Interpretation bulletins on the Official Languages Act
Welcome to the page that features interpretation bulletins on the Official Languages Act. These bulletins explain the Office of the Commissioner’s general interpretation of some of the concepts and sections of the Official Languages Act. They are intended for anyone who wishes to file a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner, any federal government officials who need to apply the Act, and any member of the public who wants to learn more about how the Commissioner interprets the Act on a given subject.
These bulletins are made available for information purposes only and are not legal opinions. For specific situations, any person may file a complaint with the Commissioner.
New bulletins will be added periodically to this list.
As more and more information becomes available to the public, federal institutions must continue to respect your right to services and communications in both official languages – Part IV of the Official Languages Act
Open government is a governing culture that holds that the public should access the documents and proceedings of government to allow greater openness, accountability, and engagement. Depending on the type of information being made available to the public and the manner in which the public is expected to interact with the information, specific activities undertaken in the name of open government are sometimes referred to as “open data,” “open information” or “open dialogue.”
Whatever the type of information or the way you are interacting with a federal institution, your Part IV rights continue to apply, and you can expect the federal institution to provide you with services and communications in both official languages when engaging in activities related to open government.
You have rights when interacting with federal institutions
The Official Languages Act aims to ensure that the federal institutions are able to provide services and communications to English- and French-speaking Canadians in the official language of their choice. Federal institutions must provide services or communications in the official language of your choice without delay, and they must be of equal quality, regardless of the language you choose.
This means that you, as a member of the public, have the right to access information and data made available by open government in your preferred official language. It also means that you can communicate with federal institutions in the official language you are most comfortable using.
Canada’s Open Government Portal
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has created a platform for all federal institutions to put their data and information in one place. This platform, Canada’s Open Government Portal, provides one-stop access to searchable open data and open information, together with open dialogue, in order to enhance transparency and accountability.
Federal institutions can identify whatever information or data they want to make available on the Open Government Portal. However, once it has been made available, it must be equally accessible to the public in either official language. This means that you have the right to access both small documents and large data sets, for example, in your preferred official language.
When federal institutions seek public engagement on an issue through dialogue with interested stakeholders and citizens, the objective is to make better policies, programs and services for Canadians. Members of the public must therefore be able to fully participate in these on-line consultations or other activities in their preferred official language.
This means that not only do you have the right to use your preferred official language when responding to questions, you also have the right to receive services and communications, including drafts of policies, for instance, in the official language you are most comfortable using.
When does Part IV of the Official Languages Act begin to apply?
A federal institution must make an active offer of service from the moment you come into contact with it. Please see the Interpretation Bulletin on Active Offer for more information.
What if it is another person or organization that is providing services and communications on behalf of the federal institution?
You have language rights when a person or organization acts on behalf of the federal institution. When a federal institution is obligated to serve you in both official languages, it must make sure that anyone acting on its behalf does the same.
What if another participant in the consultation is unilingual?
The Official Languages Act does not apply to communications made by members of the public. The federal institution, on the other hand, must ensure that participants from both language communities are able to fully engage with the federal institution throughout the consultation process in their preferred official language.
Do I have rights under Part IV of the Official Languages Act even if I’m not a Canadian citizen?
Yes, you do.
“Hello! Bonjour!”: Federal institutions must actively offer services in both official languages – Section 28 of the Official Languages Act
Federal institutions have an obligation to “actively offer” their services in both official languages. Each federal institution must clearly indicate to the public that they can communicate with the institution and receive services in the official language of their choice.
The obligation to actively offer services in both official languages is important to protect the rights of linguistic minorities across the country. In fact, when federal institutions do not clearly indicate that their services are available in both official languages, service requests in the minority language decrease.
The institution must offer its services in both languages as soon as you come into contact with it
The federal institution must offer you the choice to communicate in either official language from the moment you come into contact with it. A federal institution is not respecting its obligation if it interacts with you for 10 minutes before offering service in both languages.
The federal institution can select what measures it puts in place to offer you this choice. Some contexts will require the institution to put several measures in place, while only one measure might be sufficient in another context. One example is a context of authority. If you are arrested, a police officer should specifically mention that you can speak in English or French to fulfill their obligation to offer services in both languages.
The measures will vary depending on the context and how the institution comes into contact with the public.
The federal institution must take measures to make it clear that its services are available in both official languages. Here are some examples:
- Bilingual greetings (“Bonjour! Hello!”)
- Posters and documentation available in both official languages (for example, a poster that describes the services or the procedure for obtaining the service)
- The active offer symbol or another sign in the reception area indicating that the services are available in both languages.
Active offer symbol in Quebec
Active offer symbol elsewhere in Canada
On the telephone
Here are some examples of measures that the federal institution must set up to make it clear that its services are available in both official languages.
- Bilingual greeting (“Bonjour! Hello!”)
- Bilingual voicemail message
On a website
Here are some examples of measures that the federal institution must take to make it clear that its services are available in both official languages.
- A domain name in each official language if the name of the government institution is not bilingual (for example,
- A bilingual domain name and a choice of language on the homepage if the name of the government institution is bilingual (for example,
- For additional examples of measures that federal institutions can take, please see the active offer guide.
Should federal employees address you in both official languages if they already know your preferred language?
It all depends on the situation.
A federal employee can use only the language of your choice if you have already expressed that choice
If you are in an ongoing relationship with an institution, the employee does not have to ask you which language you prefer each time. However, if the service changes, the institution must again actively offer you the service in both languages.
For example, if you are speaking with several employees from Canada Revenue Agency during the same call, they will not each ask you to select a language. However, if you contact the Agency at another time for another question, the institution will again offer to speak in either official language.
An institution may also ask you in a form to indicate in which language you would like to receive future communications. In this context, the institution can use your answer for your future communications. The institution should give you the option to change this choice.
A federal employee may not presume the language in which you want to be served
For example, an employee cannot assume that you want to be served in English simply because you say “Hello.” The employee must actively offer the service in both official languages and let you choose.
You are not required to choose your own official language. You have the right to choose either official language, as you prefer.
Who must actively offer services in both official languages?
Not all offices of federal institutions need to be bilingual. The obligation applies to:
- the head or central office of federal institutions,
- the bilingual offices of these institutions, in Canada or abroad, and
- third parties who offer services on behalf of these institutions.
All federal institutions must inform you about available bilingual services and where to obtain them
All federal institutions, in Canada or abroad, must inform you about services that are available in both official languages and where you can obtain them.
This obligation applies to:
- the head or central office of federal institutions,
- all offices of these institutions, including those that are not bilingual, and
- third parties acting on behalf of these institutions.
Specifically, this obligation involves taking the following measures:
- Regularly informing the linguistic minority that bilingual services are available
- Posting or publishing in a variety of telephone directories the telephone numbers to obtain service in both official languages
- Ensuring that offices that are not bilingual can direct people to other offices that are
Canada has two official languages: English and French.
Individuals have the right to receive services from federal institutions in the official language they choose.
Federal institutions have a duty to communicate with and provide services to the public in both official languages. Their communications and services must be substantively equal regardless of the official language chosen.
Substantive equality is the standard used to ensure respect for the right to receive services and communications in the official language an individual chooses.
Substantive equality considers differences.
Substantive equality considers the differences between the linguistic majority and minority. Providing the same quality of service to both groups means adapting the services to the needs of each group.
Don’t confuse substantive equality with formal equality.
Formal equality is when the institution provides identical services to both linguistic groups without considering the differences between them.
Substantive equality doesn’t compromise.
Federal institutions must take steps to ensure that the quality of the services provided to both linguistic groups is the same.
The result of the steps taken by the institution, not the steps themselves, determines whether there is substantive equality. Making a reasonable effort to accommodate both linguistic groups is not enough. Substantive equality is not measured by cost or other practical considerations.
Substantive equality depends on the result: the services are of the same quality when the individual receives them.
The four criteria of substantive equality
Substantive linguistic equality means the two official languages are equal in status, use, access and quality.
Both official languages have the same status.
English and French have the same status. One language is not more important than the other, even if more people use it in a particular region. Neither linguistic group should ever feel it is inferior to the other.
That’s why, for example, the signs on the buildings of public institutions have the same size letters in both languages. It’s also why the English and French versions of federal institutions’ forms and information documents are equally authoritative.
People can use the official language of their choice.
Individuals have the right to receive services from a federal institution and communicate with it in either official language at their choice.
A federal institution can’t make anyone receive services or communicate with it in a certain language just because the person understands it or uses it every day.
Services are equally accessible in both official languages.
For individuals to truly have the right to use the official language of their choice, the services must be equally accessible and attractive in either language.
For example, the waiting time for a service must not be longer in one language than in the other. Federal employees don’t all have to be bilingual, but services must be equally accessible in both official languages.
Services are of the same quality in both official languages.
Substantive equality is not achieved if the quality of service is better in one language than in the other. But this doesn’t mean there’s a precise standard of quality. A service can be equally bad in both languages.
To ensure services of substantive equality, the needs and characteristics of the two linguistic groups must be considered. So, the same service might be provided in a different way to each linguistic group.