean’s, February 25, 2008, p. 23.
  42. ^ For the second reading vote result see:
  43. ^ For the third reading vote result, see:
  44. ^ Conservative Party of Canada Policy Declaration, March 2005, p. 32 (Policy #91).
  45. ^ The 'Blue Book': Principles and Policy of the Reform Party of Canada - 1999, p. 40.
  46. ^ Canadian Alliance Declaration of Policy, April 2002, pp. 12-13.
  47. ^ Liberal Party of Canada, “Constitution”, as adopted and amended at the biennial convention, November 30-December 1, 2006, Section 2(3).
  48. ^ Yvon Godin, “Commons Debates” (Hansard), February 6, 2008, p. 2691.)
  49. ^ The Language Laws of Quebec Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College
  50. ^ "Hatfield says plebiscite outcome represents threat to Canada". The Leader-Post (Fredericton): p. C12. 31 October 1983. 
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^ Fédération Franco-Ténoise v. Canada (Attorney General) [2006] N.W.T.S.C. 20.
  54. ^ See Jesse Robichaud, "Keep parents involved in language education: Lord," in the Moncton Times and Transcript, February 21, 2008, and Daniel McHardie, "Language battle: Education Minister will seek public input before responding to French Second Language Review," in New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, February 28, 2008, p. A1.
  55. ^ Canada, Privy Council Office, "The Next Act: New Momentum for Canada's Linguistic Duality—The Action Plan for Official Languages." Ottawa, 2003, p. 27.
  56. ^ What is core french?
  57. ^ New Brunswick Department of Education, Policy Statement on Immersion and the Core Program. Fredericton, 1983, p. xii.
  58. ^ Catherine Steele, Can Bilingualism Work? Attitudes Toward Language Policy in New Brunswick: The 1985 Public Hearings into the Poirier-Bastarache Report. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990, p. 26.
  59. ^ French Immersion in Canada: Frequently Asked Questions
  60. ^ Official Languages: Annual Report 2007-2008, Volume 1, Official Language Support Programs." Canadian Heritage, cat. No. CH10-2008-1, 2008, pg. 31.
  61. ^ Provincial Curriculum Guides The Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers: French as a Second Language Program Support Materials
  62. ^ Adieu anglais Montreal Mirror

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